#JFL42 Interviews With... Hari Kondabolu
Photo Credits: Hari's Bandcamp
Hari Kondabolu’s jokes are never cheap. He doesn’t pull any punches when confronting issues of race and discrimination, and his gutsiness makes his jokes all the more hilarious. the newspaper had the chance to have a conversation with him about how he examines politics and race through comedy, and about the importance of representation.
the newspaper: People have described you as a political comedian. How do you think comedy as a medium is particularly suited to socio-political commentary – and what are its limitations?
Hari Kondabolu: I get called a political comedian, but I personally hate the title. I understand it for the purposes of branding, but I feel like it marginalizes the idea that being an active member of society and wanting to create change is somehow outside of the norm. And for me — when I think a thought I’m not thinking, “This is a political thought.” I look at everything under the lens of oppression — race, class, gender, whatever it is — to me it’s observational.
In terms of comedy as a political tool, I think that the strength of comedy is the directness with which you can speak to an audience. You’re given some room to say things that might make people uncomfortable, because there’s the promise of laughter. So that has to be the focus: are you making people laugh? Because if you don’t, you kind of renege on that promise and then people get agitated because nobody wants to be preached to.
That’s also a limitation because jokes work best when people are laughing throughout. My jokes are long; they require patience, but I think you eventually have to get people laughing, and sometimes that means you have to cut the fat. Brevity, generally speaking, is good for comedy, but brevity also removes lots of details.
tn: If you touch on certain topics people might end up laughing uncomfortably. Is the quality of the laughter a concern for you as well?
HK: I think about intent, but I also think about why someone is laughing. To me, all laughs aren’t equal. Is someone being laughed at, or are they understanding the concept and laughing with? I always think about who has power in a particular joke and if I’m going after the person in power.
Let me use this example: if I’m doing jokes about my mom — my mom being an immigrant — and if people are laughing because I’m doing an accent, then I no longer like that joke. That’s not a good joke: that’s people laughing at an accent. However if I take the accent away and people are still laughing, it’s a good joke, and it has a purpose to it.
tn: I actually wanted to ask you about your choice not to use accents in your routines. Some comedians say that they use accents just because they want to accurately represent the people who are close to them – or use accents in order to reclaim the power associated with accents. What is your response to that?
HK: Sure, I understand and respect that.
I don’t do accents well so I can’t accurately represent people. It’s not going to be a good impression, but rather, very caricaturish. Secondly, accents only work if the spirit of the joke is going in the right direction. Is your parent being disempowered?
It’s weird, because I feel like, ultimately, you want to live in a society where you can share the perspectives and cultural aspects of your family and your life, and at the same time, this becomes loaded because it’s one of the few limited representations you have. There’s not enough representations of, let’s say, a marginalized south Asian person, an immigrant, to make it feel like the accent’s worth it to me.
tn: How do you deal with and discuss racial stereotypes in your routines? When you examine stereotypes, how do you strip them of their power?
HK: You have to complicate people – that’s the big thing. There’s this amazing, almost infinite combination of traits and experience a human being can have, so to characterize a whole group – which you really don’t know that much about – is foolish.
tn:In the conversation on representation in the entertainment industry, some people say that there’s a tradeoff between the specificity of a joke and how we can translate that to the mainstream. What is your take on that, and do you think there is actually such a tradeoff?
HK: There’s some truth to that. There are certain jokes I would do for a show intended for a South Asian audience. There are places I will go because we grew up in similar settings, and our parents are immigrants, so we understand the context of these particular jokes. We’re teasing our parents, and we’re talking about our experiences. I’ve been trying to talk more about my family and culture but I end up having to be more careful. These are things that I’m supposed to be celebrating and appreciating, but again, that’s the problem when you have a limited number of representations: these things have the potential to become weaponized.
tn: Could you talk more about the challenges that you face as a person of colour in the standup and entertainment industry?
HK: I think that I’m in the really small percentage of people that have gotten this far, and I acknowledge that. I know that what I talk about doesn’t make everybody happy. I don’t intend my jokes to be for everyone, but I do the best I can to make it relatable. But at the end of the day, my goal is not to make everyone laugh. I do the best I can to be honest with myself. And if you choose to do that, I think that it’s a slower rise, part of which comes from being a person of colour, and part of which comes from having a really strong voice and being willing to shake things up.
Also, there’s still a limited number of roles one can play. Earlier on in my career, acting was something I was very interested in, and it was really difficult because the roles were absolute rubbish. On most shows, the writers’ rooms are almost all white men. Sometimes they call people of colour or women who get hired ‘diversity hires.’ It’s so patronizing and insulting. It’s gotten better but it’s still prevalent. And certainly, if you’re a young performer and you’re doing comedy, if the roles are rubbish, and if the diversity hires are limited, you have a smaller window to succeed.
Again, I want to say this with the asterisk that I think things are improving – that’s undeniable. But are they where they should be? Absolutely not. And it is not fair. It’s just better – it doesn’t mean it’s fair – it’s just better.
tn: Why should people in the general community, not only people who are involved in standup and entertainment, care about issues of representation in the media?
HK: I think that life imitates art and art imitates life. Your view of yourself often gets influenced by what other people think of you and what images you’re exposed to, especially at a younger age. That’s going to restrict how you interact with people: you might play into it, you might avoid those discussions, and you might hide who you are.
There’s a reason why after Ellen DeGeneres came out on her show, more people felt comfortable coming out. Representation has always been very big in influencing people’s opinions on other human beings. You cannot avoid being influenced by it — that’s why it’s important.
And it has an impact on job hiring, and even on something as basic as who do I feel comfortable talking to in a room. Everyone’s going to have their preconceived notions. Do I fear people of colour? Do I fear black men? Do I feel like I have nothing in common with a south Asian woman, so I won’t talk to her?
tn: How has your comedy has changed after Trump was elected?
HK: I’m still talking about a lot of the same stuff. The big difference is that now the president says things so blatantly, so I already have an example that I can use to get into deeper things. A lot of this stuff becomes so relatable because the world is so messed up. It’s ironic that some of my comedy becomes better because of that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.