Comedian Hari Kondabolu’s standup stands out because it doesn’t cater to the lowest common denominator. Whether he’s riffing on colonialism, '60s protest music, prayer in bowling alleys, or the origin of soul food, Kondabolu takes no prisoners with his high-brow political humor.
Born to Indian parents in an arranged marriage, Kondabolu was raised in Queens. His comedy career, which he had previously considered a “hobby,” took off while he was working as an immigrant-rights organizer in Seattle. He’s since taken his erudite act across the country and as far away as Australia, London, Berlin, and Amsterdam in addition to hitting the late-night-show circuit.
We spoke to the 33-year-old Kondabolu in anticipation of his return to the Twin Cities.
City Pages: Some of your jokes begin with you confronting a stranger who has done or said something racist. Do you do that in your everyday life?
Hari Kondabolu: A lot of times it’s stuff I wish I’d said. Even if the words are the same, the tone is different. Onstage, I’m more aggressive. There’s such a belief that I’m right and that’s crucial for the joke to work. I don’t care what people necessarily think when I’m onstage; it’s a monologue. Offstage, I’m kinder. I’m not going to talk down to people. I’m engaged in a conversation. I’m not just trying to one-up somebody to prove a point.
CP: What current events are you mining for material?
HK: I was tweeting about what happened in Oregon with the wildlife refuge that was taken over by armed white men. It’s funny, them being called “militia.” It’s amazing to me how protests like Black Lives Matter get so quickly called “riots” or the people get described as “thugs” or “terrorists.” These guys are saying, “We’re not going to shoot anybody unless we have to defend ourselves, but we’re not going to leave here, so you’re going to have to come and get us.” That’s a terrorist action. It’s such a double standard. It’s so absurd.
Trump I find very upsetting. I feel like racism or any kind of oppression is more subtle now, stuff hidden in language, but Trump just says it. He’s very blunt about being an asshole. He’s screaming. There’s no subtlety there. It’s weird to me that he’s saying, “The blacks love me.” The blacks? “The women love me. The gays love me.” I didn’t know the word “the” could sound so racist. It’s shocking.
CP: Do you find comedy as fulfilling as your former work as an immigrant rights organizer?
HK: This, to me, is more selfish. I hear people say, “People need to laugh. It’s important.” And I appreciate that. But at the end of day, I’m not doing this for activism. I’m doing this because I like to make people laugh. I know it sounds weird to consider making other people laugh self-serving, but to a degree, it is. It’s entertainment and ego-maniacal.
When I was organizing, I was glad that I was part of attempting to create justice. With standup, I’m glad that I can create content that’s useful to people, but it’s a different kind of fulfillment.
CP: You often refer to yourself as “overeducated.” Is it even possible to be that?
HK: I call myself that because I feel like I’m not really using my degrees for this particular job, which is one of the great things about standup: There are no qualifications and anyone can do it. I have a Master’s degree in human rights from the London School of Economics. That was great for one line of work, but I feel kind of ridiculous. My standup is so wordy, and I explain things and it feels lecture-y and that’s from years of being trained to argue a certain way: this is my thesis, this is my supporting information, and then you repeat the thesis because the thesis is always right, apparently. I’m doing that with jokes.
CP: Do you ever feel like you have to dumb down your act for audiences?
HK: I don’t think I have to dumb down my act, but I do have to reach my audience where they’re at and that varies from crowd to crowd. With younger audiences, I might have to explain more. I don’t think explaining the joke necessarily kills the joke; it can be a new joke in itself. The goal of a comic is to get the point of the jokes across regardless of the crowd. I’m not going to change who I am.
CP: Do you tailor your act to the country where you’re performing?
HK: I don’t think I tailor my act, but I think it’s important to acknowledge where you are. It’s important to not pretend you’re a robot doing the same thing. The audience knows when you’re not off-the-cuff. They know when you’re not invested in the show. One way to break that is to do jokes specifically about the place — not the whole hour, but two or three minutes. It goes a long way to build rapport and trust with the audience.
CP: Do you know about historical events and facts specific to these places because of your education or do you have to do research?
HK: A little bit of both. I Google stuff and try to figure out the answer to a thing or how it’s contextualized. A lot of it is stuff I know. To be inspired to write a certain thing, you have to have some background in it. So I’ll fill it in, which is fun.
CP: You’ve lived in the U.K. as well as the U.S. What differences or similarities do you see in race relations?
HK: It’s demographically different. It’s a country that colonized, so a lot of folks were members of the former colonies. They have a large South Asian population there. A lot of West Indian folks. They constantly talk about class like, “It’s more of a class issue than a race issue.” I don’t think that’s completely true. There’s a wing that talks about “keeping England England,” and ensuring they’re still British. What does “British” mean? It’s code. I think class and race are intertwined. I refuse to believe that they’re not.
IF YOU GO:
7 p.m. Friday, January 15