Hari Kondabolu brings social justice to comedy (and has a killer Trump one-liner)
"I’ve never loved talking about electoral politics just because it always felt like sports to me. They weren’t the real debate."
Hari Kondabolu is not a household name yet, but if you like politically charged comedy that tackles social and racial issues, there's no one doing it better. Case in point: his latest project, "The Problem with Apu," a documentary analyzing the "Simpsons" convenience store owner, coming this fall on TruTV.
Until then, Kondabolu is ready to let his audience get to know the man behind the laughs.
"You’ll get to know what I believe in through my stories, and not just my politics and my jokes," the Indian-American comic says about his second standup album "Mainstream American Comic," out July 22.
He's also joined forces with fellow comic W. Kamau Bell, host of CNN's "United Shades of America," for a weekly podcast called "Politically Re-Active" where the two discuss social justice, or the lack thereof, in today's society. The tagline: "With the political circus of the 2016 presidential election heating up, you can laugh or you can cry. Choose to laugh."
We caught up with Kondabolu before he takes his act on the road, includingThe Bell House in Brooklyn on Aug. 3 and 4.
If you want social justice, you must educate your family. If you're afraid to challenge people you love, then how will you change the world?— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) July 17, 2016
What do you see as the role of comedians in politics?
It depends on the kind of comedian that you are. I don’t think comedy can be defined as one thing. But, for me, it’s important to hold truth to power, and comedy is a very accessible way to do that. People will be willing to listen because there’s a promise of a laugh.
Is it hard to be funny given how toxic things have gotten?
Comedy has always been my defense mechanism. So when things are bad I automatically go to, “What can I say to make it better?”
It’s scary now, because the Trump thing went from a joke to this can really happen. So there’s that weird space between: He’s somebody that’s fun to make fun of, but the more real it gets it almost feels like the jokes aren’t worth it. With his particular campaign, you’ve seen people protest and be really courageous in confronting things, and the folks in his rallies have been greeted with violence and racial slurs, and he condones those kinds of things. So you kind of worry with this presidency — are people going to be able to speak their mind?
How has this election cycle "inspired" your comedy?
I’ve never loved talking about electoral politics just because it always felt like sports to me. They weren’t the real debate, they were these weird things about demographics and constituencies. I always cared about the big issues. This election certainly the big issues are partly because of Trump and Bernie Sanders have really come out, whether those issues are about class, racism, xenophobia or sexism. They’re in the public eye a great deal. That in some ways helps, because people become more attuned to thinking a little more deeply about society and what kind of society they want and I think that helps me because that’s what I talk about.
Any Trump-related material you can preview for us?
I’ll give you one — the only time that Donald Trump has liberated women is when he’s divorced them.
Tell us more about “The Problem with Apu.”
It’s about “The Simpsons” character Apu, and to me how strange that character is in 2016 and how strange it was in 1990. I grew up in Queens, New York, which is a really diverse place with so many different salvations, but we weren’t represented on TV regularly until this cartoon character came out and the voice wasn’t even an Indian person, it was a white guy, Hank Azaria. So it was always really strange to feel like that was our biggest representation, this cartoon full of stereotypes. I really wanted to create a film about how a show that I love so much that I was hugely influenced by, still has what I feel is a major flaw.
Are you trying to achieve anything specific with your comedy?
If there’s an issue that involves justice, or people who are not getting justice, that’s where my interest is. So, whether we’re talking about undocumented immigrants, working class people getting cheated from a system that doesn’t work for them, sexism, racism and homophobia. These are all things that gravitate towards, certainly from personal experience, discussing racism and issues about immigration because my parents are immigrants.
Who are some of your biggest comedy inspirations?
I would definitely [say] Margaret Cho is the reason that I wanted to do standup. Marc Maron, I used to see a ton when I was growing up in New York, Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle. Paul Mooney is really important to me. He was huge when I was in college and seeing him perform, it was like, “Oh, you can be this aggressive about race and about the things that you’re passionate about and not everyone needs to like it." All these figures are people who not everyone loved or appreciated. They said things that weren’t easy to digest, but that’s what made them great. I’m inspired by all of them for that reason.
Any specific incidents where you witnessed an unjust act?
I used to have a joke about the mosque being built not too far from The World Trade Center and there was a big uproar about it, which really frustrated me as a New Yorker who grew up with so many different types of people, like this is so closed minded. I did a piece about dealing with the bigot. There was a lot of stuff in that piece, but one was me explaining my point of view about why this is America and if it is a mosque, or even if it isn’t, it wouldn’t matter because this is America and everyone has an opportunity, and one guy said, “You’re only saying that ‘cause you’re a Muslim.” And, I say, “Actually, I’m a Hindu,” and he said, “Well, that’s like the same thing.” So, I said, “That’s ridiculous because they’re two different words, and secondly, Hindus and Muslims have been fighting for thousands of years.”
You’ve participated in storytelling with The Moth, how did that differ from your standup?
I’ll say the piece I did with The Moth was a lot harder than the stuff I do for stand up. Partly because when you do stand up you’re supposed to cut the fat, you’re supposed to get rid of anything that seems not funny, but the fat is actually the tastiest stuff and that’s the stuff that you can put into a Moth story. You’re allowed to give a lot more description and you’re not worried about making people laugh every 30 seconds or every minute. You can actually set something up. It allowed me to be more personal in a way where I want to move my standup in that direction.I think storytelling is crucial, and if we heard more of each other’s stories we would be able to relate to each other a little better. You’re giving detail that you would never share on stage. It’s incredible, but very hard when you’re not used to it.