One thing about Donald Trump: he makes political comedy easier.
At least that’s the assessment of New York comedian Hari Kondabolu, who will be at the Comedy Club on State for five performances April 27 – 29.
No need to explain Trump’s positions since it’s all right there on Twitter, and no need to get into a lot of nuance because, well, there is none.
Kondabolu just dropped his third album without warning — New Material Night Volume One consists of self-bootlegs he recorded on his iPhone while working out new material at a tiny club in San Francisco, appeared suddenly last week with no promotion, and shot to number two on the Billboard Comedy Chart.
Kondabolu makes no bones about being a political comedian — in fact he spent some time doing actual political work, interning with Hillary Clinton when she was running for and serving in the US Senate, and later as an organizer and activist. He’s also got a master’s degree in human rights from the London School of Economics.
He’s also not shy about taking on race and ethnicity. In fact his documentary, The Problem with Apu, set to air on TruTV later this year, takes on perhaps the most problematic representation of Indian Americans: the Kwik-E-Mart owner on The Simpsons, voiced by noted white guy Hank Azaria. Kondabolu has spent months trying to arrange a sit-down with Azaria to no avail … that we know of, yet.
His political game stepped up last year when First Look Media and Panoply launched “Politically Reactive,” a sharp, funny weekly podcast he co-hosts with friend and fellow stand-up W. Kamau Bell. The second season is just underway.
Our Robert Chappell had a chance to speak with Kondabolu about being a comedian of color performing for a mostly white audience, how his act has changed since the election and whether podcasting is still really kind of a white thing.
Robert Chappell: Thanks for taking a few minutes. I really appreciate it. So, you’re coming to Madison. Have you been here before?
Hari Kondabolu: Yeah, I’ve been there before. I was at the Majestic a few years back and I performed at the University. That was one of my first gigs as a paid comedian back in 2009. It’s a great town, man. It’s really a lot of fun. I’m glad I’m coming in the spring and not the winter. That was a big deal. It’s gorgeous. I’ve never spent this much time. We’re gonna be spending three days there because of the club run. So I get to actually get to walk around and eat food and meet people. I’m really looking forward to it.
RC: So it being mostly white, progressive town, is that a different kind of experience for you? I know your album Mainstream American Comic was recorded in Portland and you made a few references to the mostly-white makeup of that crowd.
HK: I think it only matters if it factors into the show. Every now and then you can feel it. You’re just like, “Oh, I’m the only one here.” It would be phony of me not to call out how I’m feeling, because there’s an honesty in comedy, but often it really doesn’t factor in unless there’s a few jokes and I’m like, “Hey, that’s weird. Those always work.” That’s usually when it comes into play. I feel like most times you kinda just work with what’s in the room and I think there’s a difference, when it’s more diverse, I feel like people have a comfort. I feel like they feel like maybe they’re more okay to laugh because everyone is here.
Also, I think there’s different types of laughs. I think there’s laughs from a lot of people of color that are like, “Oh, yeah, this is exactly how I feel. Thank God someone has described the experience.” But I feel like it’s almost from the gut, like it’s from the heart and from the gut, and I feel like there’s a lot of white folks who laugh because they get the joke and that’s more of an intellectual, like, “I get it. That’s funny.” Those are two different types of laughs and they’re both important and they’re both valid and for me, it adds to the experience.
Madison I expect to be fun. I’ve performed there before. It’s a fairly progressive town. I think I can perform in any situation, but if I don’t need to be on the defense, it’s definitely easier. It’s one less thing to do. I can push ideas further when I feel like I’m not on the defense or I’m not fighting against something. It should be a fun weekend.
RC: In what ways has your material or act or anything at all changed since the election?
HK: I mention Trump a lot more. I went after Obama and that administration as well, the previous administration, but with Trump, he’s so blunt, it makes it easier to use as a reference point. Like with Obama, I almost have to inform the audience about things he’s done because people like him, they’re not paying attention. With Trump, he Tweets it out. You actually have very clear evidence. I can read a Tweet and then go into it. It’s pretty amazing. So it’s not like my material has fundamentally changed.
But I’m gonna do a joke about immigration while I have the President saying the thing about Mexicans or if I want to talk about sexism, I have this quote about Trump saying he likes to grab women there. He allows for an entrance into a lot of topics because he’s so blunt and clear and he kinda upsets everybody. He hits every target.
I don’t think the act fundamentally has changed. Definitely, the audience, I think, needs it in a different way, which is kinda nice. It’s like it’s not just a show anymore, it feels like a lot of people are releasing a lot of frustration by going to the shows, which feels good for both parties. Like for me and the audience because I’m also feeling the same thing. I’m feeling confused and lost and I hate the kind of … We’ve bombed two countries this week and we’re debating bombing one that has nuclear weapons. Like, you know, there’s something about that that you can imagine is anxiety- producing. Especially if you’re one who’s prone to being anxious. Yeah, certainly I think we’re all spending some time laughing, which is healthy and natural. I think that’s really useful for everybody.
RC: Now I have to be real honest and admit that I discovered you on your podcast “Politically Re-Active.”
HK: That’s okay. Geez, that’s great.
RC: Every time I say the word “podcast” to my wife she goes, “God, you’re so white.”
RC: I tell her, “But no, I listen to a brown person podcast. It’s okay.”
HK: Right, right.
RC: So is podcasting really a white thing? Is that okay? You know what I mean?
HK: I think that makes it more important that people of color do podcasts. I think what I like about our podcast is that it cuts across. We have a really diverse listenership, and I think that’s important, because I feel like we’re able to talk about experiences in an honest way where we’re not sugar coating it.
You have white listeners who are hearing it like, “No, this isn’t me explaining things to you. This is me expressing my frustration,” and I think that’s huge. To be fair, this is going to sound ridiculous, but I don’t even listen to podcasts, so maybe your wife’s right. I don’t know. I do a podcast and I don’t even listen to them, so maybe she’s right. I don’t know.
RC: I suspect she might mean it’s okay that your voice is being heard by white people. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
HK: That’s the majority of the country, and as we see from this election, when white people don’t like something there’s a devastating effect. If I can’t have it, nobody can. They’re the side that decided, yeah cut the baby in half. Like that’s … No no, I don’t want you to have the baby, just cut it in half. We’ll keep half.
RC: My wife is Mexican and Native American and I admit I occasionally just start to push her off the couch, to honor my heritage. Like, this is my couch now.
HK: How did she respond?
RC: She like kicked me in the shins and then wouldn’t talk to me for a while.
HK: Yeah, there you go.
RC: So it’s pretty ballsy to put out an album of material in progress. How’s that been going over?
HK: It’s kind of ballsy. I didn’t do it with a new hour. I did it from an hour of new stuff I recorded from 2013. So it’s not like it’s right out there. It’s an in-between. I recorded that on my iPhone between records and I really like that show. That show is … it was one of those shows where afterwards you’re like, “man, I wish we filmed that. I wish we recorded that”. So then, I remembered I had my iPhone on. It’s not the best quality recording, but it’s not supposed to be. The whole thing is supposed to be a very natural, somewhat rough look at what it is to figure out an hour of material.
I did this between albums. I started doing this thing where I’d go to Seattle primarily, booked a little theater, do forty, fifty seats and work out an hour of stuff from scratch. And sometimes that meant that the shows were great because there was all this great energy and sometimes that meant the shows were horrible because I had no idea where it was going.
I’m like well if this is a major part of my life and I do have these little bootleg recordings for my own internal usage, I wonder if I can make that a thing. You know, with material that I don’t plan to use again, with material that kind of died there. Or material that was a transitional thing. You can see like the version of the joke that was either longer, shorter, or not quite there. You see how it works through it.
And also, what I love about the show is the improvisation. That’s something that you see in comedy, especially when you’re desperate. You find ways to get yourself out of a hole and this album, unlike the first two which are polished and proper albums, you actually see what that looks like. You can hear what that sounds like. You hear what it means to be stuck and find your way out and how an idea can all of a sudden take form when it was just a couple of lines. I thought it was pretty cool so that’s why I put it out. Somebody described … I think it was The Comedy Bureau which is a comedy blog in Los Angeles. They said that I was putting out my own bootlegs which I thought was so funny.
I feel like it’s not an album for people who want a proper comedy album. It’s an album for people interested in the process, it’s for comedy fans and fans of me. That’s why I didn’t promote it. That’s why the fact it went on number two on the Billboard comedy charts was shocking considering that I didn’t promote it. It was like, “Whoa! I put nothing into this. I ripped this off my phone!” I’m glad people like it too. So it’s ballsy only in that it might be seen by many people as extremely unprofessional, but I think that’s more reason to do it.
RC: You don’t do accents, even when you’re speaking in voice of people who in real life have accents.
HK: Part of it is that I don’t know how to do accents well. You know Russell Peters, at least knows how to do accents and for the people who get upset at him for doing accents there’s a lot of people who are like, “how did you do that?” That’s an incredible skill. I don’t even have the skill, so I cannot even justify it.
RC: You think it’s an easy laugh? A fallback?
HK: I think it can be easy. If you actually have a skill and can do it, it’s different I think. Because there’s a “wow, that’s a magic trick”. But I think it can be easy because I used to use it. When I started, when I was seventeen or eighteen and I hadn’t experienced the world, I went with what I knew, and I knew that that would work because I’d seen the Simpsons and I’d seen how we were represented across TV and film. I knew people found that funny. Particularly white people. And I wanted to be a comic so I did what I knew I could do.
Now it’s different. It feel like I’m a full human being. I’ve grown up, I’ve seen the world. I have strong points of view and that voice does nothing for me. It’s not accurate. It’s cheap and easy. I like to challenge myself. For all the critiques I get about like “oh he’s talking about race again” or “he’s talking about gender” … in addition to all these things being really big subjects, the things you’re describing are basically the whole world. Same with race and gender and war and colonialism and government and health … oh you mean everything? You mean the whole world I’m talking about? Everything that makes a society? Yeah. I feel like the thing that gets left out is that each of the records I challenge myself in different ways. Like there’s joke structures that are not easy to write, that require lots of failure and risk. That’s important to me. I like to take risks and this is a part of that. I like to make things hard.
HK: Oh yeah.
RC: Speaking of Apu, have you heard from Hank Azaria at all about your documentary, The Problem with Apu? Has he responded?
HK: I’m not telling anybody yet. We’re towards the end so I can’t tell anybody. But I’m excited for people to see it.
RC: Is there a release date yet?
HK: The date hasn’t been set yet. We’re in the final stages of the edit. It looks great! I’ll say that much.
RC: You were doing political work and activism and stuff and that developed into this where you’re a comedian for real. Were those things developing simultaneously or how did one lead into the other?
HK: I started with comedy. The activism and all that stuff was well after the fact. Comedy for me, I was 16, 17 years old. When you’re that young, that’s what I knew. I wanted to make people laugh. I wanted to learn how to write jokes. So yes, that definitely came first. Then 9/11 happened and I think politically I became a very different being. Those are the ages where you really develop your point of view of the world and as that was happening we were all impacted by this thing and that’s kind of when I wanted to help be a positive figure on and off stage. I wanted to be somebody who was talking about the things that needed to be talked about. So that’s how that kind of happened. It was a very natural way. And that’s what’s great about comedy. As you develop as a person, what you write about and talk about reflects that.
RC: Who are your comedic influences? Anyone you looked up to growing up or learned from or credit any way?
HK: I think Stewart Lee is the biggest one over the last few years. He’s a British comic. I love how he writes. I like how he thinks. He’s taught me that you can do things that I didn’t think were possible and that comedy is really the most open art form. There are very few restrictions other than the big one which is laughter.
Paul Mooney was big for me when I was in my twenties. Seeing someone that forceful.
He was the comic that made me know that people can walk out of your shows and that doesn’t make you bad. That means you have something to say. That was a shock. I saw Mooney in DC in 2003 and a good chunk of the white people walked out and I’m like, “This is okay? They’re not going to kick him out? Like he can still keep going and he’s a well-known comic and he’s seen as a genius. I can do that if I wanted to? I could just do what I want?” I mean it was huge for me. And you know then the usual. Margaret Cho made me want to do stand up and Chris Rock, (Dave) Chapelle, Marc Maron, David Cross, (Richard) Pryor. You go down the list. Lenny Bruce, Carlin Hicks. I mean some of them I definitely was more connected to than others. But they all had an impact.
RC: Have you done Marc Maron’s podcast “WTF?”
HK: I did a live show early on. I think his first big episode was Robin Williams. I did the episode before. It was a live show in Portland. It was me, Sean Patton, Brian McCann, Ian Edwards. It was fun. He’s asked me to do it since. It hasn’t worked out yet. I’m in no rush to be honest. It will happen when it happens. I’ve known Marc since I was 18 years old which is really weird. Yes, it’s strange to go from a fan who watched him whenever I could to I guess being his peer. Being a colleague I suppose.
RC: Anything else you want to say to Madison?
HK: I need people with an open mind who are willing to pay attention, who don’t expect a joke every fifteen seconds. I feel like from what I hear from Madison, I should be okay in that regard. There are bright audiences and thoughtful audiences and people who are passionate and are NPR listeners and have long attention spans, and that to me is really important. I just want people to come in with an open mind and I think we’ll have a fun time. I hear only the best things about Madison.