Even though comedian Hari Kondabolu was sick as a motherfucker, he was nice enough to swallow a box of Sudafed and sit down with me before his Melbourne show.
Hari Kondabolu is a standup comedian born and raised in Queens, New York City. He was recently in Australia for the very first time performing at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Even though Hari was sick as a motherfucker, he was nice enough to swallow a box of Sudafed and sit down with me before his show. This discussion took place on Easter Saturday and covers the time he interned for Hillary Clinton, the commodification of pain, and what it's like to be labelled a smart comic.
VICE: I'd like to thank-you for talking to me even though you are extremely sick and should really be mad napping before your show tonight.
Hari Kondabolu: I appreciate the fact you wanted to chat, I've been under the weather so much that last night was the first time I've ever had to cancel a show. It's a weird thing when you're on stage and obviously unwell. If you're coughing and struggling it breaks the reality and makes for a bad experience as an audience member. That said, every other night so far, the crowds have been magical out here.
The thought of going up on stage alone and telling jokes is terrifying for most people. Even though this is your job, do you still freak out?
At this stage it's really just about feeling prepared. I go through my whole set very thoroughly in the hours leading up to stage time.
And I'm taking up part of that time. What else are you doing from now until you hit the stage?
I am drinking a lot of water. I never drink alcohol before a show because I start slurring. It happened once and it was awful.
Hari Kondabolu - Female President
The only podcast I fuck with is The Champs (shoutouts to Neal Brennan and Moshe Kasher). In true Champs tradition your episode goes deep very quickly. Do you think there's any danger to your comedy if the audience knows a lot about your personal life or does it help?
One thing I've wanted to improve on in my act is making it more personal. People know who I am through my ideas but not explicitly. I don't share too much about my family or background on stage so an audience knows my views through the jokes, but they don't know why I feel the way I feel. So, The Champs was great because people got to know where I'm coming from and what's going on in my life.
Similarly what ended up being big for me was when I went on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. I didn't realise it going in, but it made a bigger impact than my Letterman set a day later. I told these very personal stories and you got a sense of me as a human being. And as a result I got all these new people coming out to my shows who I feel I might have disappointed because the person you see on stage is so different to that Fresh Air interview. My act is overtly political to the point where I use anger as one of my tools.
My album ("Waiting for 2042") is certainly not for everyone, I realised that more afterwards when I got these ratings that were like "I've never heard anything like this, it is so great" versus "I don't know what this is, how does it count as comedy?"
It's far better to get a strong reaction either way though. Oh that guy's finemust be the worst.
Right. If people can remember the content of my jokes then that's an accomplishment because the risk is that you leave a show and it was all funny but no one can remember anything that was said. If you're not leaving with something that annoyed you or made you think or impacted you somehow, then that's not the best show I could have done.
Do you feel more pressure because you're regarded as a smart comic.
Ha! It's not pressure but the majority of the reviews I get are like "he's smart", I'd rather hear "he was funny". If I wanted to just be smart I would have stayed in grad school.
Your background is in human rights, have you ever considered going back to working in social justice or are you making a bigger impact through your comedy?
The only time I've thought of quitting comedy is because I'm exhausted. The life and the touring can be rough and you're on your own doing standup. But I'm so lucky that this thing has become a career. Right now I am not going back to activism and to be fair, I haven't really been in the workplace for 10 years. I'd be like "hey we're not just doing Excel anymore?"
Windows 97 anyone?
Right just flexing my Microsoft product knowledge is not going to get me a job now. With comedy you're essentially a freelancer and creating your own schedule. Standup is the most freeing art form; I'm so addicted to this thing I do. I just have to show up and then do whatever I want.
Do you write out all your jokes or are you going from memory and riffing, Jay Z style?
When I started I was writing everything out but now I tend to just list a few topic points and then riff on it. My jokes should sound like when you're talking with friends and someone says something funny and it's natural, so it's about trying different lines, words and tags to recreate that feeling of naturalism.
Is there an issue you want to do a bit about but can't nail the joke?
I want to do a joke about the commodification of pain. That's how people make money. In America we lock people in prisons and it's privatised.
You had that tweet the other day about if Monopoly was American you could buy the jail. I think you're onto something.
Maybe that's where the bit is going, because in a true American version you could buy the jail. And who owns the bank? I feel like when you talk about things like capitalism it can be scary to people but if I can work in some pop culture reference like a game or tv show then it's much more comfortable. You have to get the recipe right.
Do you feel more free to discuss America when you are here?
It's easier. But I actually like talking about Australia while I'm here. I've been opening with my bit about Australian colonisation. You can watch the clip, I have a terrible mustache in the clip which is very unfortunate.
Ha thank you Youtube for immortalising every bad look anyone has ever had from the past 10 years.
That joke has done well here and I spin it into something about Iggy Azelea at the end.
Have you heard Aamer Rahman's bits on Iggy Azelea? He's so great, he just goes in!
Oh Aamer is amazing. He's a friend of mine and just so, so good. His bit about reverse racism is perfect, I was so envious when I first watched it.
Do you get joke envy often?
Not usually but with Aamer's bit it felt like a joke I could have done so the envy was real. Correct me if i'm wrong but there hasn't really been a comedian like Aamer from here before, right?
You're right. I'm so excited that Aamer is blowing up because so much Australian comedy is extremely dated and still dominated by these corny TV and radio hosts who think they're funny. We also have this problem in Australia of being able to freely discuss issues like Ferguson and American injustice at large but we conveniently ignore the atrocities happening on our own soil. I feel like that's part of why you've done so well out here.
Yeah, Aamer told me that too, he said that I'd be fine with my act because i'm American.
Something I don't understand is why you are constantly asked the question, "does the joke have to be more important than the politics or message?" It's like, "duh, Hari is a comedian—he's not crafting all these jokes so we can sign his petition afterwards".
I am asked that a lot. I understand that I have these views that run the risk of being an essay so I have to work really hard to find the jokes, but yes I love standup comedy and didn't do this to simply share political views. It can be annoying to be put in these boxes, like "oh he's a political comedian". I want to be a mainstream comedian. I'm essentially doing observational comedy.
Just to digress, you interned for Hillary Clinton.
Yeah, how did you find that out? No one ever brings that up.
Deep Kondabolu Google searches. What was interning for her like?
It was great. I was pretty much in the mailroom. The people with all the connections got to do the more glamourous internships. I was opening all these letters that would begin, "dear Billary Clinton" and there would be all these crude collages of Bill with Monica Lewinsky and we just had to shred and put all these insane letters in the bin.
Do you think Hillary would make a good president?
I don't think you can be a good president. You can certainly be a bad president like George Bush. But Hillary, she's old establishment in a way. Her husband was president, she was senator and then a part of the current administration. She's a much more seasoned politician than Obama.
Do you think a woman could be elected president in your country?
Yes. I never thought a black man could be president and it was a resounding victory.
Do you feel that out of all the artforms that comedy is still the truest meritocracy or has the game changed?
That's interesting. On one hand yes, because I can go to an open mic and I have to make everyone laugh as much as the person who is at the open mic for the first time. But then the business side of it isn't fair. When it comes to money and personal interest and needing a particular type of person for whatever monetary reasons, then the game changes.
My favourite comedian is Patrice O'Neal and I always felt that he was someone whoshould have been as big as Chris Rock but refused to play the showbiz game. I'm a feminist and all of Patrice's misogyny bits made me laugh more than anything.
Patrice was just so good. There wasn't anyone more real and, like you, I completely disagreed with so much of what he said onstage but it was undeniably funny and undeniably his truth. There was nothing phony about Patrice and I try to have the same integrity. The audience aren't stupid, they know when someone is phoney.
Finally, do you have a comedy hero?
Right now it's Stewart Lee. He plays with form and teaches me not to be inhibited by the stage. But when I was 21 it was Paul Mooney; he made a huge impact on me. Mooney made me feel that truth isn't neat and it can hurt but that's okay because it's coming from an honest place. And Margaret Cho made me feel like I could exist.
Interview by Courtney D read the entire article up on i-D.