By Guest Contributor Caitlin M. Boston
I’m willing to wager that you don’t laugh at every joke you hear–to each her own fart joke, as it were. An obvious fact, but therein lies the challenge for stand-up comedians: how do you make as many people laugh as possible, while still being true to yourself and what you value?
Take that comedic quandary, bear-trap it to an ongoing graduate-level sociology course, and you are now in the head-space of confounded sui generis comedian, Hari Kondabolu.
A first-generation Indian American with roots in Queens, NY, Kondabolu’s comedy is nothing if not a direct reflection of what he values, a baroque product wrought from a first-generation American perspective, academic privilege, work as an immigrant-rights organizer, and of course, White people. Over the past several years as an internationally featured headliner he’s shared his truth in jokes about encountering the “ethnic section” in the grocery store, being colonized by an English girlfriend, ,and how Superman is an undocumented “alien,” yet no one seems concerned. His stand-up makes you feel like you’re ingesting a chuckle-coated vitamin of current socio-political affairs–something theoretically good for you, if at times difficult to swallow.
When you consider that the general population doesn’t know what white privilege is, let alone patriarchy or trans-positivity, choosing to base comedic material on topics that are more often associated with tears than laughter is a challenging and bold choice for a mainstream comedian.
“I’m not exactly a great late Friday or Saturday night performer,” says Kondabolu, who just worked his way onto the writing team for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. “I may be better on a Thursday when you’re not completely drunk. I can imagine some of my stuff…even if you’re sober you need to think a little bit and when you’re not in the mood to think, I get it, you know?”
Kondabolu made the conscious choice not to pander to the status quo early on in his career. Prompted in part by the social and political melee against Brown people following 9/11, his comedic paradigm shift came from a realization that his material no longer matched his burgeoning conscientization and he didn’t like the type of laughs he was getting as a result.
“What I thought about the world and what I was writing comedically, it [wasn't] matching. It freaked me out, and I knew I had to stop,” he says. “My writing up until that point either essentialized myself for laughs or said things that were racist, or sexist, or homophobic. Early on, I didn’t see stand-up as anything more than making people laugh, you know, ‘Are they laughing; are they not? How do I make them laugh?’ I didn’t really have any real sense of ‘how am I affecting an audience other than laughter? What is it that I’m doing?’ Which to be fair, every young comic has to figure that out for themselves to a certain extent.” Kondabolu’s mockumentary, Manoj, unpacks this unfortunate comedic trend of hack-stereotype jokes by exploring the cyclically exploitative relationship between an audience and a Brown comedian who performs, in essence, a Brown minstrel show.
Kondabolu now actively contends with the responsibility that comes from assuming the mantle of comedic expositor though: as he puts it, “Racism is an occupational hazard of comedy.”
“It was hard,” he says. “I had to get used to the idea that ‘this’ is not for everybody. If you’re making the art you truly believe in and that is your voice and that defines you, you might not be able to be friends with everybody. You do the best you can, but if they’re not down with you, then on a certain level there’s going to be a disconnect. If you see me do a show, if you want the real me, you have to either take it or leave it.”
In this way Kondabolu’s personal-political choice begets comedic choice begets artistic choice and so on as he finds himself having to regularly consider just what he needs to do in order to have one of his jokes “work” (i.e. make people laugh). This is a common enough process for the average comedian, except in Kondabolu’s case this sometimes means having to highlight one oppression at the expense of another, like a matrix-of-domination spin-the-wheel game.
“One time I was asked about the word ‘dumb.’ I used the word ‘dumb’ in a joke–folks who are mute were called ‘dumb’ historically as a slur–and I made the choice to keep a joke that used the word because I felt like that’s what makes this point work,” he says. “I hate to make those choices because it pits one oppression over another but [as a comedian] you have to make choices and I decided, ‘this is a joke about immigration,’ so I went for it. If I took that word out it loses the power to push this immigrants’ rights piece so I had to make a choice. I do the best I can to be deliberate with language and you know, I fail, but I try to acknowledge it.”
Another joke, he says, landed him in a disquieting conversation with a transgender man: Kondabolu set up the joke by saying that the U.S hasn’t had a woman president because the sexism of (cisgender) men makes them believe that by having a period once a month, all women are “irrational.” The punchline: as a guy with a penis and testicles, Kondabolu says his judgment “is impaired every five to seven minutes.” After the show, he says, the guy told him it hurt to hear Kondabolu assert that a woman was defined by her biological setting without an additional caveat that explained how gender is a construct.
“I agree with this person, they’re right,” Kondabolu says. “[But] even if I took it into consideration I made a choice that the point I was making wouldn’t work if I did that, because I’ve tried it where I’ve tried to add more language to be inclusive and it doesn’t work [for a mainstream audience]; it’s important that you get the right language but at the same time it makes it hard to talk, right?”
While Kondabolu navigates writing comedy that both the mainstream audience and the social-justice advocate can enjoy, Anne Libera, Director of Comedy Studies at the internationally renowned improv group The Second City in Chicago and author of The Second City Almanac of Improvisation, says comedians can not be expected to dismantle systemic privilege; the court jester still lives in the king’s castle, after all.
“Comedians in and of themselves are not activists,” she says. “The job of a comedian is to make people laugh. It would be more accurate to describe comedians who do political satire or political comedy as ‘backwards activists’ – individuals who shed light on things that need to change. The job of a comedian is, essentially, to put light to truth, to try and get people to laugh by saying what is risky or meaningful. To a certain extent comedy is designed to promote a response but not change the situation. It’s pushing people to the edge of their comfort zone but not necessarily into action.”
While Kondabolu is aware that his social justice-oriented audience wants “bigger” choices from him as a comedian who “gets it,” he says he is still every bit the mainstream comic invested in having healthcare.
“[A]t the end of the day what I’m doing is not to create change,” he says. “I do this because I love comedy. If I wanted to create change, I’d do something else … I’m not an activist-comedian as much as people like to call me that; I don’t see myself as that. I think that people say that because they feel connected to the work I’m doing with their own work so I understand that, I appreciate it, but that’s not how I see myself–I’m a comedian. When people call me an “activist comedian” you marginalize me even though that’s not your intent; I’m a mainstream comic. I don’t want to choose one oppression over another but sometimes I have to make a choice; it’s difficult to make a joke even work–one word’s off it stops working. So imagine you’re trying to deal with extremely complex topics that a mainstream audience doesn’t always get while also trying not to [hurt anyone].”
In a nod to the Satrean notion that “you can always make something out of what you’ve been made into,” Kondabolu does play with the fact that he has two different audiences.
“When I know that I have an audience that really is my core audience I’ll add a line [to a certain joke], So that answers the question: ‘Hari Kondabolu can you write a feminist dick joke?’ Yes. ‘But Hari Kondabolu can you write a joke that doesn’t essentialize gender?’ I’m working on it,” he says. When I can use that line in front of a real, true crowd who gets what I’m doing, and at least if they don’t are willing to try and listen, is great, but in a mainstream club setting, that joke is too ‘inside;’ it shouldn’t be but it is. When you push things forward in mainstream settings you need to find ways to slip things in otherwise it goes right over [their heads] so it’s tricky because I try to do both, but when I’m in my setting, with my audience, this is how I push.”
According to Libera, this corresponds to how comedians inhabit a position of privilege in relation to their audiences that exists outside of a professorial role.
“You have to remember that comedians have different levels than ‘real’ people,” she says. “The gift of the job is to be able to say what you want to say about an issue and then let the audience do what they will with that information. It’s very much the job of an audience member to then see if they want to do anything about what the comedian was talking about. What ends up being funny is not that [comedians] are trying to convince anyone of one thing or the other–they’re just highlighting the absurdity of the conversation itself.”
What Kondabolu’s inside-audience demands of him as an educated comedian is essentially what all audiences should be demanded of in-kind: be an educated audience. This isn’t to say that a comedienne should be able to say racist things, sexist things, ableist things, or anti-LGBTQ things, and expect to get a privilege-pass as an “artist.” What it does entail is that an audience who loves someone’s art, no matter what it is, needs to be aware of the universe that the art exists in and the subsequent choices that an artist may be forced to make if they are to remain a viable and productive conduit of the medium.
For his part, Kondabolu acknowledges that he’s put himself into a comedy niche that’s “not always helpful” when it comes to his career.
“Doing this kind of work, this kind of stand-up that takes forever to write because I’m always thinking about, ‘I don’t want to hurt anybody’–it takes a long time to pump out,” he says. “Another thing is: should I even be talking about this stuff? When white dudes talk about race and they do a bad job…It’s one of those things, ‘should they even be talking about race?’ and I’m like, ‘sure–they just have to do the work,’ in the same way that I’m trying to do the work.”
Managing the combined expectations of both his art and his politics, Kondabolu gives his audience a damned loop-the-loop of comedy, one that his fans must remember does not have a sign up stipulating, “must be this Left to ride.”
“There are other art forms where you can go and just think and not respond and just internalize, ‘oh what do I think about…” he says. “But I want you to laugh! I’m a comedian, otherwise I’d do something else.”