Death threats stop some people. Hari Kondabolu isn’t one of them. He specializes in truth-telling comedy. I really should say comedic truth-telling because the funny is paramount. Either way, there’s zero tolerance for censorship or ceding ground to bullies.
His comedy is on-point and his observations fearless. When he holds a difficult subject up to his light, the result is laughter, community, catharsis, and sometimes, hate mail.
Hari, who worked as an immigrants’ rights advocate in Seattle and earned a Masters in Human Rights from the London School of Economics, brings major-league heart and intellect to every topic. He has compelling points of view on police violence, the Black Lives Matter movement, the immigrant experience (his parents emigrated here from India), this election year, and the fact that he is a mainstream American comic. He can literally claim the title Mainstream American Comic because it is in fact the title of his hilarious, beautifully honest, intimate second album just released last Friday.
One reason he chose the title, he has said, is that he likes to envision it appearing when people google “mainstream America.” But there’s another reason: his topics are not fringe topics. They are mainstream in the best sense; front and center and significant whether you’re a target of bigotry or simply horror-struck at its persistence in 2016. No matter your experience, Hari’s comedy resonates. An example: his first album, Waiting for 2042 (the year white people will no longer be the majority) is used in high school and college curricula throughout the country.
In addition to his sometimes scorching, always funny observations about the state of the social and political union, he also gets personal with exceptionally engaging material about his own life.
Mainstream American Comic includes stories about how Hari discovered the downside of Joe Biden’s effervescence, phrases he hates (“boys will be boys” is one), his worst show, and his wonderful mom from whom he gets his humor and very appealing balance of warmth but no bullshit.
Then there is the moment I’d been waiting to hear my entire life; about what happens when your first name resembles an American name, but isn’t. This would be a good place to mention that Hari’s name is pronounced like “Hurry,” not Harry. If there’s been any consistency in my life, it’s explaining year in, year out, that I’m “Temmy” not Tammy! And wow, that actually felt medicinal. A chance to find the funny, be heard and to bask in rare camaraderie and just one brief example of how Hari Kondabolu’s comedy has therapeutic benefits.
There are more benefits coming our way. In addition to his new album, Hari has two shows at The Hideout this Saturday, July 30.
He has a new already top-rated podcast, Politically Re-Active, with W. Kamau Bell, where the two make sense of political nonsense. Hari was previously a writer and on-air correspondent for the FX network’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell which was produced by Chris Rock.
Hari is also one of the replacement hosts for John Oliver on the Bugle podcast and is developing a fall pilot for his own weekly television series. Another much-anticipated project is The Truth About Apu, a documentary he is making for Tru TV. The film examines The Simpsons’ Apu and what it says about the portrayal of Indian Americans.
He has his own special on Comedy Central and has been featured on The Late Show with David Letterman, Conan, Jimmy Kimmel Live, It’s All True with Tim Barnes, @midnight, The Nightly Show, NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross and in The New York Times among many others.
Hari kindly spoke with me by phone about his upcoming Chicago appearance, his thoughts on comedy and those death threats, and why there’s nothing he won’t talk about.
Teme: Great to talk with you. I enjoyed both your albums so much.
Hari: Thank you. I’m glad that people are listening to them. I worry that people don’t listen to comedy anymore. They only watch it on Netflix and YouTube. It’s important to me that people actually listen to this stuff because I feel like the words are very intentional. So it’s good to know people are still listening.
Teme: I feel like listening has its own pleasure because then you can just focus on what’s being said.
Hari: I completely agree. When I started doing comedy, I listened more than I watched. There were albums and TV specials that I heard before I saw, like Dave Chappelle’s Killin’ Them Softly. It’s so incredibly funny that when I actually watched it for the first time years later it was disappointing because the words he used were so funny and vivid and the descriptions were so perfect that nothing could compete with what I had in my head.
I think there’s something to be said about that, especially when you want to do comedy. Learn by listening so you can learn to write things that are very descriptive or at the bare minimum, are funny without visuals.
Teme: That’s such a good point. It’s like seeing the movie after you’ve read the book and then the movie doesn’t quite live up to the experience.
Teme: When you’re here on July 30th, will you be talking about this past month’s violence? And generally, how do you find the comedy in the pain?
Hari: I wrote a few things. I’m not sure if I’m going to use them just because they’re not polished at all, but maybe that’s what makes them better. They’re very honest. Maybe eventually I’ll find more of the humor as I say it repeatedly.
It’s hard to talk about violence, especially gun violence in this country because traditionally the model for comedy has been tragedy plus time equal comedy. With gun violence in this country or with police brutality, there isn’t much time. As soon as one happens, another one happens.
It’s not that this was new, the police murders and police violence, the killing of innocent black men. That is not new but we’re hearing about it publicly as a nation for the first time with this frequency, although the frequency is not new. There’s public discussion about it, but we’re always mourning the loss of people because of the way our society is built around guns.
I feel like every time I try to bring up the topic, there’s a sensitivity. Because it happens so often it doesn’t feel like a historic event as much as a regular occurrence. It’s difficult. It means you have to tiptoe a little bit and you have to find that sweet spot to analyze the topic.
There’s always the risk of triggering people, but there’s a greater risk of people not wanting to hear it because they don’t want to think about it.
Teme: You find good ways of identifying it and helping people to think about it. Sometimes there’s just this mass of tragedy and grief and sadness and I’ll find myself not knowing what to do beyond drowning in this terrible feeling. So I love the way you focus on the issues and identify what they really are.
Hari: Comedy is so necessary. People always ask me and I hate this question, ‘Where are the lines in comedy? Is there anything you won’t talk about?’ There are no lines. There have never been lines. It’s like saying ‘What things will you not talk about in reality or think about in reality?’
It’s not about whether you will talk about something or not. It’s about how you do it. It’s about how you give it a context. It’s about how you are informed and how you can inform the audience so that you’re on the same page. Some things have to be handled more delicately than others, I think.
That question of ‘Are there things you won’t talk about,’ ‘Where are the lines?’, that question fundamentally misunderstands communication and speech and the idea that comedy is a form of communication as much as it is an art.
Teme: How do you find that sweet spot?
Hari: Through trial and error and experience. You do this long enough, you get a sense of how to write certain things. Also, you have to be willing to put things out there that will fail terribly. That’s the risk with comedy, that you throw something up and it misses the target or it’s too aggressive. It’s all sorts of things and it’s really about tinkering.
I also am fortunate to have friends who know me and my point of view who are not comedians. If I run something by them, they’ll tell me, ‘That’s not quite what you want,’ or ‘That’s a little harsh.’ At the end of the day, it comes down to putting it on stage and seeing how it feels, if it’s consistent with your voice and whether it’s effective in terms of making people laugh. I’m cautious, generally, but I make mistakes. I take risks. It’s just the nature of what this is.
Teme: I would guess good things often come from those risks.
Hari: Yes. There are certainly mistakes. You go down a path and even if you’re struggling with it, you find something. That’s very gratifying as a performer, but also for the audience because so much of this is shock and misdirection. I don’t mean shock in a negative way. Surprise is probably a better word. The unexpected punchline, going in one direction and then going the other way. It’s a lot of verbal tricks and things like that. When you’re struggling on stage and you find something, the audience is surprised, too, because it’s like ‘Wow, we were in a hole there with you for a while.’
It’s a very strange art form; it’s constantly changing and it’s so current. Its strengths and weaknesses are the same thing. As much as you can say a comedian was wrong and was struggling up there, on the other hand, you can have a moment of catharsis because comedy has the ability to communicate faster than any other art form could in that moment.
Teme: That’s true. It helps the audience to know how to take action and formulate their thoughts.
Hari: I would agree with your latter point more than the former. I think comedy definitely allows people to come up with their own opinions if they’re struggling, or find an opinion to think about whether they agree or disagree. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a call to action. My intentions are certainly not that. My intention when I write is to be funny. There’s really no other goal I have in mind. It’s to be funny with the point of view that I have. I don’t anticipate or have the goal of it leading to some greater action. But I definitely do think as a starting point for discourse it can be pretty great.
Teme: Your work includes talking about some difficult realities. What keeps your spirits up and what gives you hope?
Hari: Some is the emails I get that are positive. I’ve been getting a lot of hate mail recently because I criticized “all lives matter” and how ridiculous it is to take away from what this struggle is about.
But generally, I get a lot of really beautiful emails. The emails and messages I get are never short. The people who love my work, they really love it and they can share intimate moments where it was useful for them. That’s really beautiful.
For every bad show or for every death threat or for every moment where I doubt myself, things like that really help. I hope people know that. Whenever I see people being positive and supportive and explaining to me the impact I made, it’s a reminder I’m doing it right. My goal is to make people laugh, but if you’re able to uplift people’s spirits as well, that’s incredible.
I think all the great performers had that ability. They had the ability to uplift people especially when they’re talking about difficult things. I don’t want to set out to do that because I think there’s enough ego involved in performance and I think you should narrow your focus. I take other things into account like my point of view and the language I want to use, but certainly the goal is to make people laugh.
When people say it has that impact on them, certainly that’s way beyond what I expected. It’s always a joy to read and it lifts me up. Other than that, in terms of my day-to-day stuff, it’s a struggle sometimes because comedy is my way of uplifting myself and my way to keep my spirits high and now it’s my job. Even though a great show puts me on cloud nine, it’s still a job.
In those moments [when I need uplifting], I make an attempt to go for walks with friends and with people I don’t know very well but that I think are cool; going for long walks and talking to people without any intention other than getting to know them and talking about the world.
The human connection I feel on stage is wonderful, but it’s a monologue, and there’s something different about being able to focus on listening. As a performer you use listening only as a way to make people laugh. It’s a completely different set of skills.
So I definitely try to take care of myself, and I struggle with this, but by trying to find people to spend my time with, so I’m not simply performing or hanging out with other comedians.
Teme: I remember hearing you say that you text people you don’t necessarily know well to go for a walk. What a cool idea.
Hari: It’s crucial. Also, I think I’m lucky in that there are a few people who share my point of view about comedy. W. Kamau Bell and I are very close. One of the reasons we’re close is that we’ve experienced a lot of similar things and our view of the world is very similar. We want our comedy not to harm people.
There are people, I think, we all have in mind that if we make them laugh, we’ve done it right. The people who are struggling, the people who are fighting, the people who are having a rough time.
There’s a certain vision we have of who we’re trying to make laugh. It’s not to say you don’t want everybody to laugh.
Kamau is also somebody who helps me put a lot of things into perspective, so that’s been very important.
Teme: Please tell us about Mainstream American Comic.
Hari: For sure. One thing I’ll say is I really am proud of this new album. I’m really proud of its growth from the last album. I think it’s a little more open. It’s more personal than my previous recording and I think people are going to like it. I just want them to listen to it like we talked about earlier. I’m proud of the writing. I’m proud of the performance. I feel like this is going to be something people are going to enjoy, and I hope they pick it up.
Teme: I loved it and it’s one of those albums that you can listen to many times and just keep enjoying.
Hari: Thank you.
Hari Kondabolu is at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia on Saturday, July 30. Shows at 7:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. As of this writing, the early show is sold out, but tickets are still available for 10:00 p.m. here.
Purchase Mainstream American Comic at http://www.killrockstars.com/hari/
Listen and subscribe to Politically Re-Active here.
Learn more about Hari at http://www.harikondabolu.com/
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