Media

Hari Kondabolu: America's Smartest and Funniest 'Mainstream Comic'

In an election season that has given us plenty to cry about, Kondabolu serves up the laughs.

Photo Credit: Hari Kondabolu

On his new album, "Mainstream American Comic," comedian Hari Kondabolu is as on-point as ever, firing off wry observations about presidential candidates in the running.

“Looks like Hillary Clinton is going to be the first female president of this country,” he says to a chorus of boos from the Portland, Oregon audience. “I think it’s very exciting! I think it’s great. Finally, the illuminati has picked a female puppet.”

He then almost—almost—resists the temptation to make a joke about Donald Trump’s hair (“looks like it was drawn by a child... while sneezing”), before delivering the funniest condemnation of the potential president and walking Superfund site of this election season so far: “The only thing Donald Trump has done to liberate women is divorce them.”

This is why Kondabolu has become a favorite of people who love politics and comedy in equal measure—he doesn’t sacrifice humor to make a point. Uncomfortable truths on a range of topics, from empty pro-life platitudes, to what makes Bobby Jindal terrible, to the dumbness of “All Lives Matter,” are taken apart and somehow rendered as hilarious and necessary takedowns. He is consistently sharp, incisive and clever.

In the last few years, Kondabolu has been increasingly visible, making appearances on late-night talk shows, releasing his fantastic first album, Waiting for 2042 and writing for the brilliant but canceled Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. He’s inadvertently become a regularly cited voice in progressive circles, with one of his quotes becoming a frequent sight at protests around the country.

A few weeks ago, Kondabolu and Bell reunited for a seriously great podcast series called Politically Re-Active, which has already featured guests like Robert Reich and Kathleen Hanna shooting the shit about politics. It’s easily one of the most binge-worthy things I’ve listened to in recent memory, and already a runaway hit, landing among the top 15 podcasts in the country in its first two weeks.

I chatted with Kondabolu by phone last week in anticipation of his brand-new album, and ended up discussing his surprise at becoming a required reading in college courses, his upcoming documentary The Problem with Apu and how all observational comedy is political. 

Kali Holloway: As I’m sure you know, Portland’s kind of become a signifier of lots of different things. I was just curious why you decided to record the new album there.

Hari Kondabolu: A lot of reasons. One, I felt like because the first album was [recorded in] Oakland, I wanted to go where I thought was liberal, but diametrically opposed, and that seemed to be Portland. Two, I love performing in the Northwest and I have a great base in Portland. People always seem to show up and are excited that I'm there. Kill Rock Stars, the indie label that I'm on, is based out of Portland, so there's some convenience there. [Portland’s] Mississippi Studios is a great venue, and they've recorded other comedy albums over the last couple years, so I knew it would be done well.

I think recording there in some way seems almost cliche, but one thing I love about this record is I take as many jabs at Portland as possible and they're not all about them being quirky. A lot of them are about race. A lot of them are about the issues I have with that city. I mean they aren't like full swings, but they're jabs. They're certainly being really aggressive about the things I'm aggressive about in that city. I think that was all part of my thinking.

KH: Even beyond Portland, you're always sort of willing to poke lighthearted fun at progressives. There's a joke on the new album that ends with you saying, "I'm a hypocrite, but I'm self-aware. That's how liberalism works." You make fun of hashtag activism on Twitter, even on your own part. In another interview you said that the goal of standup isn't to be righteous, it's to be funny. I feel like peppering your set with those sorts of things keeps it from being what might be dubbed “soapbox humor.”

HK: You have to keep everybody on edge a little bit, you know what I mean? I don't like the idea that we can't call ourselves out. I don't want everything to be swipes at the right. There are a lot of moments where it's basically that, but we have to check ourselves as well.

I poke a little bit at Hillary; I poke a little bit at Bernie Sanders. I think that was important to me. Like the Hillary thing—it's acknowledging the moment while still acknowledging the content of it. I think that's a part of comedy—to throw people off. And I think being self-aware is also really important.

KH: I watched your conversation with bell hooks at St. Norbert College. There's a section where you both talk about how your humor gets labeled political, while there are comics who are doing really hacky racist or sexist or homophobic jokes, yet they don't get labeled political, right? I want to talk a little bit about that idea, particularly as it ties into your decision to call the album "Mainstream American Comic."

HK: I called the record "Mainstream American Comic" because I believe the ideas I'm talking about should be part of the mainstream discussion. Whether it’s the experience of immigrants, the experience of people who are first generation in this country, a critical discussion of what justice is, about race, about sex, about racism, sexism, homophobia. Whatever it is, that should be part of the mainstream conversation. I think for too long, especially in progressive circles, we label things as socially conscious, as activist. We label things in such a way that people are repelled by them.

Whenever I use that term, I assume it's gonna suck. Because there's enough conscious or progressive or activist art that has messages that are righteous and that I appreciate, but it's not good art. That person doesn't know how to play their instrument, that person is not a great poet, that person is not funny. What is the point of you doing your art form ineffectively? I want this to be a funny record, and I believe these things that I'm talking about are mainstream things. Justice is a mainstream idea, and when we put labels on it, we separate ourselves from a lot of people who also believe in justice, but they might not like the words. If you talk about activism and social justice to a lot of people they're repelled by it. Like, "I don't know what that means," or "This is some kind of liberal crap."

If you ask them, Should your kids have access to good public schools? Should your streets be taken care of? Should people be paid fair wages? Whatever the list of things are, they would probably agree more than you think, and all these things are about justice and fairness and equality. Basically these are all things that, when you break them down and find ways to communicate them, are things a lot of us can agree on. That was a big part of why I called [the album] that.

The other thing is, I would argue that observational comedy is political and political comedy is observational. I mean, political comedy is already a shitty way to [describe it]. I don't even like calling myself that. When I see things, I see them through the lens of race or justice. It's not a lens I put on; it's a core part of how I view everything in the world. To say that's political again takes it out of the realm of normal. Out of the realm of something that is a very basic observation that we could make.

Also in terms of observational comics… the choices are also political. What are they revealing and what are they not revealing? The choice not to engage with something is a political choice as well. I think it's important for us to stop putting certain labels on things, because it takes away from the point of the work. I don't make this stuff to change people's minds or influence people. I make this stuff because it's my honest point of view and I want to share my point of view through art. I understand the idea you wanted to be labeled something so you can explain it to your friends. I just hate the fact that I'm talking about things that affect many people and it's seen as niche. Why is justice niche? Why are people of color niche? We're not niche.

KH: I think the proof it's not niche is having watched your career and seeing you in more and more places. And not just on different late-night shows or anything, but watching the way your comedy has become infused with this moment. Your voice has become part of this much bigger conversation.

It's very resonant for a lot of people who find you funny, but also find you're saying something really important. I wanted to talk to you about that generally, and if you’ve been surprised at how your voice has been used beyond just people enjoying it for its humor.

HK: Yeah, it’s always been surprising. I don't think I expected my first album, Waiting for 2042, to be on college and high school curriculums and to be used in various grad school classes. That's not why I put out a standup record. I think I assumed that students and people who are interested in social work or justice or human rights would find it, but I don't think I ever thought it would be part of a curriculum. That wasn't really the goal. I mean that's great, but certainly that's always a surprise.

You know, it's funny. People ask me, is this political art? Do you feel like you're really raising consciousness? And I'm like, I don't know. You're not going to play my album at a rally, you know what I mean? I've said that for years and then all of a sudden, I get an email saying a group of students had a sit-in and they played my jokes while they were occupying an office. During Occupy Wall Street, some people were playing my clips in the cold and laughing. One of the quotes from my first album has been used on protest signs, especially protesting police brutality.

It's incredible that in all these different cities, people send me these pictures of my words on a piece of cardboard at a rally. I got one recently that was in Spanish—I think it was from Colombia. It's a privilege, but certainly none of this stuff was the plan. I want to make people laugh at as many venues as possible. I suppose that's fairly simple, but that's what every comedian wants. I want the same thing.

KH: Can we talk a little about your new podcast, Politically Re-Active, with comedian W. Kamau Bell?

HK: It's been great. I'm surprised, to be honest. I knew it would be good, but I'm surprised so many people are listening to it. We're already number 15 out of all the podcasts in the country. We're number two right behind "Serial" in the news and politics section. I'm like, this has been going on for two and a half weeks. How is this happening all of a sudden?

KH: And I know you’re working on The Problem with Apu, about the Simpsons character of the same name.  

HKi: Yeah, I’m making it with a network called TruTV. The character has always been very strange, since he was the only Indian American character regularly on TV for me growing up. We started to get something [more] with Kal Pen and Asif Mandvi and then even Mindy [Kaling], but for a long time he was it. He's probably still the most famous American Indian character in the world, but he's voiced by a white guy.

He's like a minstrel character, and somehow we've allowed it for this long. I think it's interesting to learn why this has been acceptable, why it was acceptable to people back then, why things have changed, the effect a character like that has on a community. The effect that minimal images—not being to control your images—could potentially have on a community. As well as the history of the name, the history of the voice. To me, it feels like an opportunity, through something I love, which is the Simpsons, to discuss a lot of bigger things. It's going in directions I did not expect it to go. I want it up sooner than later, but I want to make sure we do the best job possible with it. We're hoping to get into film festivals this year and eventually air it on TV.

KH: I just wanted to mention, I love when you tweet or mention in your standup funny things your mom has said. She's hilarious. Has she heard the record yet?

HK: No. I don't think she heard the first one, either. I'll ask my mom, "Have you seen this clip?" or, "Have you read this article that somebody wrote about me?" She'll either say, "Yeah dad showed me," or "Son, we have real jobs." I mean, my mom isn't a fan, she just loves her kids.

Kondabolu’s new album, Mainstream American Comic, is out today, July 22, on Kill Rock Star Records. To check out Kondabolu on tour, see dates below.

7/29 – Detroit, MI @ St Andrews Hall
7/30 – Chicago, IL @ The Hideout, 7pm & 10pm
7/31 – Milwaukee, WI @ Turner Hall Ballroom
8/3 &  4 – Brooklyn, NY @ The Bell House
8/5 – Portland, ME @ Port City Music Hall
8/26 & 27 – Burlington, VT @ Vermont Comedy Club
9/10 – Washington, DC @ Sixth & I
9/22-24 – SF, CA @ Cobb’s Comedy Club
 

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Kali Holloway is a senior writing fellow and the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.