Fourteen years ago, Hari Kondabolu thought a career in stand-up comedy was impossible. “In 2004, 2005… South Asian stand-up didn’t seem realistic,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine anyone wanted me to do that.” Though Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling were rising stars, there were few popular South Asian comics in America at the time.
Jump forward a decade and a half, and Kondabolu is a leading voice in the industry he thought he would never break into. With a rise to fame that includes four recorded comedy specials, one of them released through Netflix, and the truTV documentary “The Problem with Apu”—not to mention two shows this week at the Southern Café & Music Hall—Kondabolu has garnered considerable awe during his ascent, surprising himself as much as his contemporaries.
“It’s still kind of shocking to me that the window was open,” he says. The “window” he refers to is HBO’s Comedy Festival, a now-defunct extravaganza that launched Kondabolu from Seattle, where he was working as an immigrant rights organizer by day and performing at night. He was introduced to a wider audience, and suddenly “had a career from that point on.”
It’s a career that has always incorporated his commitment to social justice. Even after the festival, Kondabolu made a point of getting his master’s in human rights before pursuing comedy full-time.
At first, he worried his interest in politics and activism would be a stumbling block to a successful career. “I said things that could bother people,” he explains.
Early on, he felt pressure to adopt a more palatable style of humor. “I think if I had, my career would’ve been a little faster,” he admits, but adds that such a sacrifice would have radically affected his comedic identity. “I didn’t want to change my tone or how I did things.”
W. Kamau Bell, a comedian whose work incorporates similar themes of activism, helped to convince Kondabolu that he should preserve his own values. “When I saw [Bell]…I was like, ‘This guy’s like me!’ We want to make this comedy that’s thoughtful and doesn’t throw marginalized people under the bus, that is intersectional.” He describes Bell as someone who “busted their ass to get themselves in a position to speak their truth to a national audience. …He’s doing this, so I’m going to stick to my guns and keep going too.”
Now, he’s among a wave of comics, like Hannah Gadsby and Hasan Minhaj, who’ve embraced political and social messages in their stand-up.
What aspect of Kondabolu’s humor makes it so edgy? Admittedly, he tackles America’s most taboo topics, whether it’s comparing the three Abrahamic religions to the Back to the Future trilogy or cleverly subverting Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” suggesting that our nation’s poor should harvest the bodies of the rich for food. Underlying almost every joke is the near-constant theme of race—or, as Kondabolu likes to call it, “made-up bullshit.”
Despite the content of his comedy and the passion that obviously imbues it, Kondabolu says his stand-up isn’t meant to be interpreted as a call to action. “I don’t think I’m changing minds,” he said. “I just want to make people laugh.”
It’s safe to say that he succeeds. Kondabolu offers something for everyone, even those who aren’t accustomed to such socially conscious stand-up. There’s a disarming, almost giddy sense of release in hearing him roast “American liberal cowards” for wanting to move to Canada, or compare Trump’s infamous “Grab her by the pussy” line to a Mortal Kombat character’s catchphrase. Kondabolu works a rare kind of magic with loaded issues, helping to defuse the tension around them but never denying their relevance.
While in the early 2000s, Kondabolu didn’t think he had a chance, he concedes that popular culture has recently shifted in his favor. “I think, in a lot of ways, society changed and I made more sense to people,” he says. “Now you have a lot of people who are talking about some of the things I’ve always talked about.”
Even with the increase in acceptance, he still faces resistance at his shows—often, in very ugly ways. Sometimes, during the middle of his sets, “people just yell Trump’s name as a heckle,” Kondabolu says. “It’s a weapon. It’s something that frightens people, or it shocks people. The word Trump is loaded now.”
On the other end of the spectrum are audience members who are deeply touched by what Kondabolu has to say. These people approach him after a show, Kondabolu says, “because they want to share something personal with me and how my comedy helped them through something.”
Rather than be put off by the polarized responses to his comedy, Kondabolu is reassured by them. “On both ends, there are these extreme reactions, which I think means I’m pretty good,” he says. “If it’s a scale of five, you want ones and fives. Threes heard you. Ones and fives mean you’re doing it right.”
Hari Kondabolu performs at the Southern Wednesday and Thursday nights.
Underlying almost every joke is the near-constant theme of race—or, as Kondabolu likes to call it, “made-up bullshit.”