Like many stand-up comics, Hari Kondabolu took his time before settling in to record his first live album. The New York-based comedian will release his first full-length album Waiting for 2042 this week, but he hasn’t been resting on his laurels up until now. He’s been bringing his acerbic, pointed and very truthful worldview to stages around the world since he was 17, scoring choice appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live and John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show, as well as a gig writing for the now-canceled Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.
It feels instead as if he’s been building up to this big moment, through not only his TV and stage work, but also his academic and work life. He has earned a Master’s in Human Rights and spent time in Seattle working for an immigrant rights organization. He combines these worlds beautifully on Waiting for 2042, where he skewers the hypocrisy of homophobes, our awful healthcare system and every racial stereotype under the sun. We caught up with Kondabolu to talk about his life as the son of Indian immigrants, his evolution as a stand-up and playing to audiences that aren’t in the mood to have their minds opened.
How much of an influence did your family and your upbringing have on your comedic and political outlook?
They influenced me a lot. Both my parents are immigrants. I’ve seen different struggles they’ve had. There’s a reason you don’t see me using accents. I don’t do impressions of my folks. When I’m doing a crappy impression of my folks and you’re laughing, I’m thinking, “When my parents talk to people, when they walk away do people do impressions of them? Do they laugh?” I know it’s hard for them to deal with that even in New York, even in Queens. When you grow up in a place like that I’m exposed to such diversity and exposed to the idea that I’m an American too. I can be Indian and American and be things. There’s a sense of entitlement that kids in suburban areas don’t have because there aren’t other brown people around them. I never had the sense that “I have to assimilate.” I could do whatever I wanted to do because that’s what New York is. Only after leaving New York that I started to realize that, “Oh every place isn’t Queens.” I went to Maine for college! It was the immediate. “Oh my god, this is nothing like home and I’m an outsider here.” That entitlement is taken away. Then 9/11 happened while I was in college and all this stuff that happened around the country with hate violence. Suddenly, I’m not an American anymore? So, I’m a New Yorker I’m suffering along with everyone else and this? Plus this? That certainly shaped me politically.
Was it just being the parents of immigrants that led you to want to focus on human rights in college?
It was 9/11 really that was a big part of that. Injustice and unfairness was something I thought about in high school. I don’t think I was a real political being. As a sensitive kid these were things that just bothered me. But after 9/11, it was hard enough to understand how that could’ve happened and all the geopolitical stuff around it and not how the nation reacted in terms of the Patriot Act and going to war. Then also the ways humans react. There were hate crimes in Queens. It was confusing to me, you grow up in this bubble you’re aware of race and aware of racism and you feel it but at the same time you feel a certain comfort because it’s Queens and you felt like the world was there. I grew up in this diverse multicultural bubble. I didn’t use the world “multicultural” until college because that was the given. It’s every day. I only knew it was a thing after I left it. That certainly shaped me my comedy was very much like I knew I had to say stuff. I remember I felt really upset about the stuff I was writing. It was making people laugh, but it wasn’t doing anything. Then in 2003, I saw Paul Mooney do standup in D.C. He did two or three hours at the DC Improv and it was amazing. Still to this day I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard; his ability to talk about race in such a blunt manner. There were certain things that I might not agree with either but his ability to be angry on stage and still be funny and take the audience on this journey where it could be cathartic and ridiculous and he’s not afraid to walk the room to state his truth. To see somebody do that shook me.
What were your stand-up sets like before that?
When I started doing standup when I was 17 I was talking about being Indian and specifically ethnic jokes. Straightforward stuff that was fairly ignorant that I knew would get the laugh. It wasn’t flipping stereotypes; it was using them. After that there was that phase where I was just like really political and that’s what I’m doing. There was this degree of self-importance that New York will knock that away from you very quickly. You learn at the end of the day, you need the joke. I learned to value the joke again. My phase in Seattle was me figuring that out, learning to write jokes. I was an immigrant rights organizer in Seattle and I did comedy at night. I was in this really politicized atmosphere of artists. I was performing stand-up but I was hanging out with all these cool rap groups like Blue Scholars and spoken word artists. I was around all this great art. That allowed me to be who I was and be comfortable writing to an audience who got it.
I always felt like Totally Biased was the perfect outlet for you, something that perfectly balanced your comedic and political sensibilities. Now that that’s unfortunately off the air, is there any interest to try to find a similar outlet for your work?
I would love the opportunity to create my own program. I feel like a TV show with a format of monologue with lots of sketches thrown in could be really fun. But you know that may never happen. Minimally, I just want to keep making stand-up. I love the idea of being able to record and document an album. It’s audio which I actually kind of like more. There was the option of making a video thing but I wanted to do audio for this first because even a lot of the stand-up specials I loved I loved them more listening to them on audio. Like Dave Chappelle’s Killing Them Softly. It’s brilliant but I didn’t know it was a Showtime special. I only heard the audio for years. His words are so strong. It’s so well written and so well structured. When I finally saw the special, I was disappointed! I thought a lot about that special and how powerful a good audio recording is. So to me at this stage who knows what’ll happen in terms of will other people give me chances to do stuff. You hope so! The one thing that is in my control is that I can create content on the Internet. I can record podcasts and I can record albums.
The audience that we hear on your stand-up record very audibly shares your worldview and gets your point of view. Have you had to deal with many audiences that aren’t on board with you?
Sure. But a funny joke is a funny joke. I’ve had people come up to me and say I don’t really agree with you but that was a funny show. It always shocks me, but it’s the same reason I laugh at things that I feel bad laughing at. Like, “That goes against the grain of who I am, but holy shit that was very cleverly worded. That was well built and structured and completely caught me off guard.” That’s what a good comic does. You hope you can catch people off guard in those moments. It’s hard sometimes, but that’s part of it. I think a crowd that comes to see me gives me the freedom that you hear on the record. I want to say that maybe the only problem is people getting too excited. On the record, there are moments where people are screaming and out of control, and I’m, like, “That’s weird. That usually just gets a laugh.” I’ve had the other part where I’ve gone on stage and the crowd, from the get-go, has no interest in what I have to say. I’m a minute in and I’ve got 44 minutes to go and it’s a fight. Anything you wanted to share with them is irrelevant. It’s just getting through the set and making sure they pay and leave.
As someone who has been so heavily involved with this issue, I have to ask, do you think immigration reform is possible?
It’s gonna have to be. The demographics are changing. There are a lot more immigrants in this country and kids who are the children of immigrants. The world is globalizing. If we’re going to keep up with that, we’re going to have to deal with it. Look at what’s happened in the last few years with gay rights. Nothing happened for a long time and it was such a fight but all of the sudden, things are starting to happen. Just the fact that it’s happened in the mainstream and people are talking about it on the regular. That to me is a sign of a culture finally evolving and a generation starting to take charge. It’s our turn now. This is what we think. Gays will get married, pot will be legal and stop staying that word. Whatever that word is.