Between growing up in Queens and currently residing in Brooklyn, comedian Hari Kondabolu has appeared on Letterman, Conan, and NPR. With brother Ashok (Das Racist rapper Dapwell) he created the Untitled Kondabolu Brothers Podcast and fills in for Night Train host Wyatt Cenac when the latter finds himself out of town on Mondays. Kondabolu’s debut album, Waiting for 2042 — released in March on indie-rock label Kill Rock Stars — receives the vinyl treatment this winter, and he headlines his first Carolines on Broadway weekend run this Friday through Sunday.
See also: Hannibal Buress: ‘Bombing Can Be Good’
You’re shooting your first film over Halloween weekend.
It’s called Five Nights in Maine. It’s director-writer Maris Curran’s first film, and right now David Oyelowo, Rosie Perez and Dianne Wiest have all been confirmed. It’s a drama, and I’m in it! It is new, because I’ve never seen myself as an actor. I’ve done some stuff, but it’s interesting playing a part that isn’t a version of myself.
It’s also interesting, because as a comedian, we call the shots. That’s one of the great things about stand-up, is even on the most basic level, I write what I want to write, I say what I want to, and I get to book the shows I want to book. I’m not dependent on other people or other things in the same way. So whether working on a television show or on films, it’s like, “Oh, this is dependent on other humans and schedules and lives.”
What role are you playing?
The main dude’s wife dies, and he’s driving up to Maine from Atlanta to visit his mother-in-law. It’s a very difficult time. He stops in Baltimore to see his best friend, and I play that best friend. I have this stretch of the film where this guy can actually kind of be at ease, be himself to some degree. You know how you are with your best friend: You’re at ease. Even if you’re in pain, even if you’re having a rough time, at least with them you’re more yourself.
It’s a great role. I was kind of shocked. I’m someone who doesn’t have much formal acting experience…I’ve done enough auditions that are humiliating and awful. Especially being Indian American, there’s a lot of telling my manager I won’t do anything if it requires an accent. And you get the script, and there’s broken English on the page. You’re like, “What? How will this work without an accent?” Or when they say, “Well, now, why don’t you just try it this way?”
Growing up in Queens, how did you first get into comedy?
I always loved stand-up as a kid, and of course, like a lot of thirtysomething comics, I watched it on TV, and especially on Comedy Central. Those early days of Comedy Central, there was, like, eight programs, and the stand-up stuff would just re-air over and over and over again. I was obsessed with the Margaret Cho special. I think it was an HBO special. She was in an all-leather bodysuit; I think it was in San Francisco.
I’d never seen anyone do what she did. She was not black, white, or Latino, so already it was like, “Whoa, this is already outside of the world I know in terms of comedy.” This is somebody speaking with her voice, and if she chose to use another voice it was about her mom. When she talked about her mom and dad, it was like, “Oh, they’re people.”
That is a theme throughout comedy, is people talking about their families, and she’s validating her experiences and her family, and she’s a complicated human being. That blew my mind. And on the most basic level, she was funny as all hell. It made me want to do stand-up. She opened up just a little bit of room for me to believe it was possible. Not even to make it, just to do it. Just to get onstage. That possibility was there because of her.
I went to Townsend Harris High School in Queens. I started a comedy night my senior year. I did sketches: rip-offs of old SNL sketches I’d seen on Comedy Central. I think we ripped off the old Dan Aykroyd unsafe toys for kids. Bags of glass, that whole thing. Really derivative. Most of my stuff back then was just straight-up hacky cab driver jokes or 7-Eleven jokes. The most base, stereotypical, accented-parent, no depth, and then probably a bunch of Chris Rock and Margaret Cho jokes with slight tweaks so they said “Indian.”
But I got to do stand-up in front of my classmates, and it was like, “Holy crap! This is the most exciting feeling in the world!” Also growing up in New York, I got to go to the Comedy Cellar and see the greatest comics ever try out new stuff on a Tuesday. They had a deal where you paid for, like, two sodas; the cover was free with an internet deal where you print out a coupon.
For 18-year-olds who were broke, coming on the F train for an hour to pay for two sodas, I was seeing [Marc] Maron and Colin Quinn, and Keith Robinson seemed to host every single time I was there, and Todd Barry and Greg Giraldo, and you’d have [Jim] Norton and [Patrice] O’Neal and Louis C.K., just a Hall of Fame lineup every time. [Dave] Chappelle would drop by, or Jerry Seinfeld. That would just happen. The rest of the country, if you were a kid you got to see comedy on TV. Maybe if you were lucky, one of these guys would show up in your town maybe once a year, and maybe it was under-21. You could get in with all-ages [shows] if you were lucky.
I got to see them work out stuff. Not even do their polished stuff, which gives you a false sense of what stand-up is, when it’s just polished and perfect and with a live TV audience. I got to see them work out the raw stuff. So as a kid I got to see, “Oh, that’s what comedy is. Comedy is failing and trying to figure it out.”
Failing is so important, and it’s normal to do that. Every comic is an open-mic comic when they’re doing a new joke. It’s the great equalizer. Whenever Jim Gaffigan shows up to a random room — it’s always Jim Gaffigan — he shows up to a random room it seems like he should not be at, he does his time, he never goes over, and it’s him figuring it out. It’s the most inspiring thing in the world. He humbles himself, because he knows it always starts from the same place.
I did it through college. I went to Bowdoin College up in Maine. I didn’t think I would keep doing comedy, but it was weird growing up in Queens, being in this diverse place, a place where I was sheltered by diversity, and I go to a place where, “Oh, I’m an outsider.” I did not know that. I didn’t know that people didn’t see me as American, and they didn’t know what to do with me. It wasn’t mean. It wasn’t necessarily always scary, but it was a lot of weird looks and questions like, “Where are you from?” — and “Queens” wasn’t sufficient.
Then 9-11 happened, which was hard as a New Yorker. And then getting stares that were a little deeper and realizing that I was going to a place with a great deal of privilege, both in terms of race, but especially in terms of class. These were rich kids. I did not get as a middle-class kid that “summer” could be used as a verb and that kind of thing.
It was like, “Don’t you understand how hard it is to be a brown person, right now more than ever?” My act became a more politicized thing, because I became a more politicized person. That was the event that made me rethink everything.
I went to Seattle to be a human-rights organizer, because I didn’t think comedy was a real thing I could do [for a living]. I still did it at night, and I built a fan base out in Seattle; I got discovered by the now-defunct HBO Comedy Festival in Aspen; that led to an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live; that led to a manager and the infrastructure for a comedy career; and all of a sudden I was a professional comedian, even though that was not the plan.
Then I went to get a master’s in human rights at the London School of Economics, because I still wasn’t convinced about this comedy thing. All the sudden, Comedy Central asked me if I wanted to do the now-defunct Live at Gotham program. I hadn’t done comedy in, like, six months, and didn’t remember my jokes. I skipped a week of class, went back to New York, did a bunch of gigs to try to remember my jokes.
When I did Live at Gotham, my brother was in the front row. If you watch it, you can see my brother flailing his hands wildly. Rich Vos makes fun of him on TV, which was amazing. My first appearance on Comedy Central was also my brother’s first appearance on Comedy Central. I remember Mike DeStefano following me; I thought he was one of the best, warmest people you could meet.
And then I went back to London and finished my dissertation, and decided after all that time and money that I was going to be a comedian. I moved back to New York, got my brain knocked in for a couple years, because that’s what happens. You go from, “Hey, I have two TV credits!” to “I’m playing an open mic in Chinatown connected to a bubble-tea place!”
Your experiences inform your material to such a degree that you come across as a comic who doesn’t necessarily have a quote-unquote stage persona.
People ask, “Why does everything have to be political?” It’s just who I am. I’m a killjoy who happens to do comedy. Whenever people describe what I do as political, I get it for the sake of branding, but to me it’s observational. I have a lens that allows me to see this stuff immediately. That’s what I find interesting. And now that I see the thing…I have to make the thing funny. So to me it’s not political, because that’s how I see the world. I can’t help but see that injustice in the world. It drives me. Just like a lot of people, it causes me pain to see this. Like a lot of comedians, we do this because it alleviates a degree of pain that we feel, and hopefully relieves the pain for the audience. So to me, it’s all connected. I am actually that guy. I’m an exaggerated version of that guy onstage; when I’m offstage, I actually listen to people and discuss points of view and I don’t yell as much, but onstage I’m pretty clear about how I feel. And it is really how I feel.
My goal has always been to be a mainstream comedian that anyone can see. I don’t want to be a niche act. I don’t want to be something that’s reserved for anarchist bookstores or coffee shops — which are fun — but at the end of the day, I want what I’m doing to be seen by as many people as possible, and I feel like this is a step to that. It’s Carolines! Everybody goes to Carolines! So it’s certainly a big deal, especially as a New York City kid.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 18, 2014