The stand-up comic wants a fairer, more just world. But he also wants laughs.
When I interviewed comedian Hari Kondabolu by email in 2014, he wrote part-way through, “MY NAME IS HARI KONDABOLU AND I AM A STANDUP COMEDIAN. I KNOW I DON'T SEEM FUNNY, BUT MY ALBUM IS HILARIOUS.” He was right about Waiting for 2042, and this year’s Mainstream American Comic is too. He likely felt an obligation to write that because my questions were about the meta- nature of his comedy, as well as race and writing for television as one of the contributors to Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell—none of which are intrinsically funny things to talk about. His comedy deals with race, social justice, and progressive issues, so much so that he has to back away from being called “an activist” in almost every interview not conducted by me.
“I think once you start treating art as activism ... you run the risk of focusing on the activism part more than the quality of the art,” he told NPR. “I think that art that has messages is most effective when it's good.” For a comedian, “good” equals “funny.”
Kondabolu will perform two shows Sunday night at the Hi-Ho Lounge. Tickets for the 10:30 p.m. show may still be available.
During the election season, Kondabolu reunited with Kamau Bell for Politically Reactive, a podcast currently on hiatus that included funny, smart conversations with progressives—and CNN’s S.E. Cupp—to find both insight and laughs in America’s complex relationships with race, gender, power and politics. On Mainstream American Comic, he works that turf, but many jokes are about his home life and his relationship with his family. Pop culture is as central to how he processes the world as it is for most of us, so on the album as on the podcast, Kondabolu comes off as a funny person first who has a strong sense of social justice and a willingness to do the homework second.
One riff on the album that will strike a resonant chord with many in New Orleans is his take on former governor Bobby Jindal. Jindal’s efforts to run from his ethnicity prompted Kondabolu to start a Twitter meme #BobbyJindalSoWhite. “It’s personal for me,” Kondabolu says on the album. “My name is Hari and that’s been an issue my whole life. You have a conversation—‘My name’s Hari.’
“Meanwhile this guy—‘What’s your name?’