Brooklyn-based comic Hari Kondabolu, whose endeavors span from podcasts to television and more, says standup is by far his favorite art form. “It’s the most direct way to reach an audience,” he explains. “You’re just on stage with a mic and you share the thoughts in your head and I find that magical.”
Kondabolu was born in New York and his parents, who make appearances in his stories on stage, originally immigrated from India. Among his three comedy albums, 2016’s “Mainstream American Comic” features a popular bit about his mother (who Kondabolu credits for his sense of humor). Yet, his impersonations are less mimicry than mere storytelling.
“Sometimes people ask me ‘How come when you do impressions of your parents you don’t do accents?’” he asks rhetorically in his set. “And the answer is: ‘Fuck you, that’s why I don’t use accents.’ My parents are immigrants with accents; I’m sure they have it hard enough. People questioning their intelligence, making fun of them behind their backs. I don’t want to make their lives any harder—even though they laugh at Chinese accents, so they kind of deserve it…”
Kondabolu’s act is made up of topics he finds thought-provoking and interesting. Though, he admits, when he first started out in comedy he used his ethnicity and even stereotypes to get guaranteed laughs. “I became more politically aware and more thoughtful in a world post 9/11,” he tells. “That evolution as a person came naturally with my evolution comedian.”
With maturity happening in a quickly changing world, certain talking points became foolish or silly for the comedian. Not to mention, he found it becoming boring, too. “To be a complicated person and have complicated thoughts you start wondering: Why am I doing accents?” he muses. “I understand it, though. Every comedian that starts out, especially when they’re younger with fewer experiences, just want to make people laugh. And when people don’t laugh it’s the worst thing in the world.”
Kondabolu recently opened eight shows for Chris Rock on his European tour. His “Politically Re-Active” podcast, which he co-hosts with friend and writing partner W. Kamau Bell, just wrapped its second season. (www.politicallyreactive.com.) Kondabolu will headline four shows in two nights at Dead Crow Comedy Room this weekend. Yet, no matter what stage or number of people who attend his show, he always self-reflects on his job of choice, and ruminates on the “why.”
“[Stand up is] not an easy thing to do and it makes me question what it is [with]in me that makes me have to do this,” he states. “It’s has been the primary way I’ve shared my thoughts for more than half of my life now. It’s strange but, clearly, when it works, it feels good enough to keep going.”
While Kondabolu’s act is ever-evolving, he often relates back to politics, current events and social-justice topics on and offstage. While his “Politically Re-Active” podcast has funny elements, it serves a different function than his standup: It’s an exploration of current events and issues featuring interviews with experts and leading professionals in their fields.
Kondabolu also is preparing to release his full-length comedic documentary “The Problem with Apu” on November 19. As the title suggests, it’s about the famed but stereotypical Indian character on “The Simpsons.” Throughout the film, Kondabolu interviews fellow Indian comedians, actors and others who talk about their experiences with Indian stereotypes (often perpetuated by Apu) in media that lacked any other representation in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He also spends the duration of the film trying to land an interview with the voice of Apu himself—Hank Azaria, a white guy.
“I’m not even angry about [Apu],” he clarifies. “I just think conversations—especially when they can be done about things like this, which are fairly silly and straightforward—are helpful when it comes to bigger issues.”
In fact, Kondabolu was and remains a fan of “The Simpsons.” Like for many others, the cartoon influenced the comedian’s way of critical thinking. “The Simpsons” was Kondabolu’s first clue that comedy didn’t have to be the way he always had viewed it.
“It’s weird being a ‘Simpsons’ fan because I don’t know how many ‘Simpsons’ fans still watch the show regularly,” he says. “I think it’s like Christians who haven’t read The Bible in a while: I still consider myself a believer but I don’t agree with everything in it. . . . . While I haven’t kept up with it, it’s still the show that affected me the most and made me feel smart. It made me feel like someone who got it, who was in on the joke. It made me feel like it was OK to be clever and to challenge people.”
Kondabolu acknowledges the show’s positive impact on our culture. It was Bart who introduced him to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Even still their overt (and sometimes harmful) stereotypes have been overlooked or forgiven for decades. But the story doesn’t end or begin there.
“The film has to have an arc,” he observes. “You have to make choices, you have to find ways for it to be informative and funny, but as a human being—and this is the why I do my standup. I portray someone with very clear opinions, but outside of that. I like conversations. I like breaking down ideas. I like knowing how and why things happen. So this was an opportunity—and it still is an opportunity—to have a discussion. This really isn’t about Apu; it’s about how choices get made, who makes those choices and how we’ve informed the choices we make. . . . I just wanted a conversation because I think we are owed one.”