An accomplished TV writer and former correspondent on the unfortunately canceled Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, Hari Kondabolu has emerged as one of the sharpest political commentators in comedy – even if it's a label that bums him out.
As a standup, Kondabolu has performed on such tastemaking shows as Conan, John Oliver's New York Standup Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and his own Comedy Central Presents half-hour special. Over the course of two albums, 2014's Waiting for 2042 and 2016's Mainstream American Comic, Kondabolu established the combination of incisive political banter, elegant joke writing and unique perspective that's won him fans all over the world.
Fittingly called "The Best Political Comedian You Don't Know Yet" in a Wired profile, Kondabolu did an internship with then-Senator Hillary Clinton and time as an immigrant-rights organizer for OneAmerica in his pre-comedy years. He can also be heard along with his former boss, W. Kamau Bell, on the Politically Re-Active podcast, which arrived at a perfect sociological moment and continues to soothe its frightened listeners with a balance of quick wit and informed discourse.
Swinging through Denver this week for a headlining engagement at the downtown Comedy Works, Kondabolu spoke with Westword about the pitfalls of the "political comedian" label, his upcoming documentary, The Problem With Apu, and British comedian Stewart Lee.
Westword: You just released New Material Night: Volume One on Bandcamp; why did you decide to release these jokes in their infancy, and do you have plans to follow up with a volume two?
Hari Kondabolu: Well, I think one of the reasons I put it out is because there's always that gap between albums. I'm not somebody that produces one every year. I wanted something to fill that gap, because people really loved the last two records. So I wanted to put something out there that was a bit different, because I wasn't ready for a full third album yet. It was still being developed. And there was this show I did in San Francisco that I kept listening to over and over again, even though it was just a new material night, which is a show I've done regularly in Seattle for years, but this is actually the only one I did in San Francisco. For some reason, I just kept listening to that set on my phone, like, "This is really interesting." Which is funny, because sometimes you have these incredible shows and you wish they would have been recorded. Like, "Ah, no one else will ever hear that. It lived and died in that moment." But I had this recorded on my phone, and I kept thinking, "Would it be that awful to release this? It's not a proper album; it's me developing material. You get to see the process of a comedian working stuff out. At the same time, there's something about the lo-fi nature of it that's appropriate. With a proper album, there's edits. There's a difference between a rough draft created with raw passion and a carefully edited selection of essays. You're getting the actual feel of being in the room from a phone recording. It's a raw and unpolished performance, and the recording kind of echoes that. It felt like a fun project, and none of these jokes are going to make it anywhere else. Some of them have bits and pieces in the second record, and some of them have bits and pieces in the stuff I'm working on now, but for the most part, they're done. I'm not going to be using them, they fit that time, and they were jokes from between albums. I'd recorded the first album, and I was developing stuff for the second album, but I was in that place of starting from scratch.
I think anybody who's wonky enough to seek out the album is generally going to want that inside look at the process. There are graduate level comedy nerds who love this sort of thing.
[Laughs.] That's who it's for, and I think the album sales reflect that, to be perfectly honest. I didn't heavily promote it, so the fact that it debuted, I think, as number two on the Billboard chart for comedy albums was shocking to me, because I did no press for it. But it was also kind of embarrassing, because the highest my last album ever got was number two, and it's like, "Man, that's a proper recording that took forever."
Not to mention the support of a record label.
Yeah! And then this thing I put out on my phone got the same ranking. It was a very short-term listing, but it was still nice to know people were into it. It's certainly something I'd like to do again if it makes sense to do it. I need a listenable recording with material that I'm certainly not going to use again. Maybe I'll take a bunch of different recordings and piecemeal them together so people can see different jokes in different forums. There are shows where I've done bits that were so completely bizarre, funny experiments and complete failures, or me interacting with the audience. There are so many moments that just cannot be scripted. So I have thought about it, but probably not yet. I'd like to release another proper thing or two before I do another one.
Do you have a progress update on The Problem With Apu, the documentary you're working on for TruTV about the character from The Simpsons?
Sure. It should be out later this year on TruTV. They produced it, and we've finished all the edits, so it's just a matter of picking a date and getting it out there. It's good! It's funny, because on the one hand, I know you're thinking, "Of course he'd say it's good," but on the other hand, I've seen it over and over, and I'm my toughest critic. But I really do think that it's accessible, it's smart and it's funny. Which is what The Simpsons is. Which is what I was hoping for: If you're going to criticize The Simpsons, it has to be smart and funny. It has to be; otherwise, you've failed. I can't wait to see what people have to say about how it makes them feel. I'm sure reactions will be mixed. The Simpsons is an institution, and I don't think there's ever been such a public criticism of the show or the character before this.
I feel like a lot of people saw The Simpsons when they were so young that it's still in that pre-critical thinking stage, that it takes someone else bringing it up to realize how problematic it is to have a white guy doing that voice.
It depends how young you were. I was like nine or ten when it came out, so that's certainly true for me. But I talk to Kamau, who's older than me; he was already doing comedy when The Simpsons was in its heyday. Comics would talk about it in the greenroom and watch it together. It wasn't just something for kids; it was prime time network TV. I think for a lot of people, a white guy doing an Indian voice was just status quo. It was a comedy trope that's endured for a while: the immigrant character who doesn't know anything, or he's figuring out the country as he goes along. But it's always one-dimensional. Apu is actually one of the better examples, to be perfectly honest with you, because The Simpsons has good writers. But at the end of the day, perpetuating that trope doesn't do justice in such a brilliant cartoon. They do the best they can with Apu's limitations, and it's interesting to watch, but it still doesn't make sense.
Did you ever manage to get Hank Azaria to weigh in on this, or is he a conspicuous absence from the documentary?
I can't tell you that! That's why people want to watch: to see what happens. So it's part of the secret of the film.
The Politically Re-Active podcast, which you co-host with W. Kamau Bell, whom you mentioned earlier, arrived at an ideal cultural moment. How do you feel about the listeners’ response to the podcast?
I mean, first of all, I wish it didn't arrive at an ideal cultural moment. When we first started, we were covering an interesting election that we both saw as essentially a coronation of the first female president. I assumed that's what was going to happen and that this would be an interesting lead-up to that. And boy, did things turn out differently. So the podcast went from an interesting experiment; we were thinking maybe we'd just do the one season covering this interesting time period to something that a lot of people loved and wanted back. That was not our expectation. I think Kamau has a better sense of these things than I do, because I don't really listen to podcasts – which is a strange thing for a podcaster to say. But Kamau was telling me, "I have a feeling people are going to be glued to this. I think what we do is special." And I was like, "I don't know. There so many podcasts already." Luckily, Kamau was right, and it became a whole thing.
It's nice to know that we provide a lot people with relief; it's nice to know that we can kind of educate so many people. Students listen to this podcast. We're hitting a broader range of people you'd expect because it's funny, you know? If it's not funny, then it won't work. It also lets us do something that standup doesn't. At least for me, I want my stuff to be funny, and anything educational is there to help get to the funny. The objective is to make the people in front of me laugh. I don't need to worry about that so much with the podcast, because I know that Kamau and I will be funny, because we're always funny with each other. We've been friends a long time, and we have good chemistry. And the job we have to do is present the material in an interesting way so that everyone can be on board. Not necessarily agree, but understand the issues enough so that we can all have a conversation about it. It's been really interesting, fun and shocking. We certainly didn't expect all this.
Do you ever feel like being branded as a “political comedian” is misleading or even reductive? From what I’ve seen, your material does often have insightful sociological commentary, but it’s always in service of the joke itself. You seem like you want to wrench laughs out of people rather than get that sort of polite clapter.
Yeah, and I feel like that's something that gets lost in a lot of these profiles, which is frustrating. I get it from a branding perspective: If someone sees the word "political," they have an idea what that means that either repels them or brings them in. It's the same thing when the word "dirty" precedes comedy. That's how it works, and I get that. I'm not a classical, like, "opens up a newspaper on stage" sort of political comic. I talk about things that affect people, that affect me enough that I feel like I have to write something about it. To me, it seems more observational.
I think being reduced to "political commentary" totally ignores the craft of writing a joke. As a comic, that's what bums me out the most. Even the people who like my stuff always talk about how it makes them feel good that someone is bringing these issues up, and I can't help but feel like "but the jokes are well-written, also!"
I put a lot of time into how I hide a punchline. And I talk about lots of things. I have a joke about Andy Warhol and abstract art — it took me forever to write — and no one ever brings that up! I have a Weezer joke that's six minutes long! I love to play with structure, and that seems to be overshadowed by some of the subject matter. My favorite comic is Stewart Lee; he's a British comic, and he's the master of that.
It's interesting that you brought up Stewart Lee. I'm a huge fan as well.
Oh, he's incredible.
I did want to ask if you were first exposed to him before or after you started doing standup. I have a theory that you need to be totally steeped in comedy to fully appreciate how brilliant he is.
I think you're right. It was definitely after. I'd been doing comedy for about eight or nine years at that point, basically from high school onward. And I was living in the U.K. at that point; I was getting a master's degree. And a friend told me that based on the stuff he'd seen me do that I might like Stewart Lee. So I watched a few clips, and I was just mesmerized, just absolutely on the floor. And then you realize once you watch a whole special that watching his bits piecemeal doesn't even begin to do them justice. You have to watch the full hour; it's not meant for viral clips. There are a few of them circulating around. That "Political Correctness" bit is brilliant, but really, everything he does is meant to be seen in its entirety. There's a lot of courage in the silence. There's intentional bombing, because he knows where he's ultimately going to go. For you to be able to appreciate that, you have to know how comedy works. You have to know the tropes. You have to have witnessed success and failure, and you have to trust the artist. I think he even talks about it in his book: for people who don't see what he's up to, he looks like a man who is just abjectly failing. But he's not failing! He's putting himself into a position where he has to [dig] himself out of a hole, intentionally. That's part of the trick! And I've definitely learned from that.
I like creating discomfort and then finding a way to laugh out of that discomfort. And what's more uncomfortable than a comedian bombing on stage? That's an awful experience. Everyone feels awkward and strange. You feel bad for the guy, but you're also angry because you're losing your money, and Stewart Lee takes audiences there and then somehow climbs out of it. I'm sure it takes the right audience and enough years spent working your skills that you can trust yourself, but it's still so amazing. And I do think you're right. You have to take Standup 101 before you get it; it's almost like he's maste's-level. Which I realize maybe upsets people and makes it feel like exclusive or elitist, and I get that. It might not be for everybody, but I think you can appreciate a clown, you can appreciate a good dick joke, and appreciate Stewart Lee at the same time.
Absolutely. And I imagine there's plenty of crossover between Stewart Lee fans and the type of person who'd seek out New Material Night, just to put a neat little bow on the end of the interview.
That's funny, man, because even that was inspired by Stewart Lee. It's similar to the way he works out an hour before Edinburgh. He also used to do these things called "Scratch Nights" in order to develop Jerry Springer, The Opera. So he would bring material to work on there, and I just thought about how brilliant it is to have a room where the audience understands that this is new material. It's a solo open mic where you're workshopping stuff. You're starting from scratch. I even called them "Scratch Nights" for a while in Seattle. It's something that people entering understand from the get-go. It might be a rocky road, but it's not about an end product at the end of an hour; it's for an end product that won't be ready until a year or two from now. It allows the audience to invest. So, yeah, so much of my creative process has been transformed because I've been so inspired by what Stewart Lee does. It's probably why I mention him in every interview, which is probably weird for him. I've had friends tell me he's aware of it.
You’re a New York native, but you started comedy in Seattle. Do you think there’s a benefit to starting in a comparatively small scene?
I think if you are able to, you should absolutely start out in a smaller scene. The scene has to have certain things, though. Like Seattle now isn't what Seattle was when I lived there. It doesn't have as many rooms that draw people. Back then, there were enough rooms where you could consistently do free shows with an audience. You need that; you need a supportive scene where everyone's working together to develop. At the time, we had a strong alt-weekly, and now the whole idea of alt-weeklies has changed because of the Internet, but we had all those things in place, making the scene a good place to create. But there's much less of it now.
It almost feels like Portland has that scene now more than Seattle does, if you're talking about the Pacific Northwest. And it kills me to say that, by the way. But Portland has a great club. They have a bunch of young people who go out to shows. They have the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, which is basically comedian summer camp. They're becoming a city of Stewart Lee fans, essentially. They get the game now; they understand that there's all sorts of different types of comedy.
I feel like Denver's getting to where we're in a similar place.
Absolutely. When you're a young comic somewhere they have all those things in place, that's the most fertile ground you're going to get. That gives you achievable goals: "I want to host or feature at this club; I want to build a local following." And on a smaller level, the open mics are full. You can't get that in New York.
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I'll put it to you this way: When I started in New York, I already had two TV credits, I'd been to the HBO Comedy Festival, and I had a manager. But for that first year in New York, I was mainly working in the basement of a tea lounge in Chinatown in front of eight people. I kept thinking, "I have TV credits. This doesn't make sense. Why can't I get onto better shows?" Then I realized that it's not about credits. You have to earn it from scratch. And when you're earning it from scratch in New York, there's a lot more people that you have to get through. There's a lot more people to impress. There are so many little scenes within the big scene, while smaller cities don't have as much of that club/alt split. It's basically just one scene where everyone has to work together, and there's nothing to compete for other than stage time. You're not competing for TV; there's no executives around. You're just making art, and everything you can do to make the scene better will make you better, too. That's the spirit to start with, and I know that Denver obviously has all those qualities.
I think Adam [Cayton-Holland], Ben [Roy] and Andrew [Orvedahl] have done a great job being an example of that. You have the festival they started; you have a great comedy club and a bunch of young people who are hungry for stage time. And you guys get to see good comics. You gotta be in a city where A-List comics come through so you can see what it's supposed to look like. Even if some of the comics aren't super-famous, they're skilled, and there's so much you can learn from them. And you're just not going to get that type of mentorship in New York. It's not about taking classes; you gotta just learn as you go along and fail a lot. And it's better to fail in a city that's comfortable like a hug, whereas New York is just cold, hard and expensive. You need confidence to get through the feeling of starting over, and I don't think you can build that confidence there. Man, I don't knowhow you're going to edit this thing, but I hope some of that was useful.
Well, thanks again for doing the interview. Is there anything you want to mention before we wrap up?
I think that's pretty much it. I hope people get the records, and I really want people to come out to these shows. I really enjoyed being in Denver a year and a half ago, and I'm very happy to be back at the Comedy Works. And I know it's the summer, but I hope people come out.
Kondabolu is headlining Comedy Works Downtown July 13-15. Showtimes vary. Visit the Comedy Works events page to learn more and buy tickets, $18-$26.