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Comedian Hari Kondabolu finds humor and substance in talking about race

July 30, 2014 at 6:45 PM EST
Comedian Hari Kondabolu has made a name for himself by speaking honestly -- and humorously -- about race. Kondabolu sits down Hari Sreenivasan at the Aspen Ideas Festival to discuss why colonialism can be a ripe subject for humor, and why comedians can say things that the rest of us can’t.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: an increasingly successful comedian who talks about race and ethnicity, as the country’s demographic picture continues to change substantially.

Hari Sreenivasan has our conversation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Comedian Hari Kondabolu has made a name for himself for the brand of humor that doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to race.

HARI KONDABOLU, Comedian: When you ask your white friends what their cultural heritage is, they never just say just white. They give you a math equation.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI KONDABOLU: I’m a third German. I’m a fourth Irish. I’m one-sixteenth Welsh and one-fortieth Native American for college applications.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

HARI KONDABOLU: Damn, Steve. All these years, I thought you were just white.

(APPLAUSE)

HARI KONDABOLU: Thank you very much.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And he hasn’t been afraid to bring his incisive jokes to national audiences on “David Letterman,” “Conan,” and “Jimmy Kimmel.”

His new album is called “Waiting for 2042,” a reference to the year when whites will become a minority, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

I recently caught up with him at the Aspen Ideas Festivals, and learned why colonialism, of all things, can be a ripe subject for humor and why comics can say the things that the rest of us can’t.

I have never interviewed — a Hari interviewing a Hari, this is a brand-new thing for PBS.

HARI KONDABOLU: Oh, this is fascinating.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.

Your comedy has a little bit more headiness to it than a lot of the stuff that we see today. You talk about — you try to make fun of sort of colonialism and some of the repercussions that we’re living with today.

HARI KONDABOLU: Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How is colonialism funny? And how is how we’re living today in the context of colonialism funny?

HARI KONDABOLU: Well, it’s — well, I think about it in terms of how people make fun of my parents for their accent and all that.

And I’m like, you realize it’s absurd they’re speaking English?  Like, they’re not supposed to be speaking English. They have to speak English because they grew up in a colonized country that England colonized, and also they’re here for greater economic opportunities.

So it’s funny — that’s funny to me.

So, before we begin, I would like you to all know that the theme of my set tonight will be colonialism.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI KONDABOLU: Which is why I am speaking only in English.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI KONDABOLU: This is — no, this is absurd. This is all absurd. This isn’t their fault.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And your comedy has evolved over the years.

HARI KONDABOLU: Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: When you first started out, you were able to make fun of Indian accents that you grew up around, that you heard.

HARI KONDABOLU: Sure.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How did that change?  And why did you choose to get away from that?

HARI KONDABOLU: I mean, I started doing that because it was easy. And I think a comedian wants to make the audience laugh. That’s standard for any comic.

But when you’re starting, that’s all you’re thinking about. There isn’t the possibility of, what do I want to say and do I know what I want to say and what’s my point of view?  That all comes later, so initially that’s all I wanted to do. And accents did it. Like, if I did a funny voice — we saw with Apu it on “The Simpsons.” Like…

HARI SREENIVASAN: He was the most famous South Asian growing up for both of us.

HARI KONDABOLU: Yes. Yes, and Gandhi. Apu and — Gandhi and a cartoon were the two options that we had.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right. There is a significant gap. Right.

HARI KONDABOLU: And so I knew that would work. There was precedent for it. And so I did impressions of my father.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Over time, did you get to realize that that’s the low bar?

HARI KONDABOLU: Oh, yes. It felt low even then. Even when I was 17, 18, I knew this was easy. But when you’re trying to make people laugh, that’s what you did.

And I think, thinking about my parents and thinking about how hard it was for them to have accents and communicate in this country, and the fact that, OK, I’m making a joke with an accent, people are laughing at the accent, I think, not at the joke or the cleverness of the joke, but at the accent.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, are they laughing at me or with me?

HARI KONDABOLU: And it was clear they were laughing at me, and more specifically at my parents.

And when my parents talk to people, do people laugh behind their backs and do impressions of them? I started to think about it. And, post-9/11, just there was — everything felt more complicated. It was that interesting thing of, like, what am I talking about, really?  What — this is the most base level experience. And I’m talking about that, vs. what’s really happening in America.

And, at that point, a 19-, 20-, 21-year old, I was making other college students laugh on campus at Bowdoin College. But I wasn’t doing anything of substance. And I knew there must be a way to say something funny, but that I meant.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes. Your album is titled “Waiting for 2042.”

HARI KONDABOLU: Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What happens in 2042?

HARI KONDABOLU: 2042, according to the census figure and the news media that is reporting it, is the year when white people will be the minority in America.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Why does that matter?

HARI KONDABOLU: I don’t know why it matters, to be perfectly honest.

But the news media keeps reporting this number. And the census is counting it. So clearly people are freaked out about it. And I think there are groups of white people that are very afraid of being the minority and what that would mean.

And my whole point is, first of all, 49 percent, which is the number, doesn’t make you the minority, obviously, because that is assuming the other 51 percent is exactly the same, which it isn’t, and also that all white people are the same, and also that white and all race is a thing. It’s made up. It’s a construct.

There was a time that the Irish were not white, like, then where the Irish — the Italians weren’t white. The Polish, weren’t white. Jews weren’t white. There’s all these interesting kinds of questions we have to ask ourselves about what race is. And instead of doing that and asking those questions, we’re giving ourselves numbers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On the album cover is a picture that is worth 1,000 words for any South Asian, but why that picture?

HARI KONDABOLU: The picture is me on the back of a bicycle rickshaw being driven by an old white man wearing a suit.

And it’s me pointing into the distance like some kind of colonial hero, you know, wearing a crown. I know it bothers some people, and other people love it. And I want it etched on my gravestone, because I’m sure it’s what’s going to get me killed.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI SREENIVASAN: Have you gotten pushback for that picture?

HARI KONDABOLU: Yes. I have gotten pushback for the picture, but mostly for the content on the album, or not even just really — I don’t think the people who are the angriest have even heard the record.

I think it’s folks who don’t like the idea of me talking about race in this way and accuse me of being obsessed with race, even though it’s — I’m not the one that is talking about 2042, really. I’m commenting on people being obsessed with these demographics.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what is it about comedy that allows us to have difficult conversations about race?

HARI KONDABOLU: Right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You have seen African-Americans for decades go through and say things on stage that they would never say at a dinner party.

HARI KONDABOLU: Right. Or maybe they would say it.

HARI KONDABOLU: I think comedians also have that ability to be kind of uncomfortable or inappropriate.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.

HARI KONDABOLU: But then they’re on stage and it’s appropriate.

If you can make people laugh, you can get away with a lot. And, sometimes, that’s terrible. But, sometimes, I also think — you know, I remember being a kid. And I didn’t read lots of academic journals. And I didn’t follow the news as much as I probably should have.

But the people that conveyed the news to me and taught me about the world were comedians, because they traveled and they saw the world and they met many different types of people. And they were outside of whatever bubble I was in as a young person.

And so comedians really can convey messages to the masses. Like, not everyone is going to be watching NewsHour, right, but they will listen to comics, and they will watch comics, and they will go see them perform. And that’s incredible.

And I want to make people laugh, but I do see some responsibility in, like, I might be somebody who is exposing you to a new point of view, and I might be the only person who is doing that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, this has been your first time interviewed by a Hari.

HARI KONDABOLU: Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How did it go?

HARI KONDABOLU: It’s great. It’s like talking to myself. It’s very comfortable.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Good. That’s good.

HARI KONDABOLU: Yes. Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Hari Kondabolu, thanks so much.

HARI KONDABOLU: So nice to do this, Hari.