Interview with Hari Kondabolu

October 15th, 2008 | Interviews, San Francisco Comedy

by Nato Green

Hari Kondabolu

Hari Kondabolu has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham. He also performed at Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival 2006 and HBO’s US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen in 2007. His short film Manoj about a rising Indian comedian has been a hit at film festivals across the country, and was screened at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal. He’s been an immigrant rights activist as well, and took a hiatus from his rise in the Seattle comedy scene to get a Master’s degree in Human Rights at the London School of Economics. His experience as an organizer informs his comedy and appeals to a unique comedy audience. Hari will be appearing in the Laugh Out the Vote tour October 15-19 in Santa Rosa, San Francisco, and Redwood City.

Click a date for tickets and more details about the Laugh Out The Vote tour, a “pre-election political comedy throwdown” featuring Hari Kondabolu, Nato Green, Will Durst, W. Kamau Bell, Betsy Salkind and special guests:

10/15: Kids Street School Theater, Santa Rosa
10/16 & 10/17: The Purple Onion, San Francisco
10/18: The Clubhouse, San Francisco
10/19: Little Fox Theater, Redwood City

SF Were you into comedy growing up in Queens?

I got into comedy after I saw Margaret Cho in that leather body suit HBO special from 1994 that was on Comedy Central constantly in the early 90s. That was the first time I got really into stand-up. I saw her all the time and she was a big deal to me. “Wow, I think it might be possible for a South Asian person to do this.”

I ran for vice president of my high school for the sole purpose of getting a comedy night where I could do stand-up. I did, and I did 20 minutes of essentially Cho and Chris Rock jokes with the word “Indian” in them. Some punch lines were slightly twisted or completely ripped off. I did comedy through college at Bowdoin in Maine and then went to Wesleyan University my junior year.

SF You went from Bowdoin to Wesleyan as part of a foreign exchange program?

I went to Middletown, Connecticut for my “year abroad”. They had a twelve college exchange among the New England liberal arts schools and Wesleyan University was my dream school. I learned a ton about staging a show and how to perform. When I went back to Bowdoin I was a lot more polished and I started to write in my voice. I didn’t really do clubs until Seattle.

I’d do comedy in New York when I came home for breaks. It was never fun. You’d travel two hours from Queens to get anywhere and you’d get three minutes in front of comics who hated your guts and didn’t know who you were. Then you’d go back home. Only in Seattle I thought it could be fun doing clubs and small rooms. And it has been fantastic. I had moved to Seattle because I got a job as an immigrant rights organizer for what was then Hate Free Zone and is now called One America.

SF As an immigrant rights organizer, obviously Sarah Palin hated you.

It’s remarkable. It’s the fundamental democratic process. Organizing your community, getting people involved and then communicating their ideas to elected officials. It’s the most fundamental idea of democracy and she’s attacking that.

SF What were you doing as an organizer?

The first year was direct service. Helping people get legal representation. A lot of it had to do with immigration cases. Or people being fired from their work unfairly. Trouble with housing. Second year was part of a national campaign called Liberty & Justice for All where we focused on the lack of habeas corpus rights for immigrants.

Immigration detention is something we don’t talk about in this country. Immigrants can be detained for months and deported without ever seeing an immigration judge. The immigration legal system is completely different from the criminal justice system where mid-level immigration officials can deport people without a day in court. Different set of rules. A year spent organizing in Washington, Idaho, and Oregon.

SF What got you going in Seattle?

I took the LSAT when I moved there in 2005. Eventually figured I didn’t want to go to law school. I hadn’t performed in a year really, though I had been blogging and writing for myself. I missed that part of my life though. Performance has been a part of my life since I was 17. I started going on at Seattle’s Comedy Underground and it was a great stress release from a job that was emotionally very taxing. It was something I did on the side, and it somehow took off. It was surprising and not expected.

SF How porous was the relationship between the day job and comedy?

The ideas bled into my act. I did a bit where I read the citizenship application and critique it. Being around a lot of organizers and activists, you see the ways you can talk about the issues they’re addressing. You’re in it on a deeper level, both academically, because you’re thinking about issues deeply, but also practically because you see how people are responding. A big part of organizing is communicating messages and trying to connect to people. With comedy it’s the same but you need to make them laugh. It’s good for me to engage these issues politically and then at night find a different way to express them.

Also the Nonprofit Comedy shows that Yoram Bauman (the stand-up economist) did. We had these crowds at the nonprofit shows that would appreciate my stuff. Politically-minded. A lot of variation, like environmental groups can go either way on immigration so it was tricky. Overall I found a cool base in that. A community that knew me as an organizer that started coming out because they’ve realized I was speaking to their issues.

SF What’s your writing process?

I collect my thoughts. That’s been my hobby since I was 17. Writing everything in pads. I might not get to a thought again for months or years. I keep all my notebooks. Whenever I move to a new place I take all my pads. Just in case I peek through one and find an idea that finally makes sense. I try not to throw out anything. As a comic when you lose a thought it’s devastating. “Shit, that’ll never come back.” Or sometimes you just throw it up there onstage and solidify it later. I try to address big themes. I make lists of blocks of ideas that I want to talk about when the time is right.

SF Does it start out funny or something important?

It has to be funny first. There are general ideas I think about as frames but you can’t force it. Remembering that you’re interested, eventually something pops into your head because you have a filter for what you’re looking for. I’ve tried to write big ideas first. I think I have all this great stuff and later realize it’s just a bunch of interesting thoughts with no punch lines. It needs a spark to make it go.

SF What’s it like talking about race and immigration in Seattle?

It depends on the venue. When I’m performing in those Capitol Hill venues, there can still be some discomfort but generally positive. I do a really unique thing in addition to the fact there aren’t that many comics of color in the alt scene, so I stand out. When I’m doing a big show where I headline, my crowds are different than the crowds that generally attend shows in both the mainstream and alt venues. They’re racially diverse. Queer folks come out and feel comfortable at my shows. Folks who have given up stand-up altogether see something different from me that they appreciate. If I’m doing a general club show it can be hard. I just did three nights at the Comedy Underground, and I had people who not appreciate it, give me shitty looks, or yell until they were escorted out. I’ve had shows where I hear people whisper racist stuff in front of me. Weekend crowds in Seattle can be rough.

SF How do you think about the relationship between your comedy and your activism? How does comedy relate to social change?

I can’t be arrogant enough to say that comedy will lead to social change. It can aid in the process of changing people’s minds and at least questioning in a way that’s more comfortable. It can be less aggressive. I’m aggressive on stage, but I still need to make people laugh. Being around laughter is cathartic. For other people, it’s a moment of, “Man I didn’t think about that before. I’d never questioned that. I don’t want to, but I’m laughing so there’s something to think about.” I know enough people doing amazing activism, so I won’t say that what I do in stand-up is equivalent to organizing. I’m at least bringing certain questions up publicly with my art that generally are not brought up because I have experiences and perspectives that are relatively new to standup.

SF Such as what?

Immigrant rights organizing. Being a South Asian in a post-9/11 world and that my punch line isn’t that alone. The punch line isn’t Guantanamo but how it exists. I had a joke about how if Jesus came back, he’d be in Guantanamo because people are looking for a Swede. I wrote a sketch about the trial of Jesus at Guantanamo. How he’d try to prove that he’s Jesus but no one would buy it.

How do you justify this political nonspace? Guantanamo doesn’t work in the nation state system. It works within the laws but is beyond the laws. I’ve read some really interesting articles about this written by Costas Douzinas. I can’t really explain this properly right now. I’ve had one rum and coke. I’m past my limit.

For people who talk about religion and God and morality, how does legal wrangling to justify human rights violations fit in that? That’s what I try to bring to my comedy. To find funny ways to simplify and explain complicated ideas.

I like to mention whiteness in my act. When a character is white, I like to mention that they’re white. If you don’t mention race, people assume that the character is white. A person’s race doesn’t need to be clarified if they’re white. I like to say it, to say the assumed because it makes people uncomfortable. It comes from seeking an understanding of what’s taboo about race. Hopefully it hits some nerves and asks questions.

SF Other comics you admire besides Cho and Rock?

Paul Mooney changed my life. I saw Mooney do three hours at the DC Improv in 2003, and I never knew that race could be addressed that way. That race in comedy could be so aggressively discussed. I don’t agree with everything Mooney says, but I was sore for two days from laughing so hard. It made people uncomfortable. A lot of white people walked out of those shows. Maybe you can say his stuff is outdated now, but how he talks about history is amazing. Marc Maron is great in how he connects human emotions and spirit to politics.

The comic that I want to be a more accessible version of is Stewart Lee from England. In the UK, he just got named the 41st Best Standup Ever which is the name of his new DVD. It’s a mix of political, social and absurdism. He’s the comic I want to be. He’s very careful with his words. He says everything with purpose and intention. That’s where I’m going—to be intentional about the decisions I make to affect an audience.

SF On your blog you link to something he did about political correctness.

I love that bit. I’ve wanted to write that bit forever and he nailed it. It’s unique. If people want to say something racist and they can’t, they think it’s because of political correctness. Political correctness gets problematic when people can’t ask questions, question themselves, and communicate freely. You hear it in comedy, when comics blame political correctness because they can’t do what they did 30 years ago. Where are we from 30 years ago? I thought we made progress.

I’ve heard white comics complain that they can’t say the n-word. What moments do you need to say it in your act? If you say it and people laugh, what kind of laughs are you getting? Who’s in the audience and why are they laughing? Laughs being the bottom line, I don’t agree with. I think that’s stupid and thoughtless.

SF What are you listening for in laughs?

When I go onstage, people start laughing before I even touch the mic. I know what those laughs are. They think I’m going to give them funny voices. They expect jokes that aren’t jokes, but just ways to use the accent. Some comics approach their art that way, and audiences want that. They stop laughing or listening when I start talking about what I want to talk about and that can be painful.

It’s like why Chappelle quit the show. The reasons he gave were cathartic for me because he was a mainstream comic who said what I think about when I write and perform. What am I doing? Am I being responsible? I need to rethink this. Are people laughing at me or with me? I don’t want to be restricted about what I can do or express, but if the crowd has fucked up ideas I have to take that into account. If the audience laughs for the wrong reason, I want to have a counter for that.

Manoj is about that. The laughs are at him and at his expense. What is the shared experience with the audience? When the crowd is getting your shit for the right reasons, it feels different. When they laugh for the wrong reasons, it’s uncomfortable. “Yes I recognize they do work at Microsoft. They do worship elephants. I recognize that. Why are you mentioning whiteness? Why are you asking questions about the idea of Americanness?” The laugh is recognizing something that was funny to me before I got here.

Chappelle’s epiphany about the pixie sketch expressed a fear I’ve had for a while and reflects why I changed my approach to comedy and how I try to write. Artists don’t want to be restricted, but we have to be thoughtful and intentional as artists, and especially as artists of color. All art is political.

I’m not perfect, because I’ve gotten lazy and gone for the easy laughs. I’ve improvised cheap jokes. So I try to reflect on those things, and then cut a tag that wasn’t intended as homophobic but came across that way, for example. It’s not worth the laughs.

Apu from The Simpsons is the major comic image of south Asians, with a white guy doing the voice, and that’s what I’m trying to overcome. Not everything about Apu is bad, but he’s essentially brown paint with a white man’s voice. Nobody knows where Apu’s name came from. Apu was the main character of filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s masterful “Apu Trilogy” (consisting of Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu) which followed a boy’s growth from his childhood in a small village to adulthood. It’s painful and beautiful and slow. But no one knows that. It’s classic, very important cinema. No one knows that. Apu is just a funny voice.

SF How is Manoj about these questions?

Manoj was originally going to be a live performance where I grew a beard and shave it during one performance. My friend Tom Shortliffe suggested doing it as a film. It gave us more time to improv and explore. I met Zia, the director, through his brother Sabzi from the Blue Scholars (whose work I love). It was in Just for Laughs this year and was a finalist in Boston Motion Picture Awards. It got its momentum in San Francisco. It got press, a lot of people saw it, and the reviews were good and that launched into these other Asian and South Asian Film Festivals.

Manoj’s jokes are so easy to write. I can do that all day, and with friends I’ll do that when I’m comfortable and have fun. But when Manoj goes to a general audience that may not share the same ideas, it’s all about context, and how he’s portrayed. It’s like Reverend Wright. When you listen to the whole speech, I agree with a lot of it—about Tuskegee and treatment of Native Americans. If you just hear the clip that made the press, he sounds crazy. As artists of color, we need to be careful about how we’ll be represented. Getting new exposure is fantastic, but what do we want to do with it? We should think about who’s in power and what they’re paying us to do.

Two of Manoj’s jokes were jokes I used to do word for word (the Indian Accents not being sexy and the one about pickup lines for Indian women). They’re not the worst bits ever, but are a bit emasculating and minstrelsy. When people did that joke back to me, they did the character voice back to me. It’s not that they appreciated the clever writing… it was the accent.

How many people like Borat for what he’s trying to do and how many just like the funny immigrant voice? Manoj is funny. He’s not complicated. He’s one-dimensional.

SF Who’s the butt of the joke in Manoj?

All three: the comedians who make those choices, the audience that follows them, and the bookers who book them. It needs all three to happen. The pressure to act that way, and the people who pay for it and the people who agree to go down that road. Laughter is powerful. It’s wonderful and devastating. I respect the fuck out of this art form and I take it seriously.

SF What do your parents think of what you’re doing?

My brother is funnier than me, and he doesn’t get why anyone would want to just listen to someone else talk for half an hour. My mother is proud, but wants me to meet a nice girl and get married. (I agree with my mother’s perspective on the issue.) My father used to never use the computer but we showed him how and now he’s on the internet all the time. He googles me to see what’s written about me, and that’s how I know he’s proud. So I know he’ll read this interview at some point. And read in the interview about himself googling me and it’ll be like an infinite mirror.

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