Hari Kondabolu Walks Into a Bar

Hari Kondabolu Walks Into a Bar

When the doors of Union Hall open half an hour before showtime on a Thursday evening in March, a line is already creeping up the stairs. By the time the hall fills, the lights dim, and the piped-in Elvis Costello cuts out, the low-ceilinged basement is standing room only all the way to the taxidermy mounted in back. Eventually, a voice comes through the speakers.

“Welcome to the Hari Kondabolu album release show. This is clearly Hari Kondabolu. I have never done this before.”

The crowd nervously chuckles.

“I’m using this voice for some reason. Hi. Help me build momentum for the show by clapping.”

Those in the audience, here for the first of three sold-out shows celebrating the release of Kondabolu’s forthcoming stand-up album, Waiting for 2042, put their hands together.

Kondabolu, who is 31, has been doing standup for fifteen years. He’s toured the country, done the TV thing (Kimmel, Conan, Comedy Central Presents), and written for a show (the recently canceled Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell). But Waiting for 2042 is his first album, and it’s being released by the legendary Portland punk label Kill Rock Stars. (This is the label’s second ever comedy album.) This is the culmination of years of stand-up toil — lots of trial and even more error, laughs and groans (and worse — silence). This is the next big step.

Hari Kondabolu was born in Queens in 1982 to parents from Andhra Pradesh state in southeastern India. His mother, Uma, had left behind a career as a doctor; his father, Ravi, had earned a master’s degree in botany. But when Ravi first arrived in New York, he worked stocking shelves at the original downtown Duane Reade. The family settled into an apartment in Jackson Heights, where they were found themselves surrounded by a large immigrant community. Soon after, Hari’s brother Ashok was born. (Ashok is also known as Dapwell, the hype man of the now defunct rap group Das Racist.) Living in Queens as part of a large Indian community, Kondabolu grew up “never feeling alone or out of place as a brown person.”

In New York, Kondabolu’s father worked as an echocardiogram technician at Flushing Hospital Medical center; when he was nine, his mother got a job in the catheterization lab at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. As the family’s fortunes began to improve, they moved from Jackson Heights to Floral Park and finally settled in Jamaica. Here Kondabolu had the chance to have, in his words, a “more suburban” childhood — the family had a backyard, and he could play in the street. But he could also go to an elementary school where he was one of six or eight Indian children in the class.

Kondabolu is quick to reflect on the classically New York narrative of his parents, hardworking immigrants trying to make a better life for their children. “That is really what New York is, what Queens is,” he says. “And it’s families, and it’s those kinds of stories. It’s people building community even though they’re from many different places and many different communities.”

When Kondabolu speaks of his parents, you can sense his pride in what they built for the family. “They always gave us resources, even if it came at their expense,” he says. “We were the kind of immigrant story that people like to flaunt. But we also know that we are an exception in some ways. I feel very fortunate that my folks are my folks. And also, my brother and I haven’t given them conventional kids.”

One of the luxuries that Kondabolu’s parents gave their sons was cable television, which gave the boys access to the vast trove of comedy available on Comedy Central. Throughout the ’90s, the channel was filled with comedy films and reruns, short stand-up comedy clips, and hour-long comedy specials. The selection of stand-up was limited, but the hour specials were played in heavy rotation, giving any kid with access to the programming a non-stop gateway into comedy geekery.

That’s how Kondabolu became interested in stand-up — obsessively watching Comedy Central with his brother. He fondly remembers repeatedly watching the specials of comedians like Margaret Cho, Chris Rock, and Janeane Garofalo. Of course, while his parents were happy to pay for the cable, they didn’t expect it to guide the boys’ career paths. “I remember telling my mom when I was a kid — I don’t even know when — ‘Mom, I’m going to be a stand-up comedian,’” he says. “And I remember her saying, ‘Don’t ever say that.’”

Although Ravi and Uma expressed concern about his interest in comedy, they didn’t seek to quash it. Kondabolu did well in school and earned admission to Townsend Harris High School, an elite magnet school in Kew Gardens. He excelled there, and in his senior year, the school’s mascot was named Hari the Hawk. (He sometimes calls this his “greatest accomplishment.”)

Kondabolu’s first stand-up performance was at a Townsend Harris “Comedy Night” that he organized. He booked the acts, wrote sketches, and did what he now describes as “godawful stand-up” based on his “very limited experiences as a high school student,” including a lot of impressions of his parents’ accents. Though Kondabolu is thankful that no tape of that performance exists, one of those jokes did make it onto his set on Kimmel. In the original joke, he worries aloud that a nervous stomach ache might be a sign he’s pregnant and then realizes that is impossible, since he is “obviously a virgin.” On Kimmel, he then goes on to explain that the joke is still “very painful and not that much fun to tell.”

After high school, Kondabolu went on to study at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where he continued to do comedy in any form he could. He did stand-up at poetry and folk open mics; he also did comedy on campus television. The transition to living in a small college town in Maine also helped Kondabolu develop his comic identity. It was here that he first realized his childhood in Queens, the most ethnically diverse county in the United States, differentiated him from other people his age. During the performance at Union Hall, he remarked that “admissions told me that there would be a surge of diversity when I got to campus. And I was the fucking surge they were talking about.” He began to see himself as an outsider, and he learned to use his perspective as an Indian American at a predominantly white college to craft a persona.

On breaks from school, Kondabolu tried his hand at the professional world of comedy, but he found the Manhattan open-mic scene inhospitable. At most of these open mics, comedians either have to pay to get stage time or convince a group of friends to come and pay a cover. He struggled to gain a foothold.

But in Brooklyn, he had better luck. He found a free open mic at the now-defunct Blah Blah Lounge in Park Slope, where he got valuable stage time to experiment and fail on a regular basis.

When summer ended, Kondabolu took his Brooklyn-tested act back to Bowdoin, where he had the opportunity to perform longer shows to a friendly audience. As one of the only people doing stand-up on campus, he had the opportunity to do a 45-minute set before he even had 45 minutes of material he felt confident in.

At the end of his senior year, Kondabolu’s parents made the trip up to Brunswick to see his final show at Bowdoin. He assumed that show would be his last ever.

The political strains of Kondabolu’s latest comedy stem from a political awareness that took root while Kondabolu was in college. At Bowdoin, Kondabolu found himself developing an ever-intensifying interest in activism and immigrants’ rights, and by the time he graduated, he saw himself more readily becoming a leftist lawyer than a comedian.

Diploma in hand, he fled the East Coast, moving to Seattle to participate in AmeriCorps, through which he worked as an organizer for Hate Free Zone, an immigrants’ rights group. (The organization is now known as OneAmerica.) He focused on the victims of hate crimes, families of those facing deportation, and undocumented immigrants facing workplace discrimination.

Kondabolu says that he was apolitical in high school but that the September 11 attacks, which came at the beginning of his sophomore year at Bowdoin, brought about his political awakening. “I remember being in a human rights in East Asia class that we had on the day of 9/11, or maybe it was the day after,” he says.

“I was with folks who were fairly the same page, because that’s why you take a human rights class. And we’re talking about the possibility of war. I remember my classmates saying, ‘We need to bomb them.’ ‘Bomb who?’ ‘It doesn’t matter.’ I’m thinking, ‘You’re in a human rights class!’ And all of a sudden shit got real because it wasn’t theoretical anymore. Something happened, and I realized how flimsy people’s principles were.”

After 9/11, an anti-Muslim fervor spread across the country. There were violent attacks against Muslims and, in several tragic displays of ignorance, Sikhs. Though Kondabolu is neither Muslim nor Sikh (his family is Hindu), he was most disturbed by violence against Sikhs in Richmond Hill, near his family’s home. These outbursts of violent xenophobia shattered his vision of the American dream. They made him “feel like an outsider” in own home.

“I think the idea of really having a thoughtful stance on an issue and standing by it and fighting for it, that really started to develop after 9/11,” Kondabolu says. “It felt like I had something at stake all of a sudden.” His newfound awareness crept into his comedy. One of Kondabolu’s early jokes about different mispronunciations of his name ends the list with, “Since 9/11, sand nigger.” (Writing on his blog in 2007, he expressed ambivalence about this joke: “I think it’s a fairly clever joke, but it has the unintended consequence of an increased number people saying that terrible word to me.”)

An immigrant rights organizer by day, Kondabolu began participating in Seattle’s burgeoning alternative comedy scene by night. There he was able to find an audience for his brand of political but not preachy comedy, as well as comedians who liked what he was doing. Kondabolu started to tell jokes that reflected his experiences working with immigrants. In one joke from that period, Kondabolu deconstructs the American’s stereotypes about Mexicans. “People say, ‘Mexicans are lazy,’ and, ‘Mexicans take all the jobs.’ How the hell do those two things work together exactly? ‘Well, some Mexicans are lazy and some Mexicans take all of the jobs.’ Like all human beings? If your argument is that Mexicans are just like all human beings, then you’re just not a very good racist.”

(A lot of Kondabolu’s most political material is focused on deconstructing flawed logic or language. Being a comedian means maintaining a hyperawareness of the power of words. “We know our words affect people,” he says. “That’s why we manipulate words to make them work the way we want.”)

Kondabolu felt that Seattle, far from the industry centers of New York and Los Angeles, bred a sense of shared purpose and experience in its scene. Furthermore, as a comparatively smaller pond, it offered him opportunities he hadn’t gotten elsewhere. He was invited to audition for the prestigious HBO Comedy Festival in Aspen, Colo, and he won a spot to perform. Soon after, he was invited to do five minutes of stand-up on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

But Kondabolu still had his sights set on a life as a community organizer. To further his career in activism, he applied to the London School of Economics to get a master’s degree in human rights, leaving Seattle in 2007 for a year in London. The rigorous course of study at LSE left him little time to explore London’s stand-up scene. But when he did perform in London, he found that his act did not translate as well as he’d hoped. While in America he had based his stage identity on the issues of being a minority, on London stages he found that suddenly he was just an American, something that he had never felt before. Though he was still an outsider, he wasn’t the outsider from his act. His anger and sarcasm, as well as his cultural references, fell flat.

Kondabolu was still in London when he got his next break, a spot on Live at Gotham, a Comedy Central show that highlights rising comics. He was flown back to New York, and for a week he tried to remember the parts of his act that had been dormant in London. To prepare for the show, he found little bits of stage time at clubs, where he focused on the rhythm of his jokes and his punch lines.

After the taping, he flew back to London, where he spent the next five months focused on completing his degree. This was the biggest academic and professional endeavor of his young life. But with his second television appearance in his pocket, he now knew that a career as a comedian was a possibility. He also knew he couldn’t successfully live out two demanding (and wildly different) careers.

His childhood dream won out. He moved back to New York to pursue a life in comedy.

Brooklyn has been the birthplace of comedians from Mel Brooks to Chris Rock. Over the past five years, though, it’s become more than a cradle of comedy — it’s become a destination. Kondabolu, whose profile has grown significantly over the past half decade, has been a beneficiary of this shift, which itself is part of a larger nationwide comedy boom.

As Brooklyn became the locale of choice for the young and non-filthy-rich, comics frequently commuted from the borough to perform in Manhattan. Seeking out places to perform (and hone their craft) closer to home, they started putting together shows in the backs of local bars or in music venues. Now there are weekly Brooklyn shows such as Night Train, hosted by Wyatt Cenac at Littlefield; Comedy at the Knitting Factory with Hannibal Buress; and Big Terrific, hosted by Max Silvestri at Cameo Gallery. Union Hall itself regularly has nights where Eugene Mirman, Mike Birbiglia, or John Hodgman work out new material.

The explosion in comedy nights across the borough gives comedians a chance to perform in front of hip audiences rather than the touristy crowds who frequent big Manhattan clubs like Carolines. One New York comedian who has found success on stages in Brooklyn is Julian Kiani. He finds that Brooklyn has audiences who want to see the comics succeed. “The big difference between Manhattan and Brooklyn as far as stand-up goes is, Brooklyn is very familial,” he says. “I think between the comics and the audience. Everyone is kind of in the same boat.” These new Brooklyn audiences are willing to come to nontraditional venues because they want to watch comedians experiment and try out new ideas before they reach the Manhattan clubs or the late-night television spots, with the rough edges sanded out of their routines.

Savvy Brooklyn comedy fans can see now national-touring comedians perform in small rooms for a fraction of the price of a ticket to a major club or theater. Kondabolu riffed on this trend during his set at Union Hall, warning the crowd that much of the set would be brand-new (and untested) material. “Keep in mind, this isn’t Manhattan; it’s Brooklyn,” he said. “I mean, really, twelve bucks to see me in New York? Now get the fuck out of here.”

When Kondabolu left London to return to New York, he first stayed at the family home in Floral Park, with his supportive (and concerned) parents. He was happy to be back in Queens, but it quickly sank in that an hour-and-fifteen-minute commute each way to do five minutes at a Manhattan club was untenable. Kondabolu also knew that in order to get his name out there, he’d need to spend time hanging out with other comedians after shows. He toyed with the idea of moving to Manhattan, which loomed large as “The City,” but it felt too foreign. He decided to move to Park Slope. “Brooklyn had something that was a bit more familiar,” Kondabolu says.

In 2010, when he arrived in Park Slope, he aimed his focus on booking gigs in the city, where he struggled, despite his experience as a performer, to get stage time. Since then, though, Kondabolu has settled into the Brooklyn comedy world, even as his profile outside it has risen. Its laxer atmosphere has given Kondabolu room to experiment, to take his craft to newer and weirder places.

Last year, to showcase the comedy scene flourishing in Brooklyn, Kiani and fellow comic Chris Nester started the Brooklyn Comedy Festival, which they envisioned as “celebrating the creative and experimental atmosphere in Brooklyn.” The festival helped bring Manhattan comedians and audiences to nontraditional Brooklyn comedy spots like Muchmore’s, a music venue and coffee shop, and the Brooklyn Brewery.

A few days after the show at Union Hall, I saw Hari and his brother Ashok guest host Night Train at Littlefield. Wyatt Cenac, a former correspondent on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the host of Night Train, is a fixture of the New York comedy scene, but when he is out of town, he passes hosting duties to like-minded comic friends.

As hosts, the Kondabolu brothers improvised monologues between comedians’ sets. In one bit, Ashok deconstructed the form of stand-up comedy. “I’m going to do the closest thing I do that resembles a joke,” he said. “It goes, ‘Pizza, hot, fresh New York pizza, that’s so tasty.’ That’s the premise. ‘Pizza party, kids, adults’ — I’m bringing everyone in there. But now there are all these dollar pizza places — controversy. Do people even like pizza, or do they just like eating hot garbage?” (This joke killed, though you sort of had to be there.)

The audience was generally good-natured, and even after the brothers’ stranger riffs, they were always ready to laugh at the next joke. In our conversation, Kondabolu told me this vibe affected his performance on stage: “I feel privileged that I have been able to build an audience where I know they’re there to see me,” he says. Referring to the recent Union Hall show, he says “it felt like I was speaking in shorthand. I didn’t need to explain everything.”

But getting to this point in his career, at which he’s developed a voice and built an audience that hungers to see him, took years of work and development. As a younger comedian, he did a lot of material about growing up Indian-American in Queens, and in many of these jokes he would do accents. But as he matured, his material evolved into a discussion of race that did not rely on accents and impressions. “It's hard having an accent in this country, and you are judged based on it. And I can imagine that it must be hard for my folks to work twice as hard to communicate,” Kondabolu said in a recent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross. “They're human beings, and they should be viewed as parents and human beings and not just a series of funny sounds.”

He had to develop a way to move beyond his own biography and to tell jokes that reflect his politics without sounding preachy. (Or, as he puts it, “without coming off as bad slam poetry.”) The second track of Waiting for 2042 makes fun of those who believe that Hillary Clinton can’t be president because she is a woman and therefore irrational. It is titled “A Feminist Dick Joke.”

But what unites his political and personal jokes is his stance as an outsider. Waiting for 2042 is a reference to the year when the census projects that whites will be a minority. “Accusing me of being obsessed with talking about racism in America is like accusing me of being obsessed with swimming when I’m drowning,” he says.

While there are more Indian Americans in mainstream comedy, television, and movies than there were even ten years ago, their race is often seen as their primary identifier, rendering them invisible as individuals. While some Indian comedians, like Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling, have been able to find success playing against racial preconceptions, Kondabolu stills find much of show business views him primarily as another Indian. In the last joke on Waiting for 2042, Kondabolu talks about meeting with casting directors: “They'll say things like, ‘Really funny, really unique point of view. We have a role that we think would be perfect for you. It's the role of a convenience store clerk in a deli. Can you do accents? Are you comfortable with that?’” He responds, his voice rising: “What part of my act did you like, exactly?” There are not many roles that are specifically written for Indian Americans — gaining broader visibility in popular culture requires the creation of roles that are not defined in the broad stereotypes of Indian Americans, but in the specific voices of performers. The joke goes on to list some roles that Kondabolu would be perfect for, including a sociology professor desperately trying to stay hip and a middle-aged former radical leftist.

Kondabolu’s comedic hobbyhorses and political past have tempted some to label him a hybrid: an “activist comedian.” He shies away from the term, which he says misses the point of what he’s doing. “I’m a writer and a performer and a creative person carrying a perspective,” he says. “I don’t see this as organizing. I don’t see this as activism.” Lasting political change, he acknowledges, isn’t going to come from telling jokes on stage. He accepts his role. He’s a comedian, not an organizer. “Those days are done,” he says.

Embracing that role has meant changing how he reacts to the work of other comedians, particularly when he finds it offensive. There are times where Kondabolu will share the stage with comedians who perform material that is racist, homophobic, or sexist, and though he may cringe, Kondabolu feels that his response should be in joke form. “There are times where I’ve heard something on stage, and I’ve disagreed with it. If I can come up with a joke, I’ll counter it when I’m up,” he says. “But it has to be a joke. That’s the game I’m part of. Comedy logic and real logic are not the same thing, which is very frustrating, but that’s true.” This kind of interaction can become a delicate ballet. At his show at Littlefield, another comedian ended his set with a joke whose punchline relied on an Asian stereotype. When it did not go over well, Kondabolu walked on stage and exclaimed, “And fuck that guy,” to a big laugh. But as Kondabolu himself chuckled, he admitted that it was just a “mildly racist joke.”

Kondabolu also remembers being a teenager. His world at that time was shaped by Chris Rock and Margaret Cho, and he remembers hoping to craft a similar role for himself, in front of his own audience. But after maturing as a performer and achieving more of a public presence Kondabolu feels differently. “Maybe I have some sense of responsibility around that more, especially as I’m getting older.” As a young comedian, he would do impressions of his parents because he knew that would get a laugh. Now he knows how to make people laugh, but he wants to make sure they are laughing for the right reasons. But at the end of the set, this only matters if he continues to be funny.

After his set at the release show, Kondabolu emerges from backstage to chat with friends who’ve come to support him. As these friends leave, other performers emerge from the back, including his fellow writer at Totally Biased Kevin Avery, musician Ted Leo, and his comedy idol Janeane Garofalo, who chastises him for only calling her a comedian and not a comedy hero for her blurb of his album.

After they’ve settled down, Kondabolu lets his friends in on some big news: he’s been just offered the chance to do stand-up on The Late Show with David Letterman. Letterman has been a giant, and a pioneer, in the comedy world for two generations of television viewers. But the vanguard inevitably becomes the old guard. Next year, Letterman will retire. The newest generation of comics consists of people like Kondabolu, who wasn’t even born when Letterman’s first TV venture, The David Letterman Show, premiered on NBC.

Correction (June 9, 2014): This article previously misstated the location of Townsend Harris High School. It is in Flushing, Queens. The article misidentified the location of Kondabolu’s parents’ house at the time he moved from London back to the United States. The house was in Jamaica, Queens. This article has also been updated to clarify the circumstances of Kondabolu’s time in Seattle.

Sam Ghitelman is a writer and a guitarist in OxenFree. Born and raised in the Bronx, he now lives in Crown Heights.

Yoon Kim is a freelance fine art and documentary photographer. Originally from Alabama, he has spent the past twelve years in Brooklyn. He currently lives and works in Prospect Heights.

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