It takes a special kind of wit to be successful as a standup comedian with an act that includes diatribes on colonialism, gun control, and police brutality. For Hari Kondabolu, a 35-year-old Queens-bred comic and filmmaker with a Masters in Human Rights, insights into these types of weighty issues seem to come as second nature. Influenced by the likes of Stewart Lee and Margaret Cho, Kondabolu is forthright with his political beliefs. His jokes are delivered without pretense. Whether he’s talking about race as a social construct or the cheeky text messages he receives from his mother, Kondabolu relies on sincerity to get you to the punchline. He has three comedy albums under his belt as well as his own Comedy Central special. He’s also made multiple late night show appearances, including Conan and Late Show with David Letterman. His most recent work is a documentary examining Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the convenience store owner from The Simpsons. With thoughtfulness and humor, The Problem With Apu picks apart and questions the significance of the controversial caricature that is Apu, an Indian American stereotype voiced by a white actor. I recently caught up with the comedian to talk about his new film, his parents, and why making people laugh is important.
Your dad visited Louisiana in the ‘70s. Would you mind telling that story?
My father has a habit of not telling me things until well after the fact. So maybe five or six years ago, my father told me that his first year in America was spent in Louisiana, which I had absolutely no clue about. I’d just assumed he’d always been in Queens. So he was in a small town called Independence, just trying to figure out what to do and what his life was going to be like. On a walk one day, an old white lady on a porch was staring at him. She called him over and said, “Excuse me. Are you Chinese?” And my father was very confused. He told her he wasn’t Chinese, he was Indian. I think he asked her, “Miss, do you own a television?” because if she had had a television she might have known that he was not Chinese. But it was another era, it was the ‘70s, and I don’t think there were many other Indians around there. People used to come up to my father and ask him, “Do you know Dr. Rao?”—like all Indians know each other. But at that time, yeah, he did know Dr. Rao. He knew the other Indian people there, because there were so few of them.
As a touring comedian, what are your thoughts on performing in the South?
Each part of the South is very different. I’m playing cities mostly, and occasionally I’ll do a college town. People are polite, that’s certainly true. There’s certain issues on stage that, depending on where I am, can get tricky. The race stuff actually goes over all right because I think there’s a familiarity with it. Sometimes when I talk about sexuality or gender, people get tight. But when you’re in big cities, it’s so cosmopolitan with people from all over the place that the local feel of a place is limited. So yeah, I’ll be performing in New Orleans but half the audience won’t even be from there. I’m being generous to say just half. And they’re fun shows, but part of me wonders what would it be like if I really had to connect with people that are from a place. But that’s not where I’m getting booked. The demand is for big cities, so that’s where I go.
You’re responsible for creating #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite, a hashtag that will likely follow around the former Louisiana governor for the rest of his career. A lot of social media, Twitter especially, centers around making fun of politicians. What do you think set this hashtag apart and caused it go viral?
Well, there’s Brown Twitter, which I don’t think I fully understood at the time. There’s a whole community of South Asian Americans and South Asians on there. The hashtag was even trending in India. I think there’s a large percentage of people that are very embarrassed by him and that’s why the hashtag went viral. He is the son of immigrants but he disowned his name. He seems to play this role where he’s like, “I’m like you [white people],” rather than being like, “We have different cultures and we’ll integrate into yours and I hope you’ll show me the respect of trying to understand mine.” There was a time where you supported people from your culture or your race because you had to. There was nobody else to support, whether you agreed with them or not. I think Bobby Jindal tests that solidarity, because we can’t do it! So many of us are like, “Naw, man. Fuck that. There must be somebody else.” [laughs] I mean, this guy is everything that many of us are against.
How do your parents feel about Bobby Jindal?
They don’t like him either. I don’t think my mom particularly liked the hashtag. There’s a meanness in it. To me, if you’re willing to talk so harshly about deporting immigrants and undocumented people, to talk so brazenly about assimilation in a way that doesn’t even consider your own family’s journey or have sympathy for the other families that weren’t as privileged as yours, then you should have to deal with people being mean to you. I have no political power. He’s the guy with the political power. So if you’re going to act that way, you’re at least going to take shots from your community on the internet.
You typically have a “do no harm” approach to comedy.
Right, unless somebody deserves the harm or the damage. You go where the power is. Jindal is a person in power, a person that is paraded out as a representative of Indian people or people of color on the Right. I feel like there’s a righteous target there. If you’re going to go after somebody, go after someone that deserves it.
The dynamics of power is something you seem to talk about a lot in your work.
My standup is very much about power. There’s an ethos there. A big part is figuring out who has power in a situation, do they deserve a shot, and how am I going to do it without stepping on other people. I don’t want to step on a marginalized group to support a marginalized group. Before I understood what intersectionality was as a clearly defined concept, I knew that was the approach I wanted to take. Maybe some of it is growing up in New York and being exposed to so many different people and being raised by my mom and how open she is. Part of it is also growing up in a time where I’ve had access to more information and people. All these things made me know that there must be a better way than just throwing somebody else under the bus. When you don’t have the typical outs comedians can take, with regards to throwing somebody under to get laughs, it makes it harder creatively, but also more challenging and interesting.
Why do you think humor is a good tool for discussing politics?
I think it allows you more room, because people are willing to listen if they trust there’s going to be a laugh. You can go on a soapbox and say whatever you want, but if people aren’t listening it doesn’t do anything. It’s like those people standing on the street corner screaming about repenting and finding Jesus. That’s not effective. No one’s listening. People are annoyed. At the end of the day, you need to reach people where they’re at. People, especially when they come to a comedy show, want to be at a place where they’re laughing and they’re comfortable. I don’t say things in order to influence opinion, but I do say things from the heart and I know I can get away with it because there’s a joke at the end. I can share what I truly believe because there’s going to be a punchline. It’s going to be an enjoyable journey.
I imagine there’s a level of vulnerability that comes with performing as a standup comedian, which in turn could allow people to make themselves more vulnerable and more receptive as a result, even if the ideas challenge their current set of beliefs.
That for me is the harder thing. I feel like I’ve always been personal with my points of view regarding issues, but the thing I’m trying to do more—that I’ve done with my documentary and a lot of the new standup I’m writing—is to to figure out how to let people know that I’m also vulnerable. How do I let people know that I’m also like them? That even if we differ on certain things, at the core there’s a lot of similar things we’re all dealing with. We all have worries and anxieties. We all have parents. I’m trying to incorporate that more into my standup, which has taken a long time, because I’m almost more comfortable talking about things I care passionately about rather than talking about myself. It’s not that I’m hiding behind them, but you don’t ever get to truly see my vulnerabilities. I think I’ve been trying to make myself more vulnerable and trust the audience more. I think there’s something powerful in that.
“I don’t say things in order to influence opinion, but I do say things from the heart and I know I can get away with it because there’s a joke at the end.”
How do you do that?
You have to share. I didn’t talk about my parents for a long time, about their immigration and their struggle. I kept thinking I would be accused of being hacky because I was the child of immigrants talking about his parents. There’s a certain stigma around that. Sure, the execution can be hacky, like using an accent or oversimplifying them as human beings. But if a white comic tells a joke about his parents that’s just a part of their routine. If I do, it’s hacky? As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized I’m being absurd. You see so many different comics talking about their parents. And you know why? Because they’re parents—a fundamental part of the human experience. When I talk about my mom, there’s lots of complexity. Also, no one thinks about the immigrant mom being brilliant and funny and sharp. And when I make fun of my dad, it’s not because he’s an immigrant, it’s because he’s oblivious. That’s an archetype: brilliant mom and clueless dad. Why do I shy away from that? Even though to some people it’s not the most brave, it’s enough that people are able to relate. That I’m a person raised by humans that helped shape him and love him. There’s something relatable there. And I think that’s part of it, just talking about relationships.
Based on what you’ve learned about Hank Azaria, the voice actor behind The Simpsons’ Apu, what do you think he’ll make of The Problem With Apu?
I feel like he already made his mind up to some degree that he’s not going to like it because he didn’t want to be a part of it. This film is about accountability and reconciliation. It’s about adults talking to each other and actually understanding context and history and a lot of complicated feelings. I feel that he did himself a disservice, but I also think he’s done a lot of people a disservice because it would have been a really great conversation to have. I’m not somebody who attacks. If he had said yes, the film would have had a different energy. The goal is always to have a conversation. My hope was that if we could have a public conversation about something that’s relatively small—even if we didn’t come to a clear resolution but came to some sort of understanding—that’d be huge. It would give everyone an example that you can challenge something, you can question an institution, and you can actually get to a point where you’re having a meaningful conversation without fear. That to me would have been a really cool ending. I think we would have disagreed or there would have been some awkwardness, but ultimately those are the kinds of conversations that move the world forward: people talking to each other and asking hard questions. Trying to understand intent. I know I’m putting myself on the line making this film. A lot of people aren’t going to like the fact that I made a film that is in any way critical of The Simpsons. Also the racial component never sits well with a lot of people, but I put my butt on the line because it’s worth it.
Was the realisation that Apu is modern day minstrelsy a gradual realization? Or were you able to recognize it as such right away?
I was a kid, so I didn’t see it right away. By the time I realized what Apu was, I was probably ten or eleven. I didn’t know what minstrelsy was, but I knew the Apu character was a negative depiction and a stereotype. I knew it made me uncomfortable and made fun of me and my family. That’s what I knew as a kid. When I started studying film history and stories about representation, I learned about the history of minstrelsy. I don’t think Apu is equivalent to the minstrelsy we saw in the past, where it’s just a white dude and paint. The cartoon serves as an intermediary and it’s different. I think the experience of being Black and the experience of being South Asian is very different, but I do think Apu is part of a larger legacy that dates back to minstrelsy.
Rand Paul brought you up during the Benghazi hearings, criticizing a 2012 comedy tour you were part of that travelled to India and was sponsored by the U.S. State Department. What did you think when you heard the recent news that he’d been angrily tackled by his Socialist neighbor?
I mean, I don’t want anyone to get hurt, but at the same time… I guess I wish I could have just seen it. A Socialist tackling a Libertarian sounds fascinating.
Hari Kondabolu performs at the Joy Theater on Sunday, December 10. His documentary The Problem With Apu is currently airing on truTV. For more info, visit harikondabolu.com.
Cover Photo TruTV; illustration VICTORIA ALLEN