Q&A: Hari Kondabolu talks Trump, Apu, and the lines his comedy won’t cross

He also told us that his mom checks his Twitter every day.

September 22, 2017

Earlier this year, VICE called Hari Kondabolu the perfect comedian for Trump’s America. Kondabolu — who has a Masters degree in human rights and previous experience working with immigrant groups — has earned a reputation for being very open about discussing political topics in his comedy.

Kondabolu’s second comedy album, Mainstream American Comic, debuted #1 on the iTunes US comedy charts last year. He also co-hosts the podcast  Politically Re-Active with long-time friend and comedian W. Kamau Bell. Kondabolu will be performing at JFL42 in Toronto on September 26th and 27th (ticket information here). Below is a Q&A with Kondabolu conducted earlier this week about unpacking The Simpson’s Apu, which lines his comedy won’t cross, and why Donald Trump’s American will never be normal.

Do you remember your first set after Donald Trump was elected?

I was in Bloomington, Indiana, and people were so depressed. I could just say exactly what I was feeling regardless of whether I had a great joke. People just wanted to have some relief. It almost felt like group therapy, except it was at a comedy show. The shows [immediately after Trump was elected] were wonderful because a lot of us were like “how did this happen?” It was cathartic. Everybody was in pain, and it was good to get it out in a couple of different cities.

It’s funny because Bloomington is super liberal, but at the same time, Indiana voted trump, so, with Mike Pence as their governor too, there was this sense of guilt, like “man, we could have nipped this in the butt.” But yeah, those shows were strange. We didn’t know how bad it was going to get, and we still don’t. Every day it seems to get a little stranger.

As things get stranger and it piles on, does doing comedy become even more cathartic for you now?

Yeah, absolutely. Comedy has always been cathartic for me. It makes me feel less crazy. It makes me feel like other people relate to what I’m saying, and I’m not just experiencing certain things. That’s exciting, man. It’s really reaffirming. I think the audience feels that and I feel it off them. I appreciate being a comedian now more than ever before.

You’ve always tackled a lot of political topics in your comedy. Is there a different approach to coming up with that material or talking about these things now that we’re in this political climate?

In some strange ways, it’s made it easier to talk about them, because I feel like people have a tendency to put off political thinking until things get really bad. Then all of a sudden, we have to do something about it, now that everything is on fire. Before, it was just a little gasoline, and you waited for the fire. Now I don’t need to explain it to people. You guys smell the gasoline. There’s a fire, and Trump is the fire, and everyday he says or does anything, you see that fire.

So I just need to talk about the fire now. That makes it easier. I’m one step closer to the joke. I’m one step closer to the punchline. I don’t need to explain why this is bad, like “do you know racism exists?” Well, here’s the President. So yeah, it’s made my job easier, while making everyone’s life harder.

Every day, you send out a tweet reminding people that the Trump presidency is not normal (and normal wasn’t that great either). Why is that so important to you?

It’s a reminder for me, so we don’t forget that this is happening. Everyday we are given something new, and none of this is the way it’s supposed to be. Some of the awful things would have still happened anyways without Trump, except they would have happened behind closed doors. So, we’re seeing some of the backdoor dealings up front. Trump doesn’t really hide his cards, that’s why I also say normal isn’t great either.

Let’s not pretend this stuff is brand new. The difference is, it’s so much more blunt and blatant, and there’s a lack of civility. I think civility matters. It empowers people to hate their neighbours, to commit crimes against them. There’s an increase in hate crimes. I read a story about a student trying to report one of his classmates for being undocumented. There’s just a cruelty. That is the result of this, and it’s not to say we didn’t have these things before, but I think it has elevated it.

Are there any topics you won’t tackle in your comedy?

There’s a lot of topics. If I find a way to do it well, I will try to tackle it. Rape is a thing I don’t joke about because I don’t have a perspective or an experience that is strong enough to make it a reasonable thing to talk about. I talk about it a little bit in terms of the actual perpetrators getting away with it, and the excuses people make, and the shaming they do of people who have been assaulted. I talk about it that way.

It’s really hard. I know my position as a man, and as someone who hasn’t experienced those things. I want to be honest. I don’t want to exploit someone else’s pain or experiences. I think whatever the topic is, it is about how authentic you are, how aware you are of the context you’re saying things with. The audience knows. They might not care, some of them will laugh regardless, but they know.

Given your background, a graduate degree in human rights, having worked with minorities and immigrant groups, do you feel a responsibility to talk about political issues in your comedy?

No. If I had that sense of responsibility, I wouldn’t be doing comedy because I certainly have a background to do other things. I do comedy because I like comedy, and I talk about what I talk about because I obsessively think about them. It’s not like I wake up in the morning and look at the newspapers for more political jokes. These are things I think about deeply. These are things that made me upset. Just like when I was a kid, comedy was always a relief to me, it always felt empowering. I feel the same way now. I can take the pain and recycle it into something positive. It’s not with the intention of creating change. I don’t feel a responsibility to have to represent all these people in the world, or to represent all these issues.

I do feel like I have a responsibility to be honest about what I feel and what I think. This is part of my ethos, and what I put on myself, I don’t want to cause anymore harm. That’s a hard thing to do. I think in comedy, especially compared to a lot of other art forms, there’s a bit of a danger, because there’s a rawness and realness to it. There’s a directness. We edit live on stage. There’s a period of raw energy where we’re up there trying to figure things out. I do the best I can to think about the impact of the words I’m using and if that’s the impact I want. That’s the responsibility I carry in terms of what I choose to talk about. But there’s no agenda, no list of things I feel like I need to talk about.

Were you surprised that Hollywood was so willing to give someone like Sean Spicer a chance with his cameo appearance at the Emmys?

Yes and no. I was surprised only because this isn’t a year or two later, which would still be annoying. But it reminded me of when Saturday Night Live did all the Sean Spicer jokes. They did it because it was good and it was absurd. Now, when you have him on the Emmys, it’s the same logic: this will be funny. I feel like I get the idea that where they think it’s not a political show, and they are doing this because it’s funny and absurd.

But to me, it feels a little irresponsible. Are we going to immediately forget all the stuff that he tried to cover up and all the things he said and didn’t say? I feel like entertainment is one thing, and I understand it. But when entertainment and politics mix the way they have now, for example, The Daily Show is great because we’re learning about the world, but also the guy who had a reality show is our president. So, obviously, media and entertainment have a huge impact on how we view people. It’s horrifying. I was upset to see it. I was very disappointed. He’s not a pop culture figure. He worked for the Trump administration, and he was certainly part of this machine that is doing such terrible things. He should not be all of a sudden given a platform and be seen as a silly figure who gets to hobnob with famous people and celebrities who normalize him.

Switching gears, is there an Indian-American more disappointing to you than Bobby Jindal?

[laughs] I’m sure there are. He’s just public. When I make fun of Bobby Jindal, some of it is making fun of him, making fun of his political point of view and how he carries himself. The way he talks about immigrants is upsetting. I find him to be hypocritical. He’s a stand-in for a certain kind of subservient South Asian figure that’s always existed in the history of South Asia and the diaspora. There’s always people who would bow down to power to get their little piece, and I think he fits that mold. If this was colonial times, I know what side he’d be on and it’s not on mine.

You’ve talked about your mom asking you to delete a few of your #BobbyJindalSoWhite tweets. How often is she checking your tweets?

She reads my tweets every day now, and I hate that. But it is what it is. She has every right. She has access to the Internet. It’s cool. I like the fact my mom is more connected now than she was in the past. Part of me does think that my mom is above this, and all this stuff is so rubbish, and I don’t want her to get mixed up in it. She doesn’t have a Facebook account, which I admire to no end, because, like, thank God, you’re not in the system in that way. But yeah, I’m aware she’s going to read it. It doesn’t prevent me from writing things. She knows what I do.

I’ve seen the trailer for “The Problem with Apu.” What was the experience like putting the documentary together?

I was a lot of feelings. I am excited we made this documentary. It was amazing and somewhat cathartic to meet with so many other South Asians, to have so many notable names in a room and talk to them about their experiences with representation. It was weird, too, because it felt like a get together I only got to go to because I interviewed everyone separately.

At the same time, it was amazing. We put a lot of heart and energy into it, and certainly there are going to be things I wish I did better, and certain things I wish we had more footage of, but at the end of the day, I’m proud of it. We put in a lot to make the best thing possible for a mainstream piece of art, which it is because it will be on TruTV. I pushed a few boundaries which I love.

How old were you when you found out Apu was voiced by Hank Azaria?

In my high school years. I mean, I knew Hank Azaria did some of the work. I remember seeing this interview when I was younger where Hank does the Apu voice, and it was just a shock, like oh my god, it’s a white dude doing a voice in front of a mostly white audience. That’s what the cartoon is essentially, we just don’t hear the laughs when we watch the show. When you actually hear the audience laugh when he does the accent, it’s horrifying. There’s a long history of this. This wasn’t a new phenomenon. This is the history of representation in America, like, how do you clown the person with less power for a joke?

Did it ruin your experience of watching The Simpsons?

It definitely affected it. It’s not to say I didn’t find Apu funny. That’s not the issue. But just because something is funny doesn’t mean it’s good. In fact, it becomes more dangerous when it’s funny. If something is done well, you almost pass on it and don’t question it. It’s funny though. I still loved the show. It’s still my favourite show. It still influenced me more than anything on television. It’s still a big deal to me. It was a little weird doing this documentary because I was such a fan. The idea of critiquing something so publicly is hard. But if you love something, that’s what people do. You want it to be better. That’s why people critique their country. Some people say that’s not patriotic. I think that’s patriotic. You critique the country because you expect it to be better. I feel the same about The Simpsons. It was a smart and cutting show, a show that influenced a whole generation of writers and comedians. The expectation should be higher.

Finally, there’s a bit from your first comedy album “Waiting for 2042” where you talked about your American liberal coward friends always wanting to move to Canada. Have any of them moved there yet?

[laughs] Not that I know of. Everyone threatens to do it whenever things get hard, while ignoring, like, you know messed up stuff happens in Canada too, right? It wasn’t like it was a barren land that people occupied. There’s a history of colonialism there too. It’s not like there’s no money involved in political decisions there. Justin Trudeau is incredibly suave and put together and he says the right things, but you don’t think he’s doing some underhanded stuff behind the scenes? That’s just how politics work. It’s just more polite in Canada, maybe.

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