The comedian talks about his funny new album, "Waiting for 2042," and the demise of "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell."
[Updated] On Tuesday, comedian Hari Kondabolu released his first album,Waiting for 2042., on Kill Rock Stars Records. Kondabolu made an impression when he came to New Orleans last summer as part of W. Kamau Bell’s “Totally Biased” Tour. Kondabolu was one of the writers for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, and his comedy was precisely detailed with cultural and political references that only a mind interrogating discourse would have. When he talked about Canadian Prime Minister, I had a suspicion that he was the only person in the room who knew his name is Stephen Harper.
Some of the material from Kondabolu’s set that night appears on Waiting for 2042, but the album reveals an entire meta dimension to his comedy that I missed the first time. He comments on and deconstructs his jokes as he tells them, using the interplay to be very funny and intelligently pointed when talking about race, class, and culture. He has a definite point of view, but many jokes come from very traditional places as he blows up the assumptions and attitudes that reveal themselves when we interact.
Unfortunately, Totally Biased did not survive the move from FX to the fledgling network FXX. Its ratings fell after the move, possibly because many viewers didn’t know where the channel was on their cable system, and last November it was cancelled. Recently Kondabolu and I conducted an email interview, and we started there.
What was the attitude at Totally Biased toward the move to FXX? Did the show have any say over whether it went to FXX or not? Did you fear at the time the show was being flown into the side of a mountain?
I should first make clear that I was just a writer, so I wasn't in any position of authority or someone with a "say" about anything involving money. Now, I certainly didn't think the show "was being flown into a side of a mountain." In fact, I saw it as an incredible sign of trust that FX loved the show so much that they made us the flagship late night show on their new network. We all knew that it was going to be a hard transition to daily and were hoping additional writers would make it smoother. And sadly, right before the end of the cycle we got canceled, it seemed like we were making some progress. I really had no idea that the viewing numbers would suffer as they did when we moved to FXX and it would be so hard to rebuild the momentum that the FX had before the end of Season 1. A really sad fate for what was a really unique show.
What was the strength of the writers' room at Totally Biased? I'd imagine there would have been some complicated and enlightening conversations in there.
Well, we definitely had an extremely diverse writer's room, so it wasn't just white dudes writing jokes and trying to understand and represent minority voices. Also, we had writers who were also performers, so if Kamau felt there was an idea that was great, but wouldn't make sense coming out of his mouth, he would just tell us to do it. So segments like my Kondabulletin or "A Cranky Moment with Dwayne Kennedy" and Guy Branum's "No More Mr. Nice Gay" came out of that. Kamau didn't want to speak for other people's perspectives as much as he wanted us to speak for ourselves. It was incredibly generous and empowering.
Also, our show had a mix of new TV writers (like myself) who might have had new perspectives and ideas and veteran writers who knew how TV worked and were more realistic about what you could do given the restrictions of time and budget. I think that balance helped, and I certainly learned a lot from veteran writers like Brian McCann, Danny Vermont, Kevin Kataoka, and Guy Branum.
Was there an adjustment to writing for television vs. writing for your own stand-up?
I had to suppress some of my instincts because I had to remember that Kamau had to say them. You may write something funny on paper and perhaps you can even say it in a way that makes it funny, but can the person who actually has to say it on TV repeat it comfortably? Also, my standup style has a lot of long setups and is very analytical and that doesn't always work on a late night TV show. I learned to write in another person's voice to the best of my ability.
One of the things I enjoyed most about Waiting for 2042 is the meta-nature of your jokes, with many of the laughs coming from your commentary on the joke that started it. Can you talk about how that evolved/developed? Was there someone who did a similar thing?
British comedian/legend Stewart Lee is definitely my biggest influence with that aspect of the album. I had done some "deconstructing the thing you're doing while you're doing it" before I saw Stewart Lee, but watching him do it taught me a lot and gave me the confidence to play with the form in ways I was too scared to do before.
I wondered at times if that meta-commentary is a way to deal with the tendency of political comedy to get preachy. A way to say the things you want to say but also make it funny.
When you're talking about things that are deeply personal and you're sharing a strong point of view, it easily becomes preachy when you don't have a strong punchline. When other comics miss on a joke, it's often just a bad joke. But if I miss, it often sounds like shitty slam poetry. In college, I started to readjust my goal with comedy to not just make people laugh, but also be honest about who I was and what I believed. I think initially that transition led to lots of aimless rants and it took a lot of open mic time in Seattle (my first true scene) to find a balance between thoughtful, unique and passionate opinions and jokes. The goal is and has always been laughter and if I don't get there, I've failed.
I always suspected that Johnny Carson would use a bum joke on occasion to get bigger laughs with his response (I don't know if that's true, by the way), but I heard a similar rhythm and construction in "Asians are Well-Behaved," when the stagey Genghis Khan joke leads to a bigger payoff. Was that rhythm intentional?
That Genghis Khan joke had never really worked the way I wanted it to, so I wanted to find a way to salvage it and blaming the audience for it seemed funny. When I found the Idi Amin connection at the end of the chess joke, I knew I had something more structurally interesting for this hour. It wasn't just a bunch of random jokes. I didn't grow up on Carson, so he wasn't really an influence for me. Stewart Lee again inspired me to think about structure and finding a way to incorporate a joke that in previous years would've just been cut out of my act. He taught me to think of comedy as something that could be as funny structurally as the jokes themselves. Also, that the payoff may not be immediate.
When I used to teach English at a community college, we would periodically talk about "political incorrectness." When asked of there was the equivalent of the N word for white people, I suggested it was "racist" - an answer that just angered the white kids in the class. Is there a word that crosses the line every time you say it to a white person?
No. There is no equivalent to the N-word. Words are informed by their historical context. White people in America have not been historically oppressed for their whiteness. Maybe for class or gender or sexuality, but not systematically for race.
The word "racist" certainly presses white buttons...but that's because of the guilt that results from the systematic discrimination non-whites have had to face. Other than that, me just saying "White" enough times on stage seems to make some white audience members uncomfortable. They are not used to being named as a race. We assume white in this country and white people can just be "people." In case any of you have read this far - MY NAME IS HARI KONDABOLU AND I AM A STANDUP COMEDIAN. I KNOW I DON'T SEEM FUNNY, BUT MY ALBUM IS HILARIOUS.
I read an interview with you where you took issue with the stereotypical characterization of Apu, then said, "that's not to say The Simpsons isn't brilliant, or that I don't love the show." I think many would be surprised by that. How do you resolve that seeming contradiction?
That seeming contradiction is resolved in this Huffington Post interview I did about Apu. In it, I say "you can be critical of the thing and still love the thing." That's how any kind of relationship works. Whether with friends, family or a work of art.
Updated March 13, 10:35 a.m.
Waiting for 2042 was released on Kill Rock Stars Records, not Sub Pop as first reported. The text has been changed to reflect this correction.