"My standup isn't for everyone," admits Hari Kondabolu during the first few minutes of his special Warn Your Relatives before concluding, "That's why it's good."
The New York-based comedian, writer and podcaster may have singular sensibilities, but if the sell-out crowds at Kondabolu's last Comedy Works engagement are any indication, legions of comedy nerds agree with his assessment. A former writer and correspondent on the short-lived yet profoundly influential Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, Kondabolu subsequently appeared on Conan, Jimmy Kimmel Live and John Oliver’s NY Stand-Up Show; he also recorded two albums, along with the aforementioned special. And recently, Kondabolu made a foray into documentary filmmaking with The Problem With Apu, sparking an overdue cultural conversation about ethnic stereotypes and accurate representation.
In advance of Kondabolu's headlining gig at Comedy Works Downtown from May 23 through May 25, Westword caught up with the comedian mid-tour to discuss podcasting with his brother, working with Bobcat Goldthwait, and contending with death threats.
Westword: How would you characterize the hour you’re touring with now?
Hari Kondabolu: It's a significantly more personal hour. I feel like historically, I've talked about who I am through the things that I care about. People would decode my experience based off of my sharp views of the world. For this hour, I wanted to share more. I did that a little bit on my Netflix special, but I want to get even more personal about who I am and why I am the way that I am. Whether that's through talking about my family, or depression, or dating or whatever else, I want people to get a fuller version of me.
Your special was directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. What are the advantages of having a fellow comic behind the camera?
I think part of it — especially if it's a comic of Bobcat's stature — is that he hasn't just directed specials, he's starred in his own. He knows the mentality of a comedian, he knows the stresses. He knows how to prepare. He understands why it's important to get the details right. He knows what questions to ask, like "What would I want if this were my special?" It's great if you have a joke you're trying to fix, because he's also a writer and comic who can give you ideas. So, yeah, he's kind of the full package. So many comedy specials are directed by people who figure, "Oh, it's just directing a live event." And it's not just a live event. There are so many comedy clichés that you want to avoid.
Sure: big cranes, audience reaction shots.
He doesn't do audience reactions. The only time he cuts to the crowd is when I point out something, like when I high-five the Sikh guy in the audience. The shots make sense because they're part of the story. Not because we need fill-in, or not because we wanted to do that terrible thing that too many people still do where it's like "I just told a joke about Asians, so give me a shot of an Asian dude laughing."
Yeah, that way you know it's okay: "See? He's laughing!"
Yeah. There wasn't any of that kind of manipulation, which is what I love about the special. He let the work and my performance tell the story.
I always find those cuts a little distracting. I wonder, "Is that laugh for this joke, or was it edited in from a stronger punchline?"
It's aggravating, and what I love about this special, again, is the honesty in it. But you do shoot two shows and mix and match the best parts. A special isn't necessarily supposed to be an accurate document. The accurate document is the live show; the special is supposed to represent the best of a particular era of your material. But if you're a good comic, the show is going to be a little different every time. A special is more than just advertising for your live shows; it's also an artistic statement of its own. I don't just want to sell tickets, I want to be part of a larger conversation. I love the fact that this special, as well as the documentary I made [The Problem With Apu] are getting shown in high school and college classes, and it's having this impact outside of standup. That certainly wasn't my intention, but it's a source of pride for me.
In recent years, lines from your jokes have appeared on activists’ signs at protests. What’s your response to that? Because on the one hand you’ve clearly made a salient point, but on the other hand, a picket sign has a way of sanding the edges off a joke, you know? Does a joke lose something when it becomes a slogan?
Not really. I like the signs! And at the end of the day, I think the best jokes have an anthemic quality about them. The jokes you remember have a bigger truth. Think about every Chris Rock joke you remember to this day: It's quotable because it has meaning and impact in addition to being funny. So when I see the signs, I know that joke resonated on a deeper level. Plus, I don't need the sign to be funny; I'll be funny on stage. If I told the joke on stage and got righteous applause instead of laughter, then I would be disappointed.
A while ago you were in the U.K. performing an act you were calling the “American Hour.” Can you explain that name for readers who don’t get the difference between British and American standup specials?
Sure, sure. I called it that because when Americans perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, their hours are kind of a hodgepodge of topics and ideas. So British comics call them "American hours" sort of derisively, because their shows usually have sort of an arc, like what we'd call a one-man-show. It has jokes, but there's also a story that's going somewhere. That's the expectation for an Edinburgh hour, so when someone just shows up and essentially does their club act, they call it an American hour. The name was just sort of me owning it, like I don't care if this fits your system or not. I don't live here. Here you go.
Is that similar to the material you're working on now?
Some of it. There are certainly things from that period that people are going to here, but I have also written so much else since then. That was in December.
You’ve talked about The Problem With Apu in nearly every interview and I don’t want to rehash too much of that, but some of the backlash has been quite alarming. Can you describe some of the more unhinged responses you’ve received in the aftermath of its release?
The death threats certainly were surprising, you know? We had to beef up security at shows. It's kinda stopped at this point, but it was pretty bad for a minute there. Like, really? I have to be afraid because I made a movie about a cartoon — that most people didn't even watch? The majority of the people who are angry haven't even seen the movie, and I know that because the hate is global and the movie only aired in a couple of countries. It's only available in the U.S., Australia and I think maybe Denmark or Norway. It's very typical of the Internet. People already assume that they know what something is, especially if it fits their narrative about political correctness killing fun, or whatever. So it feeds into that anger, and as a result, you have people who will say or do extreme things to try and frighten you.
I'm no stranger to angry comments from people who didn't read the article, but death threats are an entirely different level.
Sure. I mean, they call it "click bait," but it's almost worse if you don't click, because then all you have is the headline.
Do you and W. Kamau Bell have plans to do a third season of Politically Reactive?
No. The podcast was so good because we put so many hours of work into it, but it really burned us out. Especially with all the other projects we have going on, it wasn't as fun as it used to be. What really drove the show was the ability to reach so many people and have an impact, and also the fact that Kamau and I are good friends and the show let us hang out once a week. But the amount of work was brutal. We just couldn't sustain it. There was some talk of bringing it back for the 2020 election, but I don't really see that happening.
Do you get sick of talking about politics?
Yes and no. Yes, because it's so awful; the world is just so terrible. But no, because we got to talk to experts, and people with enough knowledge to give you hope sometimes, like "Maybe there is a way out of this." Being armed with knowledge and being able to look at things from a new angle generally makes me feel better. There's historical precedent. There are possibilities. There's a way this can be solved. So in that way, I do miss doing the show. I got to learn with the listeners.
You recently started recording a podcast [The Kondabolu Brothers] with your brother Ashok, whom I’ll always think of as Dapwell from Das Racist....
What’s it like to collaborate with a family member, and which episode would you recommend first for new listeners?
Honestly, I would start with the first episode, where — if I remember correctly — my brother goes off on a brilliant rant about why he's against therapy that's incredibly funny. The other one I would recommend is the last episode, which is a two-part interview with our mother, who pretty much just insults both of us in front of a couple hundred people.
It seems like she's the secret star of a lot of your act.
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Always. She's very funny. She's the reason my brother and I have such dark and acerbic senses of humor. It's a really fun show, and I'm hoping to come back for a second season. The first season was a blast, although I will say, doing it live was hard. I thought it would be easier, but doing a show live has much higher expectations. If it's just us in a room, it doesn't matter if people are laughing or not — it's just the two of you. There's much more pressure with an audience.
You’re the older sibling; does that mean you have veto power?
No, I think Ashok trusts me enough to make certain calls. I do most of the editing with the editor. His strength has always been the actual show. I never know what he's going to say. I offer a certain consistency and ability to maintain some kind of order, and my brother is really the star in a lot of ways. When he gets unhinged and goes on a rant, that's what people want to see.
Hari Kondabolu, Thursday, May 23, through Saturday, May 25, Comedy Works, 1226 15th Street, $18-$26, comedyworks.com.