Comedian Hari Kondabolu: "The More Difficult the Topic, The More I Gravitate Toward It"
Photo by Yoon Kim
Like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, Queens native Hari Kondabolu tells many stories of the tomfoolery of white people. Some of the tales he relates onstage involve the comedian of Indian descent embroiled in a racist situation. Such as the time when his father picked him up at LaGuardia Airport and a white woman dashed into the back of the car, mistaking it for a taxi. Or when Kondabolu dated an abusive, bossy British girlfriend who he later realized was "trying to colonize" him.
Such bits on the ironies of race and class often come across with more gravitas than similar bits from other comedians. Kondabolu doesn't strut onstage like Chris Rock, nor does he scream. Rather, his ability to resonate with mainstream audiences stems from his calm cadence and measured incisiveness.
While the 31-year-old stand-up, a former immigrant-rights organizer, has been practicing his craft since 2000, he came to fame as a writer and correspondent on the FX/FXX late-night show Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell. Kondabolu's sarcastic "Konda Bulletins" often focused on his Indian culture.
In March he released a comedy album, Waiting for 2042, a reference to the year when whites will be in the minority in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. He's headlining at the Troubadour on Tuesday, Sept. 30.
Despite the fact that Kondabolu isn't calling for a racial revolution in Sam Kinison fashion, it's not uncommon for him to get the following odd response from an audience member: "I thought you were funny, but I didn't agree with what you were saying." Or worse, the random audience member who sits in the front seat at his show and mutter racial insults.
So where can Kondabolu tour? Is a Little Rock, Arkansas, or Boise, Idaho, stop out of the question? "I'm going to be challenged everywhere," he says. "Just because it's a blue state doesn't mean it's all blue." In fact, he adds, "I've had some great sets in places where I expected hostility."
Even in a liberal city such as Seattle, where Kondabolu aggressively threw himself into his stand-up act after college and was discovered by HBO's comedy festival in 2006, an audience outcry can still fly. During a set at Comedy Underground, Kondabolu shared a story about his argument with an Islamophobe who mistook the Islamic Community Center near Manhattan's Ground Zero for a mosque. An audience member started accusing Muslims of terrorism, and a yelling match ensued with Kondabolu. "It was amazing," he says, "because I wrote this joke about an imaginary bigot, and a real bigot showed up."
Timing, the deliberate choice of words and, above all, "not making jokes clumsily at the expense of people" are his tricks to finessing his way through weighty topics.
"The more difficult the topic, the more I gravitate toward it," he says. "However, the point of view of the joke has to end on a funny, strong, upward note, making it powerful enough to justify going there."
Kondabolu's recent joke about the Michael Brown shooting demonstrates his clever comedic handling of a fiery current affair. He quips, "The New York Times mentioned Mike Brown's troubled past in an article. When did we start to question a murder victim's character right after they died? Did I miss the news reports that went, 'Today in Dallas, the president of the United States AND NOTED ADULTERER John F. Kennedy was shot today'?"
Regarding the immigration controversy in Arizona, the comedian riffed about a woman who griped on CNN that America should "go back to the way it used to be." "?'The way it used to be?'?" he cries. "Lady, you're in Arizona. It used to be Mexico!"
Currently, Kondabolu is experimenting with jokes about ex–Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was suspended for punching his wife in the face. "I don't have anything right now on ISIS and Syria," the comedian says. "You need shared-enough experiences with the audience."
One hot-potato topic primed to stir up any crowd, no matter how lightly Kondabolu handles it, is the Israel-Palestine conflict. "I wonder if there will ever be enough distance to talk about them," he says.
The media often points out that Kondabolu's act is obsessed with racism. "It's like saying I'm obsessed with swimming when I'm drowning," he responds. Starting with his very first stand-up appearance at his Queens high school, Kondabolu built his act on Indian, Apu-like imitations to get an easy laugh. But after Sept. 11, he soon learned that the crowd was laughing at him, not with him.
One time during his studies at Bowdoin College in Maine, Kondabolu was chased down and surrounded by some locals with anti-Eastern, post–Sept. 11 sentiment, culminating with one of them placing their hands around Kondabolu's neck. "These incidents forced me to confront issues of race and color whether I wanted to or not," he says. "Growing up in Queens, I was sheltered by diversity."
Kondabolu feels that it's his responsibility to expose the crowd to fresh and honest points of view. And the dicey material isn't exactly turning people away.
"I think I'm funny," Kondabolu says. "If I wasn't funny, this career wouldn't work and people wouldn't come to see me."
HARI KONDABOLU | The Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd. | Tue., Sept. 30, 8 p.m. | troubadour.com
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