If you trust iTunes’s metrics, one of the most popular comics in America right now is Hari Kondabolu, an outspoken leftist of South Asian descent, and not another one of those dudes complaining about college students and PC culture. His new album, Mainstream American Comic (available from Kill Rock Stars), is an unflinching examination of our country’s politics—it feels like a sigh of relief that turns into a broad grin. That’s part of his broad mission: he co-hosts a podcast with fellow comedian W. Kamau Bell called Politically Reactive, which asks you to “choose to laugh,” a nudge we all need as we hurtle, screamingly, towards election day. Kondabolu was kind enough to sit down with us while on tour to support his smash hit.
Paste: So your album, Mainstream American Comic, has been overwhelmingly successful.
Hari Kondabolu: Yeah!
Paste: Were you expecting any of this at all?
Kondabolu: No! I was expecting for it to do pretty well, and I was expecting people to like it, for it to expand my base. But it’s a big thing. People really, really love it. I’m getting so much positive feedback. The first one did well, but this is mammoth.
Paste: What do you think has changed since the last album that’s made a very political brown guy seem very appealing for comedy?
Kondabolu: First of all we’re in an election season, so certainly that’s on people’s minds. Secondly I’ve just gotten a little bit more popular and people have heard my name floating around, and they’re eager to either hear my work or hear new work. Also, unfortunately a lot of terrible stories in the news about violence, police brutality, a wide range of things. I’ve definitely stated my views on those things. People maybe read me on Twitter, maybe have heard my jokes, and I made an album that I think appeals to them.
Paste: I think your work helps ease the vision of the gaping maw of our horrifying reality a little bit. It’s nice to be able to goof in the face of a tragedy, even if it’s just on Twitter or whatever.
Kondabolu: It’s a way to survive and it’s probably working for other people as well.
Paste: Speaking of our horrifying nightmare election season, how has that been for you? Just in general, not even as a comedian?
Kondabolu: It’s scary! It’s certainly not what I thought would happen. I think we all, or most of us, didn’t think that Donald Trump would be the Republican candidate and the potential end of the Republican Party. I don’t think anyone realized that he was going to take everybody with him. It almost points to like, a downward trend in public awareness or education, and the fact that we live in a celebrity dominated culture. It’s really upsetting. And as a comedian certainly there’s jokes, which I appreciate but, it’s a real threat. When I hear Bernie Bros say they’re not going to vote for Hillary regardless I get upset. I’m like, it’s a privilege to not vote for her in this situation, because if Trump gets elected, who does it affect the most? It’s not people in the majority, it’s not men.
Paste: So, I follow you on Twitter, and I feel like everybody wants to get their political takes in a really bite size, cohesive format. For me, I’m suddenly realizing that this is detrimental to having any kind of political nuance, and yet I also play into it all the time. With the quippy, jokey format of Twitter, do you feel like you say anything real on there? Anything that could actually change people’s minds?
Kondabolu: I don’t write things to change people’s minds, you know? Whether it’s comedy or anything, I write because I try to find a way to deal with the world. It takes a while for me to find a way to feel comfortable writing in such a short format and at the same time keep my point of view and not ruin my comedy. For a while there it was weird writing these bite size little things and then all of a sudden try to explain things with greater depth on stage. It’s two different skill sets. But currently I put things out there and try to be really responsible with my wording and the things I’m trying to express but it’s limited. It’s not a great way to start a conversation, to spur thought. If a debate is happening on Twitter, it’s not really happening.
At least on Tumblr or other formats, you write your points of view with more depth, and it’s not to say that those are ideal or that they’re better than having a debate or discussion in person, but Twitter really doesn’t allow for that. Twitter is a way to cope and to provoke thought. That’s great. But if you’re just poking and provoking thought, then what? What do you do with that thought? How do you engage with that thought? That’s not what Twitter is built for. That’s the part that frustrates me. I do see how in terms of organizing it has proven effective, partly because of how quickly things spread and partly because the media is lazy, mainstream media is lazy and when they want public opinion it’s easy for them to just pull some quotes from the internet. But that’s actually been effective in terms of organizing. But it’s not ideal.
I don’t see it as a way to change the world, nor do I see comedy as a way to change the world, but it’s a way to express frustration or ideas or humor or whatever else, so that’s why I use it. It is cool though, when I write something that seems to resonate, that speaks to people.
Paste: I listened to your album last night, and it is really cathartic to hear, like, twenty jokes about Bobby Jindal. I still really, really hate that dude. It does suck for him to be the Indian guy everyone knows.
Kondabolu: I never wanted to be that guy, you know, I think that’s why me and my brother both, like, get mad. We’re very aggressively ourselves, we’re very comfortable with ourselves. We realize that culture is important, family is important and it’s about balancing your life with the lives of others. It’s also about integration, like, we count! And we’re in a place where we have to make that work. This is our country, we’re Americans, but at the same time, America isn’t a singular thing. [Bobby Jindal] has a very different way of viewing it. We grew up differently. And that’s fine! But when you are in power you must be held accountable for views like that.
Paste: Has there been a wellspring of support for you in the Indian community? If there’s anything I know about my mom it’s that if there’s an Indian in something, she’ll be like, “Oh my god, gotta see that!”
Kondabolu: Certainly there’s a lot of that. What I do like to see is that it’s not just that, but—there was this time where everybody was like, “Oh my god, there’s this brown person, we have to see him!” And there’s still some of that, but, not for everybody. I’m going to disappoint a lot of people because I’m not at all what they want. I don’t do what Aziz does, I don’t do what Russell Peters does, I do what I do. So I think there is some degree of support because they’re proud that I’m doing what I’m doing, but I think that people are also, like, “this isn’t for me,” which I respect. Because I’m not for everybody, and that’s okay. But it does mean something to me, I appreciate when I see brown faces. I appreciate that I can be somebody who echoes thoughts others have. My job isn’t to do that, my job is to express myself, again, but like it’s nice to know that… I didn’t have most of what I wanted or needed to hear at a certain point in my life, or role models that were strong and able to speak their truth. I’m glad I can be that. I can be the person I wished was there.
Paste: I feel like when you grow up brown in the United States—this is some race theory stuff, this is becoming an overly intellectual conversation already…
Kondabolu: No that’s okay, let it be whatever it is!
Paste: So, my dad’s black, and I feel like it was way easier to tap into the black community as a kid than it was for me to find a way into the Indian community. There isn’t really an Indian youth culture, unless you want to be extremely fucking Indian. And I was looking for somebody like me, that listened to indie rock and grew up in the suburbs and like, wasn’t really interested… You know, I don’t know my mother tongue, kinda wished I did, but I probably don’t need to, probably not going back to India any time soon, you know?
Kondabolu: I grew up in Queens, so, because of the number of us there was a sense of like… “we’re not freaks!” There was more of a sense of an Indian culture, or a South Asian culture in New York. I think there was more of something there you know? It’s not to say it’s a monolithic thing, but being brown in New York is a unique thing, where you not alone. I think there are elements of us all performing our own subcultures within our communities and our cities, so there wasn’t something that was like an overarching thing, there wasn’t something that was connecting all of us, and now I feel like there’s something to be a little bit. There’s these things that form around commonalities, you know? It’s not the same things but… Also I think our history here is very different. And also like, there’s a huge difference where black people have been here from the beginning of this country. I don’t mean the land, I’m talking about the concept of America, they built this country. When people think of the founding fathers, they always ignore that black people were there. We’re more recent of an immigrant group, in terms of the mass migration. There were waves, certainly, from the ‘60s and ‘70s on. But it takes time to settle in, and it takes time to feel like your basic needs are met. You need a group of kids to challenge and do things outside of the box, and you need a mainstream culture that allows that integration. People to tell you assimilate and all this nonsense, but you know, people have to let you in. And I think we’ve gotten to the place where we’ve gotten more access to non-traditional occupations. That’s only the last handful of years. And that’s a part of what’s shaping culture. I don’t think there’s enough of us, and like I said before, black people are part of the foundation of this country, and if you’re South Asian, that’s really an obstruction. There’s just so many different demographics and groups and nationalities and languages… it’s hard to unify around so much difference.
Paste: It is interesting to see that there’s such a conversation around diversity in Hollywood, for example. A lot of brown faces are being outspoken about it, I mean, you’ve probably seen the Master of None episode on the stereotyping. It’s heartening for me to see brown people being acknowledged by people at large, or we have enough momentum to say, “hey, we probably don’t want to be cabbies anymore, when we’re in movies.”
Kondabolu: I’ve certainly been cognizant of that. I’ve been in this profession for like a decade now and a lot us have, and Aziz certainly popularized these discussions. But I will say, as important as representation is, as important as the whitewashing discussion is, I think as interesting as those discussions are, let’s not forget the big stuff. We live in a time of detention, mass deportation, rights being taken away, black people being murdered in the streets. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the whitewashing discussion, and again I’m making a film about Apu and representation, but I feel like often I’ve gotten into so many conversations with brown people about casting. And I’m like, “Yo, black people are being killed right now though.” We never talk about that. What is our role in a movement to save lives? What is our role in that? And often I feel like it’s easier to talk about, “We can’t believe we were portrayed like that!” when like, shit, things are falling apart, what do we do? Again, I’m making a film about Apu and I’m not saying it’s not interesting or funny or an interesting look at how representation or power works, sure. But that conversation is one thing and I feel like often we don’t put ourselves in the other conversation which is what do we do to further justice in a country that is ours?
Paste: I feel like there’s so much focus, even in the black community but certainly in the South Asian community, there’s so much focus on our presence in mass media, and less of a focus on, like you said, the big stuff like murder, private prisons, the wars we are still in, Guantanamo Bay, stuff we are culpable for and that still effect us.
Kondabolu: The representation part is really important because when you have only a limited number of images of a group of people it’s hard to see them as fully human. So if you hurt them, if you deport them, if you mock them, if you don’t elect them, they’re not people. Brown people in this country have extremes of belonging. Representation was a cartoon character or a terrorist. When 9/11 happened, what side do you think you’re going to see? They’re not people that you care about—they’re not Americans. You can put people in a box that is not anything that is relatable to you or that you understand, you can do anything you want to them. That’s really the importance of representation, especially to me. It’s not simply “it hurt my feelings.” There’s a certain degree of bullying or frustration of how white supremacy depicts you, but the real life consequences of that are what opportunities in real life are denied to you as a result of how people see you broadly now.
That’s part of the reason I named the album Mainstream American Comic. It’s the idea that the issues being discussed are mainstream things. Activism, justice, all this stuff, it is not like a niche thing. It’s part of the foundation of this country. This country, you could say, was created by activists. That’s a stretch, it’s really good rhetoric, I suppose when you say that. But it’s people who were willing to challenge the government, though, it was people who were willing to protest, and make speeches and fight. That’s what this country was built on: justice. The folks who prevented that were our government, the British. When you think about justice you can’t think about it in terms of outsiders or people that are taking this country away from whatever it is. That’s the job of the people and that’s part of being American. The idea of American is a lot more broad, a lot more multi-racial, it encompasses many different sexualities and genders, all these things. That’s what this album, in part, what I wanted it to do. I wanted to be able to subtly make that point, while still being hilarious.
Gita Jackson is Paste’s assistant comedy editor.