Hari Kondabolu Is the Perfect Comedian for Trump’s America
We met up with the outspoken political comedian, whose current red-state tour is at the nexus of laughter, anxiety, and Trump jokes.
Photos courtesy of Kill Rock Stars
On his current tour, comedian and gadfly Hari Kondabolu has been barnstorming Trump country, hitting up college towns and cities in the red-state strongholds of Indiana, North Carolina, Missouri, and Louisiana. Although Kondabolu has honed his brand of radical, politics-driven comedy for years now, earning him a cult-like following as well as the occasional death threat, he's never felt quite like this before, what with Donald J. Trump riding atop a populist wave of racism, misogyny, and immigrant-bashing to the presidency; young conservatives Heil Hitler'ing in the president-elect's name; and a surge of hate incidents, over 700 since election night, worse than post-9/11.
All of which makes the 34-year-old Queens native's singular brand of comedy all the more urgent and necessary. Declared by Wired to be "the best political comedian you don't know yet," Kondabolu, whose parents are Indian Hindus, came of age during 9/11, the xenophobic aftermath of which shaped him. "That was the thing that changed my life," he explained to me earlier this week, before taking the stage for two shows at the DSI Comedy Theater in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "That's why I became a political being as a young person. That's how I decided to study what I studied in college. That's the reason my comedy is the way it is."
Through stand-up, the outspoken Kondabolu tackles thorny issues of race, gender, privilege, and culture through incisive and sometimes blunt observations, such as "Bobby Jindal is so white, he beat himself up after 9/11." His style is inclusive yet nervy, sensitive yet angsty. (There's also a meta element to his comedy, where he unpacks certain jokes and the audience's response.) It's all tucked into a deceptively affable delivery system that he describes as "a young sociology professor at a small liberal arts school in Vermont who's desperately trying to stay hip." Since releasing two very funny, very smart comedy albums—2013's Waiting for 2042 (a reference to the year the US census predicts white people will no longer be the majority) and this July's Mainstream American Comic—Kondabolu's been keeping busy with Politically Re-Active, a weekly podcast with W. Kamau Bell, and The Problem with Apu, a feature-length documentary about the Hank Azaria-voiced Simpsons character, airing on TruTV in early 2017.
When I first arrived at his hotel room for the interview, Kondabolu greeted me with a hug, like the one he'd given me the first time we met, this summer, despite having only emailed a bit. This time he fielded my questions while simultaneously ironing a T-shirt and three collared shirts (he couldn't yet decide which one to wear onstage). Both shows turned out to be sold-out successes, filled with boisterous laughter and friendly vibes. Still, Kondabolu found it necessary to back off at times, cutting short a joke about white people not liking being called white people. "There's a second half of the joke that I don't have the heart to tell," he explained, referring to a segment on the album where he proposes a new term: "white demons." "This is too close after Trump," he said, joking but not quite joking. "I still don't trust everybody. Look, this venue's not big, and there's not enough security." As a fellow person of color, having seen this election's nasty, hate-inciting aftermath, I got it.
VICE: How was Indiana?
Hari Kondabolu: Bloomington was great, though they had hate crimes happening over the last week—people spraying swastikas and things like that. I have yet to have something happen, but everyday on Facebook, I'll read about friends or friends of friends being attacked. It kind of feels like post-9/11, that kind of anti-Muslim shit. But it's across the board. Like, I've had gay friends get gay-bashed. There's this woman I know in Chicago—both of her cheeks were puffy because she was hit in the face.
[It's like] when 9/11 happened, the way people reacted with violence to brown people who did nothing. But this is like, your candidate won, spewing hate. This isn't something bad happened to us—this is a victory. And because this is a victory, we're making sure we piss on our territory. This is one of those, "Wow, this country can be so ugly." Your candidate won based on these racist values and there's enough people in the country that now want to make sure that [those other people know] this is not your America. This isn't yours.
Do you think there's a sense of conservatives feeling attacked, this sort of soft attack for years and years, like during Obama?
In a weird way, yeah. Not even during Obama, even longer than that. There's been a sense that this is your America and culture's changing. When Will & Grace happened, how people freaked out about that. Or Ellen [DeGeneres] coming out and all this stuff. While [others are] not getting employed, while what they believe isn't getting the same attention, while they're being told, "This is offensive," or "That is offensive," or "This is wrong." And they're being told that without real discussions happening, because it's really hard to have real discussions. Especially in a climate like ours that's based on 140 characters and clickbait.
"The one thing I maybe have to help with, the one thing I have to add, is my voice. If that's taken away because of fear, then why do I do this?"
Do you feel like your role as a comedian is having to adjust to this change?
I've been thinking about that a lot, man. It's funny. Well, I'll say I have never feared touring. Ever. I've been threatened, you know, at shows. I've been threatened online, I've had death threats. This on the other hand, this feels different. This actually makes me think, Who can I trust anymore? and What do people really believe? And even if people wanted to commit acts of violence against me before, like, they weren't emboldened to. Now all of a sudden I wonder, What does this country look like? I don't know if many of us are overreacting, but so far, it doesn't feel like we're overreacting. You read about all these hate crimes.
I think the other thing is, for a while now, I've been asked about the idea of activism in comedy. And the lie that I've had for the longest time is: "Uh, I don't want to see myself as an activist. I don't want to think about the impact everything makes in terms of, 'I can change the world, what can I do,'" because that affects how you write. And also, there's a lot of art that's considered activist art that is righteous and really bad. I'm a comedian. My goal is to make people laugh. It's not to make people think—it's to make people laugh. And the thing is, I'm a critical being. I'm a political being. I'm a racialized being. And as a result, you know, that double-consciousness, that double-lens will show up in my work.
You could be an essayist, too.
I don't think comedy is going to be the venue where I can most freely express a lot of complicated things. Because comedy can only do so much. You cut the fat. The great thing about comedy is it takes the complex and it makes it simple enough. But what other ways can I contribute to a larger conversation? This is so much bigger and it's so scary and it's hard not to feel a little disillusioned.
One thing I noticed is that you've got a lot of shows that are in cities and college towns in red states that were pro-Trump.
Booked it before Trump won. I'm a little anxious. A basic human idea that keeps us functioning in a society is, "I can walk around and not get hurt by another human being intentionally." That's, like, a fundamental societal thing, you know. This is why it's not like [Thomas] Hobbes's Leviathan. It's this idea that human nature, if there is such a thing, is controlled enough where we can function. And what Trump is bringing out is the worst in human nature. I don't wanna cast a large net on Kansas City and St. Louis. I don't wanna assume that people are gonna come out and be upset and violent. I don't wanna assume that I'm walking around at night and something bad's gonna happen. I'm definitely more cautious than I normally am. [My mom and I have] talked about it a little bit since Trump won, and today she was blunt. She was like, "You need to tone it down."
My mom tells me the same kind of stuff.
Oh, my mom hasn't told me this in a long time. She used to tell me this when I started doing comedy. And she was worried about how I spoke. [But today] she said, "You gotta tone it down. You don't need to change everything but you have to tone it down. These aren't good times." I'm like, "I'm not gonna tone it down." Like, there are people that risk their bodies, and I haven't been on the front lines in the same way as a lot of people do. There are people that put their bodies on the line for Black Lives Matter. The one thing I maybe have to help with, the one thing I have to add, is my voice. It's the one thing I contribute. And take that away, what the fuck's the point, then? That's the one thing I have, and the one thing I feel confident about. If that's taken away because of fear, then why do I do this?
A lot of times when I go to places, regardless of whether they're blue or red, there's a lot of people of color that come to my show that get something that they can't get from other places. It doesn't matter if it was in Brooklyn or not—just because you're in Brooklyn doesn't mean that there isn't racial tension and that you can express certain parts of your personality and that there isn't catharsis that comes with somebody who is echoing your beliefs in a funny way and actually can express what we're all feeling. And I'm lucky enough where I get to do that. And I know that there are people who are using me in classrooms or expressing things to their friends and coworkers, parents, or grandparents. I used to be an immigrant-rights organizer. I gave that up almost ten years ago—to pursue this, really. And if I'm not doing this the way I want to do this, then what am I doing with my life? It's a shame that this is what's come out of Trump's America before he's even taken office. These fears, these anxieties.
"I'm a brown comedian who came of age at 9/11, during a very progressive period of American history, who talks about really aggressive things, is not someone who doesn't fit the white/black binary or Latino and now shit hits the fans and he's in this weird in-between space that kind of works."
Are you going to be doing all-Trump sets this tour?
No, but there's some stuff sprinkled in. There's stuff I wrote in the last week. I mean, James, how could I not? I mean, how can I abstractly talk about immigration when he wants to send everyone back? How can I abstractly talk about feminism when he's talking about grabbing women by their vaginas? All the big things I care about and that are in my act seem extremely relevant now, because he's attacking all of them openly. I never thought being told I was necessary and important would depress me.
I'm a brown comedian who came of age at 9/11, during a very progressive period of American history, who talks about really aggressive things, is not someone who doesn't fit the white/black binary or Latino and now shit hits the fans and he's in this weird in-between space that kind of works. I get it. I get it. I mean, I've heard it enough. It does less for me than it used to. I wish I was able to say more, in a broader way.
Well, I mean, you've got the doc coming out in a little bit. Is that done?
It's getting close to being done. My initial worry [after Trump's win] was like, "Who cares, why is this relevant now?" You know, it's a thing about a representation. And then I took a second and I'm like, "Oh fuck, of course, it's relevant." If people can dehumanize other human beings and hurt them, that means they can't connect to them as human beings, and how do we connect to human beings? You either know them or you learn about them through media. And so the same reasons why, post-9/11, you had so many brown people being killed because nobody knows what a Sikh is; nobody knows what it means to be Muslim; nobody knows that "American" is much broader. When you think of an immigrant and you think of then as conniving or voiceless, what happens? And so we're at this point now, and I've read several things, both tweets and articles, where there've been multiple incidents around the country of brown people being hurt or being told to leave the country and being called "Apu." Like, holy shit! That comes out again. The doc isn't just about a cartoon character that made some Indian kids feel bad in the 90s. This film is about impact. It's about the legacy of minstrelsy. And TruTV let me do this, which I am very much grateful for.
Representation matters—not just because, you know, these actors can't get parts and that's not fair. It's that the stories aren't told, and they're not told honestly. And if you don't have people of color depicted as heroes, as people who fall in love and who get hurt and who have angst—not just victims of racism, not just biopics or Mississippi Burning-type shit—but human beings. Like, a love story about black people in the 1950s, where racism isn't the central point. People fell in love and had kids and lived lives. It's about humanization. And so that's a discussion that becomes more important, especially in a country where a president can depict a whole bunch of people as rapists. [Better representation] is why so many young people voted the other way, they didn't support Trump. They've grown up with more images, they've grown up with a diverse range of people. Even kids who are growing up in red states, in small towns, are like, "This is not right." They know it.
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