The phrase “laugh not to cry” might be one of these best ways to describe Hari Kondabolu’s whip-smart and biting comedy. His work confronts heavy issues as well as the everyday mundane in a way that can only be described as simply hilarious. He has appeared on Russell Howard’s Good News, John Oliver’s New York Stand Up Show, and most recently had his very own episode of Comedy Central Presents, which aired earlier this year. He can also be found at the The Untitled Kondabolu Brothers Project with his younger brother Ashok (“Dap” from hip-hop group Das Racist).
I’ll let his words do the rest. Persephone folks, please welcome Hari Kondabolu.
Persephone Magazine: You are a graduate of the London Economics School, a once-immigrant rights organizer, and most well known for your work as a comedian. That is a lot of hats. Can you tell people a bit more about how you went from someone primed for activism to a comedian and how they overlap?
Hari Kondabolu: That’s actually just two hats”¦ but yes, I know what you mean. It’s a strange trajectory. Other than my friend Nato Green, I don’t know of any other organizers who have gone seriously into the world of standup. I have always loved standup. I started in high school, continued doing it through college, and then at night when I worked as an immigrant rights organizer in Seattle from 2005-2007. Those Seattle audiences really helped me develop into the comic I am today because they tended to be very attentive, well-read, and politically minded. I was allowed to have a style that consisted of longer setups and aggressive discussions of issues I cared about. However, I really didn’t see comedy as more than a serious hobby. I moved to Seattle to be an organizer, and I just happened to find a supportive scene to do standup in.
I got discovered by the HBO Comedy Festival in February of 2007 while in Seattle and appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live. My professional comedy career just sort of happened. If I hadn’t been discovered in Seattle and gotten those early breaks, I wouldn’t have pursued it further. In fact, I took a year off from comedy at that point and moved to London to get a Master’s degree in Human Rights at the London School of Economics. I loved comedy, but I really wanted a human rights framework for the immigrant rights organizing I was doing. I really wasn’t sure if comedy was really something I wanted to do professionally. However, by the time my program ended, it was clear that I missed performing and would have regrets if I didn’t try. In addition to the TV opportunities, the kinds of positive e-mails I was getting from people who had discovered my comedy were really inspiring. I loved standup and apparently I was good at it, so I decided to pursue it full-time in late 2008.
In terms of overlap, there’s no actual professional overlap in my life between “activism” and comedy. I did both things for 2 years in Seattle, but decided not to organize after I got back the States. You can’t half-ass organizing or a comedy career and expect to be successful. Plus, there is so much accountability in organizing and to not give it your all would be wrong. If there is any type of “overlap,” it’s that I am still discussing issues that I am passionate about. I also wrote (and still write) jokes during my time in Seattle that were directly influenced by the work I was doing and what I was surrounded by.
PM: You seem to have this style where you go between making people laugh and making them actually think about uncomfortable stuff – one moment it’s all about nerd culture, and then it’s hitting the audience about confronting white privilege and imperialism. Can you talk a little bit more on this?
HK: I like that place between discomfort and laughter. That’s where things get really interesting: when you hit a nerve, question assumptions, find a new way of discussing a difficult topic, and try to get people to laugh. All my favorite comics do this. As a performer, it’s a more challenging position to take, and the rewards are a lot greater. In terms of the “nerd culture” stuff, I don’t really know what that means. I talk about what I know. I love the first two Weezer albums, the Back to the Future trilogy, and the Ken Burns 10-part series on the history of baseball. I happen to also hate racism, sexism, colonialism, homophobia, classicism, etc.-ism. I’m not just one thing, so why should I be one thing on stage? I’m a full human being with a range of experiences. People are allowed to be contradictory and complicated and to be working through things. I think performers are, too.
Do I need to talk about oppression at all times? I’ve hung around in circles like this where all we talked about was anti-oppression work, and it was mind-numbing. I mean, I’m glad we’re on a similar page about most things and we’ve read the same books, but what else do we have in common other than what hurts us? I’ve also hung out with people who do the work and are amazingly well-rounded and still function in the real world. They try to shape the world and acknowledge what we have to work with. These are my friends.
I suppose the easiest way to answer your question is that my wearing thick-framed glasses is probably an unconscious tribute to Malcolm X and Rivers Cuomo.
PM: What surprises you the most about your comedy and people’s reaction to it?
HK: My act seems to affect people emotionally, and this had led to some extreme reactions. Some people don’t like what I do, and they express it at shows by silence (if I’m lucky) or by interrupting. Sometimes people send me awful emails or Facebook messages or leave mean-spirited and unproductive comments on YouTube or blogs. I’ve gotten threatened before. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it doesn’t need to for you to get freaked out by it. Some people also love what I do and they laugh and applaud and tell me in person or write me really thoughtful, personal, and detailed e-mails. I read them and appreciate them greatly.
Recently, a young woman and her father drove several hours from Canada to see me at the Sasquatch Music Festival, and she cried when she met me. It was an incredible experience, and I wish I knew what to say. I gave her a hug and thanked her. It’s a confusing thing when you get such extreme responses and you initially don’t know if you can trust the person speaking to you. I wish I could’ve told her how much it meant to me that she made that effort and how knowing people like her exist make the bad shows worth it.
PM: Do you think comedy makes the medicine go down easier?
HK: Well, I wouldn’t characterize what I say onstage as “medicine.” I think that could read as condescending and be unproductive. People who have different opinions from me aren’t necessarily “sick.” I will say that it is easier for an audience that does not necessarily agree with your viewpoint to listen to you speak if there’s a promise of a punchline. And I hope, for both our sakes, there’s a punchline in there that works! Otherwise, some of my jokes turn into shitty slam poetry really fast!
PM: There is comedy, say, like Dave Chappelle’s “Clayton Bigsby” or Margaret Cho’s “Revolution,” and it seems like comedy has the potential to be a form of social activism. Do you think this applies to your work, or do you think it’s limiting to always reach for that?
HK: I find the framing of me as an “activist” both limiting and inaccurate. I don’t see my comedy as a form of “activism.” If others do, I really appreciate it, because it means that they value what I’m doing and perhaps my comedy resonates with the advocacy they are doing or with their beliefs. I love the idea that what I do can be cathartic for people, especially those working in the struggle for justice. However, my objective with standup is to create thoughtful laughter that is in line with my point of view and is from an honest place. That “place” happens to be one that is very sensitive and conscious about the world, the impact of words, and does not want to harm people. However, if what I say is not funny”¦ it really doesn’t matter.
I’m not trying to influence legislation or support individuals or their families. If I was after a career right now that could more directly produce social change, I’d go back to the organizing I was doing. I don’t expect what I do now to change the world, and if I think it will, I’ve polluted myself. This is already an art form that leads to egomania; you add “I’m changing the world” to that, and you quickly become a joke.
Also, branding me as an activist makes me sound CORNY. It also marginalizes my comedy and the topics I like to discuss. These are not niche topics that are just relatable to a specific demographic. Racism, for example, is as real a thing as dogs and cats and Justin Bieber. It’s part of my experience and the American experience. It affects my day-to-day. I want the mainstream American audience to hear it. Giving the topics I talk about a “special status” takes away the power of their existence in our day-to-day.
PM: Do you think that there’s a limitation to the academic world that there isn’t in comedy?
HK: There’s definitely a limitation in academia that there isn’t in comedy. Anyone can do comedy. Go to a college campus and then go to a comedy open mic. The stories you hear at an open mic are much more varied and are from people with a wider range of experiences – and racial, cultural, and class backgrounds. You don’t need money to do comedy. Also, who really reads academic journals other than academics and students? Even if I, with my Master’s degree, wanted to read a journal, I couldn’t without spending more money. The access I had to them was taken away when I graduated.
Comedy has the ability to explain and illustrate difficult concepts to the masses. The average person doesn’t speak in theories and may not know what “hegemonic discourse” is, but that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t understand it if it was translated. For example, though my goal isn’t to explain how “cognitive dissonance” is part of racism in America, when I talk about how ridiculous it is that Mexican people are said to be both lazy and steal all the jobs”¦ I’ve illustrated the point.
PM: Can you talk a bit more about your project, “The Skin You’re In,” a project that you did for worldcompass.org?
HK: “The Skin You’re In” was just one theme that WorldCompass focused on. They switch it up every month. I chose to talk about skin color issues in the South Asian community. It was a little strange, because that video is based on a bit I do for mainly South Asian audiences, so it was weird to share that on the Internet in a different context.
I really do love these video blogs because I’m not restricted by an audience’s reactions and can really get into more depth. I’m not as worried about making people laugh. The video I made for “White Guilt vs. Racism” is definitely the one that has the most discussion. Though it’s not what I intended, it’s good to hear my standup, and these blogs are being used in highschool, college, and graduate school classrooms.
PM: Do you feel like there’s a responsibility that comes with getting a platform? What about an awareness of how you might be represented or compartmentalized?
HK: Minimally, I feel the responsibility to be conscious that my words are impacting the people who are listening to them, even in the smallest way. Being laughed at is crushing. Comedy does not need to be a place that constantly reinforces the dominant culture of oppression. If I can limit the pain I cause someone, I try to make adjustments. After a show recently, a young woman politely questioned my use of the word “crazy,” claiming it was able-ist. I had no real reason for using the word when the word “ridiculous” would have sufficed, so I replaced it. However, I made some video blogs about gentrification and immigration that use the word “crazy,” and there’s nothing I can do about this now. They exist, and I do not want to pull them because I feel they are funny and useful in starting a discussion.
I’m aware of the responsibility the person who holds attention has, but you have to take risks and experiment on stage. I’m not perfect. I make what I deem to be mistakes. I say things I regret and have to rewrite or be mindful of. That’s part of the process of creating art and getting better at anything. Also, standup comedy can be limiting since you cannot cover everything you believe in great detail when the goal is to be funny. I make choices that don’t make everyone happy.
When we discussed this interview, it was originally framed with me being called a “feminist.” I was uncomfortable with this. Though I see myself as an ally who is doing my best to use my privileges as a man to fight sexism, I don’t know what that label means to the reader. I also don’t know if my work as a comedian alone really justifies the title, either. Though I do have some jokes about sexism, some of them essentialize gender with the goal of questioning sexism within the binary. Some people feel that me discussing sexism as a male comedian is thoughtful and powerful. However, I’ve also heard that discussing “men” and “women” the way I currently do is leaving out trans or intersex folks. I made this particular creative choice because most audience members will not be able to understand the fluidity of gender, and I need a common place to work from. I am a comedian, and the context I am working in is crucial. I have a bottom line with a joke, and unfortunately, I can’t meet everyone’s needs. But that’s not what my job is. I am not a “feminist” or “activist” or “social justice” comedian. I’m a comedian, and I’m complicated and working within my means.
PM: So what happens when the revolution comes?
HK: My over-education and enjoyment of moscato will get me killed. If not, I’ll be live-tweeting it. First tweet: AAAAHHHH!!!