Culture Shock: Hari Kondabolu

Comedian Hari Kondabolu Brings Truth, Visibility To The Stage

Maggie Grimason
6 min read
Hari Kondabolu
(Yoon Kim)
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“I think in comedy, there’s the promise that something will happen—there’s the promise of a laugh—so people are more willing to listen. And that’s big,” Hari Kondabolu said over the line from New York just a few weeks before he set out on a national tour. The comedian, whose star is rising rapidly with a multitude of appearances on a gamut of television shows and podcasts, a Netflix special, “Warn Your Relatives,” and a documentary on the problematic character of Apu on “The Simpsons,” does in fact use his platform to share thoughts that are, yes, funny, but also prescient.

In “Warn Your Relatives,” recorded in Seattle where Kondabolu spent some years working as a community organizer, he saunters on stage, unassuming in a button-down shirt, Converse and black framed glasses and starts spinning jokes about race, politics, capitalism, oppression. But it never feels like he’s reading a manifesto despite the wisdom that underpins many of his jokes. “There’s a reason art gets banned in certain countries,” he said, “because they know the impact of it. They know what can happen when these thoughts enter the public imagination—it’s not just a joke, it’s not just art, that is something privileged people say. … It absolutely has the ability to influence.”

Despite that conviction, Kondabolu is humble—“I’m not going out there thinking my jokes are going to save the world. … I don’t think that’s the best way to approach art,” he said. Instead, he enunciates the truth of his own experiences with a great deal of care and intellect, and that is what ultimately makes his humor land with so many people. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve shared more things,” he continued. “Like recently, I’ve been talking more about depression on stage, and that’s not something I’ve always felt comfortable talking about. The fact that it’s not easy to talk about means that it has more power. That means it connects on a different level. … That’s not something I would’ve gotten close to years ago. It’s a lot for me to reach out and trust the audience. If you do it well, the reward is great, not just in terms of laughs.” The reward, he went on to explain, is something expansive and affirming—the feeling that “I am not alone. There are other people who feel this, I’m connected to other human beings. That is what art does.”

It doesn’t hurt that Kondabolu’s art happens to be hyper nuanced and observant. Listen to his material on “Warn Your Relatives,” and you’ll find jokes that are subtle but deeply resonant, often giving voice to things do drive home that point—you’re not alone after all. “[Jokes] are a time bomb in a way,” he said. “You don’t realize why you’re laughing sometimes until later.” That sort of complexity is also deeply human and when thrown into relief we all more readily recognize these common threads, absurd as they may be. This is just one of the qualities that makes comedy such a special medium and Kondabolu so adept at it. “There are no special effects, the production values are low. That’s what makes it intimate,” he continued to unpack. “It’s a human being talking to other human beings. That it can survive in this day and age when everything is so big—that says something special about the format.”

Upcoming appearances at The Stage at Santa Ana Star Casino (54 Jemez Canyon Dam Rd., Santa Ana Pueblo) on Friday, Sept. 14 (7pm) and Saturday, Sept. 15 (at 7 and 9:30pm) will offer up signature witty observations and highly literate jokes, but will also see new material that Kondabolu describes as “stretching further—pushing myself a little more. It’s not easy. That stuff is a bit uncomfortable for me, but it’s important and I plan to push even farther than I have in the past.” This national tour—which begins here in New Mexico—also presents the opportunity for him to pilot and refine new material. “When it’s a good show, people will let you work a few things out … and you know it’s a little dangerous. It could be terrible, it could be great, but I think the audience gets into that.” Naturally, I asked him, “Is that scary for you?” “It’s scary for everyone!” He laughed. “But I love those moments. I love the moments that make this show unique for me and the audience. … There are going to be some moments where, to be honest, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I know I have enough stuff to recover from it, and if this thing is good, then everyone is sucked into it.”

Comedy often seems to be equated with a way of making light of experiences, but perhaps the joke is more often something real and recognizable couched in humor. It is funny because we have to admit it’s true. Kondabolu, for his part, brings visibility to so many omnipresent modes of oppression—their subtleties and insidiousness. What stands out about his work is that it never compromises the truth for a laugh. These jokes aren’t cheap. “You just have to make good work,” he said. “Something can be righteous and unfunny. … You have to work on your craft more than anything else. That being said, I pay attention to the words I use because I know they have impact.”

On this tour Kondabolu continues to share his truth. Find tickets for
his appearances at The Stage at Santa Ana Star Casino at Tickets start at just $20 for this evening of thoughtful stand-up that hinges on integrity and openness. “It’s horrifying!” Kondabolu said of his recent, more personal material, “It’s a lot scarier. But there’s a lot more heart in it, that makes better work.”
Hari Kondabolu

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