Hari Kondabolu talks family, politics and the culture of comedy

Comedian will bring his act to The Southern in late February


Comedian Hari Kondabolu will bring his act to the Southern on February 28, 2019.

Courtesy Hari Kondabolu

Hari Kondabolu wants comedy to show people another side of truth. The comic — who will bring his act to the Southern on Feb. 28 — reflected on his comedic inspirations, his view of what is “political” in stand up and the future of the form. 

“I feel like for years I have avoided talking about my family and personal things because I was worried what other people would think,” Kondabolu said, when asked why he emphasized his mother’s influence on his comedy in his 2018 Netflix special, “Warn Your Relatives.” 

“[They’ll say,] ‘Oh, he’s just talking about his immigrant parents and he’s exploiting that … it’s hacky,’” Kondabolu said, explaining his anxieties about public perceptions of his act. “There’s all these thoughts in my head and things you hear other people whispering. And now, especially in the last few years, I don’t care what they think.” 

For Kondabolu, continuing to exclude his family from his act would go against his goals to be more personal, bring more honesty to his comedy and not worry what others think of him. “I know tons of white comics who talk about their parents. Do you know why? Because they’re their parents … To deny my experience with my family and their unique experiences would be doing myself a disservice.” 

It seems the greatest service comedians can do for themselves is to listen and adapt — and, in doing so, avoid being labeled “old.” Comics who complain about “political correctness” — a term Kondabolu feels has been overused and warped into meaninglessness — will be left behind. 

“When culture changes, you either adjust to it or you don’t,” Kondabolu said. “When you don’t, you’re old … Your job as a comic is to find things that bother you, or you find inconsistent, and point them out in a humorous way, using free speech … How can a comic complain that ‘I’m sick of other people complaining?’ What do we do?” 

Kondabolu related these questions and the power of the majority to the “hashtag activism” which populates Twitter and other social media platforms. “On one hand, it has brought up issues and created movements, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or #MeToo …  but at the same time, it’s not like a well-oiled machine ... it’s majority rule. And when you have majority rule, majority rule is often based on emotion.”

Circling back to his initial point, Kondabolu added, “If we’re not listening to how the audience is responding, haven’t we failed as comedians to some degree? Like ... part of what we do [is] not only to shape what people potentially could think, but by making them laugh, you’re clearly caring how they respond.” 

Kondabolu did not decide to come to Charlottesville until after the white supremacist attacks of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017 brought the city to national attention. Kondabolu speculated as to why he started receiving so many requests to play a venue in Charlottesville — as many inquiries, he said, as bigger cities like Austin and Detroit. 

“I kept getting messages from people telling me to perform in Charlottesville … People want me there, and I think they want me there for the same reasons why … audiences in general want me in a place … they need a little bit of laughter and catharsis,” he said. 

Kondabolu also noted his own curiosity about the city and its complicated history from its shadows of a colonial past to contemporary struggles for civil rights and social justice. “I find the place fascinating and — I don’t know — it’s sadly a part of history in a way that maybe or definitely people who live there would know, and I feel like it’s important to talk about.” 

Identifying what is important to talk about in comedy — and the overlap between comedy and politics — is a priority for Kondabolu. For him, the situation is nuanced. 

“It depends on how you view the idea of politics. When I talk about race, gender or sexuality — all these big topics, whether they’re regarding identity or history … I don’t see that as political,” Kondabolu said. “I think people on a base level are more politicized than they were before, because it’s so in their faces now.” 

“One thing I will say,” he added, “is that this predated Trump, and to me when Trump’s gone — whenever that is — it doesn’t mean the issues go with him.”

The conversation ended with a big question — what does the future of comedy look like? Kondabolu responded with cautious optimism. 

“It’s not a simple answer,” he said. “But I will say, I can see a certain kind of thoughtful comedy … I see people from marginalized groups being able to more freely express themselves … My hope is, and what I think I see happening, is that you have people taking bigger risks, being able to share their stories which are unique, which aren’t necessarily stories of the majority. That’s what I love.”

Comedians and storytellers sharing new perspectives gives the audience what they really want — the chance to think about new things.

“Part of comedy isn’t just saying, ‘It’s funny because it’s true,’” he said. “It’s also trying to show people another side of truth. It’s also showing people, ‘this is a truth that exists and you don’t know about’ … There’s so many stories … we’re gonna get more stories, and that’s good for everyone.” 

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