Hari Kondabolu’s second album “Mainstream American Comic” comes out July 22 from Kill Rock Stars You may have seen Hari do stand-up on Letterman and Conan or as a contributor to the sadly now defunct Totally Biased. Or you’ve probably seen the hard working comedian performing live all over the country, growing the body of material that would become his sophomore outing. “This album is more personal than my last one. The last album, you see me through my political belief system. This one I wanna actually share some of my family and experiences. I think it makes the other stuff more digestible, so that was a place of growth. I also think I’m not a terrible improviser, it’s something you learn doing club work, how to riff and find an opening. So on this one, I let myself be looser”
We talked with Hari about his ongoing love and excitement of comedy and the challenges of being labeled a “political comedian.”
The Interrobang: You have an advanced degree and could do some other job! Why are you doing this??
Hari Kondabolu: [laughing] Good question, Mom!
I love comedy and I was an immigrant rights organizer in Seattle and I did comedy at night, and it’s something I loved to do and expected to do my whole life. Not necessarily professionally, but then I got discovered by the HBO Comedy Festival and was on Kimmel. Then I got into this Master’s program. But by the end of the Master’s program I saw that this comedy window was open – and who knows how long it would stay open? – and it was like one of those dreams you never think would really happen. So I took it as a sign. I still check in with myself every three years and think to myself, “Is there another PhD program I want to get into? Is there another way out of this?” But it’s not gonna happen, I questioned myself for awhile, but now I know this is what I want to be doing.
The Interrobang: They say, “Don’t have a Plan B,” but did you find it comforting to have something else you could fall back on?
Hari Kondabolu: My background was in organizing so, first of all, it’s not like Human Rights is more lucrative and stable than comedy. But as you get older, it gets harder to re-integrate into a more formal work environment. Like, the extent of my computer skills ends with Excel… kind of. And you can’t just do organizing part time, you put your heart into it, so it’s not something I see myself going back to at this time. Plus, I’m so excited about the art I’m making right now – I’m working on a documentary, I have a pilot coming up in the fall, I have this album which I’m psyched about, I have a podcast with Kamau [W Kamau Bell], I’m one of the new co-hosts of The Bugle podcast with Andy Zaltzman – it’s just a LOT of stuff I’m so excited about all happening at once. None of those things feels like a chore and that’s a really great position to be in.
The Interrobang: You and Kamau have worked together before, including on his show Totally Biased, did you guys know each other from the scene already?
Hari Kondabolu: Kamau and I have been friends for years now, we met around the time of the Obama election and we did a tour in the Bay Area with our mutual friend Nato Green. I think he wanted us on that tour together so we could meet. And more than just becoming friends, he became a real mentor to me. He was one of the few people doing the kind of comedy and political approach to art that was driven by the real people doing the real work, so we have that bond. And Kamau was so generous to all his writers, he let us be on TV, which doesn’t always happen. So, yeah, we’ve known each other for a while and when the opportunity came up [to do the podcast], it was like, “Oh yeah, we’re going to get paid to hang out together?!”
The Interrobang: Would you say that your background makes your humor political or that you’re trying to take the political and make it funny?
Hari Kondabolu: It’s not really me trying in some ways. The “political” label is useful for branding, but it’s so woven into who I am that I don’t even think of it as “political.” These are just things I think about. Maybe at a certain point when I started, it was a little more of an effort, but you know when you’re 19, 20 or whenever you start doing comedy, you’re still dabbling with ideas. Now I feel a little more grounded in myself, I know who I am, and it’s natural. That’s always the risk you run when you’re trying to say something, you can come off sounding preachy, so it forces me to use all the tools I have in comedy to not only make my point clear, but make sure there’s enough laugh lines in it to justify me talking about this. Comedy is about laughter, bottom line. So that was always something I had to be aware of at open mics and trying out new jokes.
The Interrobang: I’m just laughing picturing some of the crazy and scary unfunny things you see at open mics, and then your concern is just “Was that too preachy?”
Hari Kondabolu: There’s something kind of great about how there is an even playing field, at least when you start comedy. That you’ll be doing an open mic with a homeless person and someone who should probably be in therapy, but they’re letting it out there instead. The idea that you’ve got three minutes to say whatever you want into this microphone. I don’t know of any art forms that have such a low cost to get in and anybody can go, it’s incredible! It’s the most direct form of expression that we have. It’s amazing that this has survived somehow in an era when nobody has an attention span.