Hari Kondabolu Once Performed Stand-Up in a Tornado Shelter, and Other Tales

Hari Kondabolu
Hari Kondabolu. Photo by Tawni Bannister

Signing to Kill Rock Stars back in 2014 was a surreal moment for Hari Kondabolu. For one thing, he’s a comedian and they’re an indie rock label. For another, he’s always been a fan. “I loved Elliott Smith and Bikini Kill. It was kind of—‘Really, me?’” he remembers. “It’s still surreal, to be honest with you. The Thermals. I’m listing bands for some reason. It was kind of like, the indie college radio station manager in me freaked out.”

His first record, Waiting for 2042, allowed him to reach a wider audience while also helping Kill Rock Stars establish itself in the comedy world—they’re also working with Kurt Braunholer and Cameron Esposito—and, maybe, get back to its wordy, activist origins. “The first Kill Rock Stars record, I believe, was spoken word,” says Kondabolu, referring to the 1991 split single by Kathleen Hanna and Slim Moon. “That was politicized. That’s in the roots of the place.”

Kondabolu, a touring comedian based in Brooklyn, doesn’t like to be called a political comedian, but it’s fair to say his material is more socially conscious, more charged with satire, than that of his “alt-comedy” peers. His new record Mainstream American Comic, also on Kill Rock Stars, features moments of undeniable political commentary—including some timely election-year stuff—but it’s also a just a straight-up funny-as-fuck comedy record. No matter how pointed his jokes are, they’re always jokes. Stick with them, and you’ll laugh.

“I’ll also say, as a result of being on Kill Rock Stars: Musicians are nicer to me at festivals. Historically, when I share space with bands at music festivals like Bumbershoot or South by Southwest, they do not give a shit if you’re a comic,” he says. Now he’s got a little indie cred, and the bands say ‘hi’ to him backstage. “If anything, it makes musicians be nicer to me and lets me discover who’s a phony.” We spoke with Kondabolu by phone last month, about comedy, vanity, tornados, Apu from the Simpsons, and what it was like to intern for Hillary Clinton.

Okay, first question. When I see that cover of Mainstream American Comic, I think about trying to zip up that jacket over all that chest hair—

[Laughs.] Yes, yes… Was there a question?

There was not a question.

I don’t know how to answer a question that didn’t exist.

Hari Kondabolu
Hari Kondabolu. Photo by Tawni Bannister

So. How did that cover come about?

First of all: vanity. I look good. Two: I don’t find any issue with chest hair. Why don’t we embrace it? It’s beautiful. Because, again: vanity. Three: American Apparel ad. Somewhat iconic. My body shape doesn’t quite fit, but I love it. Four: The whole premise. I’m an American. The total flag thing. We’re going for it. And five: the mainstream part. The idea that I’m a political comic, or that I’m doing some kind of niche thing, or that I’m an Indian comic, is ridiculous. Because the stuff I’m talking about is the experiences that other Americans have, and therefore, it should be mainstreamed. It should be part of a larger discussion. I feel like the album cover does all those things. But again, I think the number one reason is vanity.

Do you consider yourself a vain person, in general?

No, but it’s funny…. For me it took a while to see myself as a very attractive man. I think that’s very sad. I think a lot of that has to do with not being seen as attractive because I have brown skin, have certain features. I feel like that’s changed a lot over time because I think we’re seeing more [diverse] features going into the mainstream, more ideas about what’s beautiful going into the mainstream.

As an adult, I’ve viewed myself much differently. I’m more out of shape than I’ve ever been in my life. I look at myself and my hair, and I’m like, Jesus Christ, this is beautiful, but I’m wasting it. And I think that’s important. I think that’s another reason, from the body image point… Some people will find it funny and some people will be attracted to it and some people are like, ‘Man, you’ve got some balls to do that.’ It’s not like I’m naked but clearly I’m like…

You’re putting yourself out there.

It’s an attempt to do something. And I want people to not be afraid. I feel like we’re having this discussion about diversity, and body image, and what is ‘American.’ I feel like that album cover does all of that. I don’t think I’m vain. I think I’m honest. Which is vain.

Hari Kondabolu
Hari Kondabolu. Photo by Tawni Bannister

It’s also kind of a ‘rock star’ look, and you’re on a rock label.

Yeah, when I was coming up with album covers I was looking at, like, Springsteen’s cover—anything with a flag. As soon as you use a flag in an interesting way, there’s an iconic look to it. There’s also something corny, because you’ve seen it a billion times.

Some comedians look at an album as a way to retire certain material, to nail it and move on. Is that the case here?

Kind of. I don’t have an hour of new stuff yet. I’m working on it. Some of the stuff is done—I’m not going to do it again—and some stuff is slowly getting weaned off. If you’re having a rough show on a Friday night, jokes from way back re-appear because you just need to salvage the set and you pick stuff that you think is short and will work. And when you’re doing a fundraiser and you can’t be too edgy, you’re picking material that you think is going to be easy for a certain audience.

Generally speaking: When I’m doing the art I want to make, with an audience that wants to see me, in a real setting, some of those jokes—I don’t want to hear them again, or say them again. They’ve done what they had to do. Or they’re online or on a record, so, what’s the point?

I was surprised by how up-to-the-minute the album feels. The time to hear these Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump/Bernie Sanders jokes is now.

It’s funny, because I’m not a political comic. I don’t like being called that to begin with, but I especially don’t think I’m like the ‘Let’s Talk about Politicians’ comic. That’s never been my thing. I like talking about bigger issues.

When I thought of [the title] Mainstream American Comic, I also was thinking, ‘If I want to talk about political things, let’s go for the mainstream discussion of it,’ which is the election, because we’re in the middle of it. I wanted to get this record out earlier so some of this stuff felt a little more on point. The jokes I have about Trump and Bernie, that’s fine, but I think they would have been more relevant [and] interesting five or six months ago. And I also think that Trump is so much more interesting than what I have right now. The joke I have is fine—but so much has happened since I wrote that joke and did it onstage.

I guess there’s always more material coming out of that guy?

I didn’t even scratch the surface with him.

Hari Kondabolu
Hari Kondabolu. Photo by Tawni Bannister

I read somewhere you were an intern for Hillary Clinton?

Yeah, in 2003.

Does that mean you would see her? She would be there, walking around the office?

Kind of. She was a celebrity senator, so most people didn’t have access to her or get to be anywhere near her. We got to ask her questions one day and take a picture with her, and that was the extent that most of us had.

Do you think she would recognize you on sight?

No. Absolutely not. No way. There is no way. She mentioned me in a speech once, I remember. Shortly after I interned, she was speaking to an Indian-American group. There’s no video; it was written in the paper. She had mentioned me and another intern from a previous year, in terms of Indian-Americans who worked in her office. I have no idea how she pronounced my name or anything.

Let’s talk about the Simpsons documentary you’re making, The Problem with Apu. First of all is there only one problem with him?

There’s a lot of things which I’m going to explore in the film. The one that is the most surface level, but I think maybe the most visceral, is that voice. It is a very weird voice to hear, especially by today’s standards. It’s not being done ironically, it’s not done to make a point. It is what it is. It’s a caricature on face value. The voice, his position on the show… The Simpsons you can change somewhat, but in some ways you can’t change it. Unless somebody dies. It ends up being a thing that is grandfathered in to our culture as a result. The Simpsons is an institution so certain relics are there.

It’s weird because they have modernized the show. The jokes have changed; certain jokes don’t get made as much. They’ve certainly changed with the times, [but] they’re — in a weird way—kind of stuck with him.

Does this mean you’re openly wishing for Hank Azaria’s death?

Absolutely not. I would like to speak to him, more than anything. Not as an attack. I want to actually ask him thoughtful questions about like, ‘How does a character like this get made?’ And ‘What was the history of it?’ To me it’s such a curiosity.

I also think he’s a brilliant actor, and a brilliant voice actor. And actors are in this weird position where you take roles to work, and I get that. But it’s still so strange to me. I’d love to chat with him about it.

I wonder if there was an epiphany moment for Hank Azaria, maybe a few years in, where he was like, ‘Oh wait, what am I doing?’

And that’s one of the things I’m, obviously, thinking about. I just really want to know: What does it feel like? Does it feel weird? Because also, when a character exists for so long, he or she or they become a member of the family in a weird way. A character takes on its on life. You’ve seen them so much. And it’s almost like, for a lot of people, Apu is just a character that’s part of their Simpsons life. They don’t even think about it.

Hari Kondabolu
Hari Kondabolu. Photo by Tawni Bannister

Can you imagine Apu finding out that he’s a stereotype?

Well, they did an episode this last season where they had my friend Utkarsh Ambudkar play Apu’s Indian-American nephew who calls his uncle a stereotype, and I thought that was great. I thought that was a step.

Can you just tell me about the time your show was interrupted by a tornado warning?

[Laughing] Oh, God. That was in—I think it was in St. Louis, at Wash U. And there were two types of tornado things. There was a warning, and there was another one; an ‘alert’ or something. The first bell was going off and the sky was changing. I knew that was something was going to happen and I was kind of freaked out. But then people were just like, ‘Yeah, that’s just the tornado alert, or tornado warning. Not a big deal. It happens all the time.’ And I’m on stage and I’m joking about how we’re going to die and everyone’s laughing because it’s just that bell they hear all the time. It’s just crazy, by the way, that they hear a bell that signifies a chance that there might be a tornado. And I’m joking about it, and all of a sudden there’s another bell and it sounds a little different.

And I was joking about that, like, ‘Oh, does that mean the tornado’s coming?’ And the advisor of the group says, ‘Yes. We need to leave now.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my God. This is a thing that’s happening.’ So all of us went downstairs into the basement. And it just so happens that in their basement they had a black box theater, which is so bizarre. So while this tornado was happening, we decided I was going to do the show in the basement without a mic. And I just was talking to kids in a basement of the black box theater about the tornado. I did a lot of things on that, most of the hour. It was great. It was fantastic and scary. I don’t assume that’s what going to get me at the end. Comics have died in a wide range of ways and it’s not usually tornados.

Tornados aren’t on our mental list of fears here on the east coast.

No. They feel like bizarre movie things. You know, Wizard of Oz or whatever. But no, this is people’s regular life. They’ve got to deal with that possibility, which is scary as fuck.

I interviewed Paul F. Tompkins, recently and he talked how when you’re up on stage—yeah you’re a comedian, but you’re the one with the microphone, so you’re the one in charge. Your job is to reassure people that everything’s going to be okay, whether it’s a heckler or a heart attack or whatever. Do you feel that? Were you a reassuring presence during the tornado?

I was not a reassuring presence. I freaked the fuck out. If anything, the audience was reassuring me. They were used to this kind of shit. For me, I was like, ‘This is not worth whatever I’m getting paid. This is ridiculous.’ I was not a reassuring presence. Getting heckled I can handle; I can get the audience back and let them know the show’s still going if you need to throw somebody out for whatever reason. A tornado? That’s not anywhere close to my job description.

I was happy to hear you and W. Kamau Bell are starting the “Politically Re-Active” podcast together.

I’m really excited. Kamau is one of my best friends. When First Look [Media] contacted us and said, ‘Do you guys want to do a podcast together?’ We were like, ‘Man, we should be talking to each other on the phone every week anyway.’ It’s something we wanted to do. We always end up taking too long to call each other back, because our lives are busy. This forces us to hang out every week, and that sounds great. He’s in Berkley and I’m in New York but we’ve made it work so far. It’s been great. It’s certainly informational, it’s thoughtful; but at the same time it’s two comics who are good friends goofing around.

There’s something special when you two get together. I’m thinking, of course, of Totally Biased (the now sadly defunct FX show), but also couple episodes of Bell’s long-running podcast Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period when you guest starred —

It’s amazing, what they’ve done with that podcast. Because it could just be a silly pop culture thing, but it’s not. They’ve given it a great deal of depth while still having the pop culture aspect.

That’s what I like about your work, too. It makes me think and it makes me laugh.

That’s the thing. This has to be about laughter; that’s what this is about. We chose this profession for that reason. It doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about things that effect you and other people. It just means that there is a bottom line and that’s what makes comedy amazing but it’s also what makes it restrictive. We want one specific response out of people… That is an incredible challenge and it’s demanding on both the performer and the audience. That’s what also makes it so fucking magical. I remind myself that. That’s what this is about. Make sure it always goes there.

—Patrick Rapa

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