The New York Times has called Brooklyn-based comic Hari Kondabolu, "one of the most exciting political comics in stand-up today." Kondabolu's jokes — which range from poking fun at racial stereotypes (he's Indian by the way) to vegan soul food to who did or did not kill Jesus — are funny, but they're also thought-provoking.
Kondabolu has appeared on such funny-guy-shows as The Late Show with David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Conan. But don't rely on his comic pedigree to speak for his humor. He's also just really smart.
Before his stand-up career, Kondabolu attended both Wesleyan University and Bowdoin College, where he graduated with a bachelor's in comparative politics, as well as the London school of Economics, where he earned a masters in human rights. Kondabolu also has a podcast with his brother, Ashok — former hype guy of the now-defunct band Das Racist.
We recently caught up with Kondabolu to discuss racial humor, his new album and Trevor Noah's controversial tweets.
City Paper:Your comedy album, Waiting for 2042, is named after the statistic that by the year 2042, white people will make up 49 percent of America's population. In the album you say, "Saying I'm obsessed with race in America is like saying I'm obsessed with swimming when I'm drowning. This country is obsessed with race ... white isn't a thing. Race isn't a thing. It's all made-up." "Socially constructed ideas of race" is the kind of thing well-educated, well-read English majors eat up — how do you convey this important idea to all of America? How do you get Joe the Plumber to laugh at your jokes? Or is he not your intended audience? Who is your intended audience?
Hari Kondabolu: To be fair, I think sociology and ethnic studies majors eat my discussion of social constructions more, but I get your point. Also, the parts you quote are the parts of the set up to my joke, so those parts aren't expected to get a ton of laughs. I like to lay out my point of view and the issue before I get deeper into it, so I tend to be wordy ... but hopefully the joke pays off.
I, of course, want as many people as possible to laugh at my jokes, so I perform as much as I can to lots of different audiences. I try to find ways to include people who may not be down with my point of view, but ultimately, I'm not going to change who I am. My intended audience is anyone who comes in with an open mind and even better, those who might have seen a few clips of mine beforehand, so they know what they're getting themselves into. I'm not for everyone ... and that's OK.
CP: What inspired you to do stand up? Other artists? Your inner voice dying to get out?
HK: I watched tons of stand-up on TV and loved the idea that a single human being with a microphone was funny enough to control a whole crowd. That seemed too unbelievable to me. The first comic that made me want to do stand-up was Margaret Cho. I had never seen an Asian-American do stand-up before her and she was up there talking about her life and immigrant parents and San Francisco and it was funny and valid. That was really empowering and I really wanted to try it, so I started a Comedy Night in my high school and my journey started.
Ultimately, I do this because the love and laughter of my friends and family wasn't enough. I can pretend that I'm doing this for noble reasons, but that's not true. I like making people laugh. I'm addicted to it.
CP: You're currently NYU's APA (Asian/Pacific/American Studies) artist in residence. I did a little research on artists in residence, but could you tell me a little more about it? Has it helped get you more shows? Is there an educational aspect to your stand-up that students can learn from ... acting, public speech, writing, politics?
HK: My year at NYU was spent writing new material, interviewing other artists about their craft and their careers, and speaking in front of students and staff. Students have asked me a range of questions about my political views or my life or how to get into the entertainment field. For me, it was great to be around younger people who are discovering things for the first time and are full of excitement. Also, selfishly, it was good to test out stuff with a younger audience to figure out what bits made sense and were relevant to them. Basically, am I being a corny, old dude or not? P.S. My Weezer joke has aged out.
CP: You're a well-educated guy. What did you learn at Bowdoin, Wesleyan, and the London School of Economics besides, like, school subjects? Where do you think your comedy is best received — Queens, Bowdoin, London, Middletown Connecticut?
HK: I'm not sure where I'm best received because I was a very different person and at a different stage of life when I lived in each of those cities.
New Yorkers are funny and New York has the best comedy scene, so growing up there definitely helped me know how to write a joke.
Maine forced me to stand out as a minority, and though this was hard at the time, it certainly gave me a very important perspective. I was sheltered by diversity in Queens, and Maine really gave me a sense of what more of the country was like.
London taught me that I was an American. I obviously knew that, but you really feel it when you are abroad and you realize that your thinking is the product of where you grew up.
CP: You've probably heard about the Trevor Noah controversy. What personal guidelines do you follow for material you tweet? Where do you think comedians should draw the line between edgy and offensive?
HK: I don't think there are any clear lines and rules in comedy. My only rule for myself is to always "kick upwards." I want to go after the person or idea that has power. Sometimes it's not clear-cut and things change depending on context.
I try to be extra careful with Twitter because you can't take anything back on the internet. It's not like when you're doing stand-up and you try something out and realize it wasn't the best idea and throw it away. The internet has everything. Before I tweet something, I try to ask myself "Am I OK with this being around forever?"
CP: Did you and your brother Ashok start your Kondabolu Brothers podcast as a way to display both of your skills/personalities? How popular is it?
HK: The podcast has a small, but loyal following. We release it semi-regularly and the production quality is awful. People like it because the content is unique, and I think two siblings talking (and sometimes arguing) is very comfortable and familiar to people. I'm definitely the more uptight, responsible older brother, and Ashok is definitely the more careless and free younger brother. I'm better with structure and order, and he's best with room to wonder. He's really brilliant and does best when I let his thoughts run wild. My job is to reel it in and move on when necessary, but not get in the way.
CP: What are your goals in life — no pressure? Do you want to keep touring and doing stand-up? Do you and your brother want to get some kind of big fun variety show going?
HK: I love doing stand-up and the one thing I know for sure is that I will keep doing that. Nothing is freer than stand-up.