A modest provocateur, stand-up comedian Hari Kondabolu has performed on a variety of late-night talk shows, had his own half-hour Comedy Central Presents stand-up special, hosts a podcast with his brother Ashok ("Untitled Kondabolu Brothers Project"), formerly of the laughing-but-very-serious rap group Das Racist, and was a staff writer for the short-lived FX stand-up comedy television series, "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell," a show that, given the current conversations surrounding race in the United States of America, is much needed, making its cancellation all the more frustrating. And in 2014, Konabolu put out "Waiting For 2042," a stand-up CD on the legendary feminist record label Kill Rock Stars—2042 refers to the year in which, according to the U.S. Census, white people will no longer be the majority in America. His stand-up takes on issues of race, which he is able to break down cogently, and cleverly shocks audiences with biting, satirical observations rather than crude or insensitive humor. He is very much a comedian for 2015. We caught up with Kondabolu over the phone before his Aug. 23 show at the Creative Alliance and talked about right-wing loon Bobby Jindal, the intricacies of political comedy, and more.
CITY PAPER: So, what have you been up to lately?
HARI KONDABOLU: A few things. I started a hashtag called "Bobby Jindal Is So White," which is a response to his assimilationist rhetoric, which I think is kind of hypocritical considering how he goes to the Indian-American community for money, yet then he talks about the elimination of hyphenated identities. So, I started this hashtag in response, and it took off and [comedian] Aasif Mandvi was tweeting about it—and the next thing I know, it goes to India and it became a global thing, and I wake up in the morning and the BBC has written an article about it. NPR and BuzzFeed too. It was like this big thing, and it was just very bizarre because, I guess that's how news works now. Like a guy, that's alone in his apartment in Brooklyn, on a computer, not wearing pants has created global news. So, that was a fun experience. Very strange. Kind of surreal. But it was a fun thing to be able to do something of a candidate that I really do not respect, to make a political statement, to make something that took off in a way I never expected it to take off, and feel like I made some contribution.
CP: How do you navigate tackling issues like police brutality and racial tension with humor, while also not being overly preachy?
HK: You know, sometimes I'll start a joke, it feels too preachy, and then I do it again and again, and I narrow it until I get the point across, and still make sure the joke is the strongest part. So, it certainly is possible, and I do think there's some part of being preachy that is necessary. I really do think that comedians are the modern-day philosophers. Because philosophy now is such an academic thing, you know? Well, old-school philosophers spoke publicly for free. They shared their thoughts to the masses, right? And comedians still have that capability. Comedians still have the ability to perform for reasonable amounts of money or for free, share thoughts, and share what's happening in the moment—in real time. And I think that gives us a very important role, because who else is doing that? Who else has that commentary that quickly, and also, is able to make light of painful things and give it some perspective.
CP: How do you think comedy helps connects with communities amid major sociopolitical change? Because we're in Baltimore, I'm thinking of comedy following the uprising.
HK: When I was in Oakland, in the summer of 2013, to record my album, there were rallies all over the country, because of the Trayvon Martin verdict, and Zimmerman being found not guilty. Also, Oakland was also dealing with the death of Oscar Grant, right? The "Fruitvale Station" movie had just come out, and this had triggered a lot more protests in Oakland, really up the block from The New Parish, the venue I was performing in. There were, I wouldn't say rioting but there was definitely clashes with the police and protests, and it was very heated. And there was a lot of sadness and frustration and anger, rightfully so. So, when people came to my show it was basically the next day. When you hear my album, it's lots of clapping and uproarious cheering. And it was very shocking to me, I was thrown off by how much energy was there. It wasn't the usual flows of my comedy shows—it was more aggressive. And afterward, people were thanking me and saying "we needed this. You have no idea how much we needed this." And then I understood why it sounded the way it sounded. I had come during this period where so many people were in pain. So many of my audience, you know, because of what I do, would have been at those rallies, would've been there with the police. For them to hear somebody talk about what I was talking about, about race, injustice, and brutality, I think it resonated a lot differently. It was very personal and cathartic. Not only for them but for me as well.
CP: Your story sort of reminds me a bit of an article in Splitsider about this comedian in New York City, right after the grand jury decision to forgo an indictment in the Eric Garner case. There were protests in NYC as a response to that, and when he was in prison, he performed stand-up in front of this entire group of protesters that were in the same holding cell as him which I thought was pretty interesting.
HK: That's amazing.
CP: I feel like the last couple of years have sort of acted as this renaissance for stand-up comedy because of younger audiences flocking toward comedy podcasts, and there's the rising popularity of alternative stand-up centric shows like "The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail." What do you think is really responsible for that shift?
HK: I think the internet, for one. I think, you all of a sudden have a wide range of comedians that you can get into. I think we have things come in waves, so maybe this was just another wave, but I think all the stand-ups are generally fairly versatile. They're like the workhorses of comedy. Because they go on the road all the time, they know how to connect with people. We get a decent sense of what people like. And we've kind of done the market research. The market research is touring. I feel like we're actually on the ground. I think that there's a crop of comics now that are young and excited and hungry and are doing things. I think having web presence helps. With something like Twitter, you're no longer dependent on someone opening all the doors for you. There's no one show that breaks you open. It's a hustle and you work and you do everything you can to be funny, to write and have people see your work. And you can do that! You can be somewhat self-propelled using social media. So that changes things because all the sudden, you see someone who is selling at clubs and has their own audience and is building on their own. It's hard for networks to refute numbers, if they're confronted with numbers. Also stand-up I think is funny because even during its slump it's always been present because the production values are so low. I mean, it's a person and a microphone, it's not hard to set up. Even with attention spans crumbling, you still have a chance, but for some reason people are still connected to the idea of a single person talking. Everything is distracting, yet somehow a single person talking interests people. It almost doesn't make sense in today's society. No explosions, no big production values, you can do it anywhere. You can do it in some basement, somewhere—it's a microphone and you. And a stand. That's it! It doesn't make any sense anymore. No music, no chords, no hit songs. It's just a person talking!
Hari Kondabolu will perform at the Creative Alliance with Liz Miele on Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. For more information visit creativealliance.org.