Comedian Hari Kondabolu on activism and humor ahead of Monday’s Lawrence Arts Center show

It’s only been four years since comedian Hari Kondabolu released his first album, Waiting For 2042, via Kill Rock Stars, but he’d been working toward it for awhile, with appearances on stand-up showcases and late-night talk shows. It was arguably a 2012 on-screen appearance on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, the FX series for which Kondabolu wrote, that sowed the seeds for what would bring the comedian to his greatest notice.

In the Totally Biased appearance, Kondabolu talked about Apu, the Kwik E Mart owner from The Simpsons, critiquing the fact that the convenience store clerk was a racist caricature voiced by “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy doing an impression of my father.” This would plant the seeds for Kondabolu’s documentary, The Problem with Apu, which aired last year on TruTV.

Kondabolu’s refutation of the indignity felt by South Asians at Hank Azaria’s character is but one facet of his comedy, however, and it was with delight that we spoke with him last week by phone about the documentary, his comedy, and the appeal of Lawrence as a comedy destination. He’s at the Lawrence Arts Center tonight. 

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The Pitch: Is your stop in Lawrence your first time in this particular part of the Midwest?

Hari Kondabolu: No, I’ve been to the Midwest a ton of times, and last played Kansas City a couple of years ago. I had never been to Lawrence, and a friend and I went to see a movie in Lawrence — there’s a beautiful movie theater there — and I was like, “Oh, my god. I’m supposed to play here.”

Kansas City’s great, but just the vibe of Lawrence — college town, you know? I’m playing Madison and Bloomington and Ann Arbor soon, and, I’m like, “Holy crap, Lawrence has that feel to it,” so I wanted to do something in Lawrence this time.

Do you find that college towns are particularly receptive?

I don’t know about receptive, but certainly, you have a bunch of kids you would hope read a little bit and know what’s happening in the world, and that helps me out. I mean, Kansas City’s fun and I had a great time in Kansas City the last time, so if I’d done it in Kansas City again, I’d have been fine, but for me, Lawrence is about a familiarity, you know? I kind of wanted that.

It’s been fun to watch comedians respond to the Lawrence Arts Center and Lawrence as a whole over the last few years. Barry Crimmins basically adopted us as a second hometown.

Oh, Barry. Ugh. Yeah. I love Barry. I’m friends with Bobcat [Goldthwait] and it obviously hit him hard. [Crimmins] was somebody I’d heard of for years, and I saw the documentary, and I was like, “Oh, my god.” I’d heard of him, but I’d never seen him around, but you see [Call Me Lucky] and it’s like he was given this second wind, after that documentary came out, and it was much deserved. It’s a really sad way for his story to end, but it’s amazing how he was able to do so much up until the very end.

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I find it very impressive when comedians are able to use their platform for social change, and it seems like that’s been a major part of your work aesthetic.

It’s funny: I don’t write for that purpose. How people use the work is different. It feels like the work I do is useful, and when I say that, I mean that when I see that on a protest sign or as part of a curriculum, I know that work is getting out there and being used for multiple purposes. But, when I write, I don’t write with that intention or write with the goal of social change.

I write with the purpose of, “Is this true to me?” and “Is it funny?” and if it fails those two tests, I don’t put it out there. Those are the key tests. It’s not, “What change will this help make in the world?” I think that there’s enough ego in stand-up comedy, and a thought like that? It can be poisonous.

Plus, I’ve seen enough activist art where the message is righteous, but it just isn’t good. If art is good — if it’s done well, if you play your instrument, or you know how to write, or if you’re innovative and new, then whatever message is in it will be delivered, but if it’s righteous with the message, but it doesn’t have the skill, what was the point?

That seems like that was a lot of the focus on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, which is how I first heard of you.

Totally Biased was very different. Comedy was a big part of it, but if The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were seen as liberal beacons, I feel like we were an activist show. We were very active and aggressive and created a counterpoint.

That’s different from stand-up. Stand-up is a very personal thing and approach, but when you’re being broadcast to so many people on television, the responsibility changes a little bit. And, we also knew that for some people, we were the only thing on air that would cover certain stories. Like, we were three years ahead of our time: not enough where we are appreciated for being the first, but far enough enough that we got canceled.

We talked a lot about transgender issues. We let people speak for themselves. We talked about police brutality. There was a lot of stuff, and we were on it. It came from this place of passion. It wasn’t just, “This is a good story,” it was something we had to talk about. It was different, you know, and it served a different function.

When I saw a taping of the show years back, Myq Kaplan came out as the warm-up comic, and I was like, “Oh, this is definitely setting the tone right up front.”

[laughs] Yeah, Myq was great, man. Emily Heller warmed up for us for a while, too, and she’s wonderful. Yeah, it was painful. That show was really hard to be a part of, because of the intense pressure. We were doing it daily. The weekly was enough pressure, but when we got to daily, it wasn’t going to last, which is a shame because we were doing something no one else was doing.

I wish we’d had a fairer shot, because we were ahead of our time, and I wish we’d had more time to prove that to a bunch of people — to eventually spread into the larger conversation. Look at where we are now. I mean, I’m happy that we have these larger conversations in more mainstream forums, but it would’ve been cool for that show to have existed where more voices were heard because of it.

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So much has come out of that show, in terms of people who were on that show and people who worked on it, but it was also the start of The Problem with Apu.

It’s funny when I think about it: Guy Branum has a show, Aparna [Nancharla] has gone on to be so successful, I’ve think I’ve done all right — it’s just kind of an across-the-board thing where a lot of people who’ve gone on to do a lot have either been a guest or worked on that show. That’s the thing: we had a lot of people on that show who got their first appearances, because no one else was booking them.

Like, we had Issa Rae on before stuff really started to happen, we had Hannibal [Burress]’s first appearance as a guest on a show — it was a really special show, and the people that came out of that, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we were all on the same staff.

And it is cool to think that The Problem with Apu was part of the legacy of what came out of that show. I just did a documentary about Indian spelling bee winners, and I got interviewed in there. I don’t know if they used my clip from Totally Biased, but there’s something hilarious about that. This thing has kind of launched a lot of other things.

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Breaking the Bee, right? I was wondering how you came to be a part of that.

In terms of South Asian comedians talking about spelling bees, I kind of got that corner. I have the control. That clip I did with Totally Biased — that was a popular one, because that was a perspective no one had heard. It wasn’t the fact the fact that these kids were nerds. Oh, no — they were heroes! And, I did see them as heroes. As absurd as the whole thing is, it’s something that we have a stronghold on, and we likely weren’t going to be on TV in either other way. These kids might be our only TV appearances of the year.

You’re frequently referenced as a political comedian, but I feel like you don’t get enough recognition for how much you talk about family. It’s a very sort of personal thing you do, and I appreciate that.

Thank you. I feel like I’ve grown into that. I was very sort of protective of family and personal stuff and also a little afraid to put it out. When people don’t laugh about a joke you did — even if it’s about politics and kind of personal — there’s all sorts of feeling you can have, but when it’s family, there’s an extra level of feelings and defensiveness.

If it’s a personal thing about health or relationships or whatever, it’s also, “Not only don’t you like the joke, and you don’t like me, but I have embarrassed myself.” I held on tight to those things, and recently, I’ve tried to let that out more. I think you hear that on the second album [Mainstream American Comic], and when I go onstage, I’m definitely including more of my personal life, wanting people to know who it is that’s making these observations.

Hari Kondabolu performs at the Lawrence Arts Center on Monday, April 2. Details on that show here.

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