For Comic Hari Kondabolu, Explaining The Joke IS The Joke
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Happy New Year. We're going to say goodbye to 2014 with two very funny people as we continue our holiday week series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. Later, we'll hear my interview with John Oliver. First, a comic who performed several time on the Comedy Central show Oliver used to host. Hari Kondabolu does a lot of comedy about race and ethnicity. His parents are from India. Here's a clip of Hari Kondabolu on "John Oliver's New York Stand-up Show" in 2010.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JOHN OLIVER'S NEW YORK STAND-UP SHOW")
HARI KONDABOLU: I've been traveling all over the world telling jokes. I was doing a show in Denmark last year. I don't know why.
KONDABOLU: It didn't go particularly well, not really the target demographic for this career.
KONDABOLU: I got heckled in a way I'd never been heckled before. A man got up in the middle of my show. He interrupted, and he said, hey, go back to America. Wow.
KONDABOLU: It's amazing. It's amazing because I have been told to go back to so many countries, and...
KONDABOLU: ...Never to America. I've been told Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. Whatever country we're bombing, I'm told to go back there.
GROSS: Kondabolu also worked as a writer and correspondent on W. Kamau Bell's political comedy series "Totally Biased" on FX. Bell says Kondabolu is the comedy equivalent of a punk-rock concert that breaks out at a human rights rally. Human rights was the direction Kondabolu initially headed in. He worked as an immigrant rights organizer in Seattle while performing stand-up at night, expecting that comedy would remain a sideline. In 2008, he got his MA in human rights from the London School of Economics. He was surprised when his stand-up career took off. This year, he released his debut album called "Waiting For 2042." The title is a reference to the year that the Census Bureau projects that whites will be in the minority in the U.S. Here's an excerpt of the track "2042 And The White Minority."
(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "WAITING FOR 2042")
KONDABOLU: Here's the bigger point. Here's the bigger point, right? Forty-nine percent white doesn't make you the minority. That's not how math works, right? Forty-nine percent white is only the minority if you think the other 51 percent is exactly the same, right? It only works if you think, well, it's 49 percent white people, and 51 percent you people. That's the only way that works.
KONDABOLU: Because that 51 percent is not a united front, OK, and it's easy to find out. Just ask a black guy and a Korean guy what happens when the black guy walks into the Korean guy's store, all right. I bet you the interaction might not be pleasant. I bet you it's not going to be like, hey, teammate. How's it going, teammate? Pretty excited, you? 2042, am I right? It's not...
KONDABOLU: That's not what's happening. There's some historic tension there. It's not a united front. And some of you might be thinking, well, Hari, you're saying that 51 percent is not exactly the same, but you're assuming that all white people are the same. Yes.
KONDABOLU: No, no, of course not. I'm joking - right? - because white isn't a thing. Race isn't a thing, right? It's a social construct; it's a way to divide us. It's not real, and we know this. There used to be signs in this country that said, no blacks, no Irish, no dogs, right? The Irish weren't white; the Jews weren't white; the Italians weren't white, right? Race is a way to divide us. It's not real, and the people of color in this room, you know this 'cause when you ask your white friends what their cultural heritage is, they don't just say white. They give you a math equation.
KONDABOLU: Well, I'm a third German and a fourth Irish and one-sixteenth Welsh and one-fortieth Native-American for college applications. I mean...
KONDABOLU: ...You know how this works.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Hari Kondabolu, welcome to FRESH AIR. You have your master's in human rights from the London School of Economics, and...
KONDABOLU: Yeah, I've wasted a lot of money before I decided to stand-up fulltime, Terry.
GROSS: Well, I've sure you've made so much money in stand-up that it well...
GROSS: It well made up for it.
KONDABOLU: Have you heard my act, Terry? I can play 10 cities.
GROSS: So you got your MA from the London School of Economics in 2008, and in 2005 you moved to Seattle to be an immigrant rights organizer. Did those two worlds ever come together? Did any of the immigrants you were working with ever recognize you from, say, Jimmy Kimmel, or did you ever tell jokes about deportation, which I think is probably unlikely?
KONDABOLU: I mean, a little bit. I mean, I did talk about, you know, immigrant rights, and I talked about immigration and my parents' story. And I talked about - and I talk about it on the album, too, just the ridiculousness of Mexican immigrants being called lazy and stealing all the jobs. Like, how do those two ideas even work together?
So I tried to find ways to incorporate a lot of that. I used to do a bit where I used to read the U.S. citizenship application onstage. And I think that's part of just being over-educated and wanting to do document analysis. But I would actually, like, bring it onstage and read questions, and, you know, try - 'cause for people who don't know, it's like this is what immigrants have to go through to gain status in this country, and it's absurd and something that we take for granted as American citizens.
So, you know, sometimes that was hard in a club on a Friday night. And it's 10 o'clock, and everyone's drunk, and there's a dude onstage reading, you know, a form. It's a strange thing to read a government form in front of a bunch of drunk people. But I felt like if enough...
KONDABOLU: Which is a lot of, like, late-night comedy, but I feel like if I was able to connect with enough people, it was worth doing.
GROSS: You'd get more laughs if those forms had breasts on them.
KONDABOLU: That's something that - I will send that to - I'm sure there's a government website where I can give feedback. That's a great idea, from me and Terry Gross.
GROSS: Well, so what was funny about the forms, like, that you would read and actually, you know, think was funny?
KONDABOLU: People - like, there were questions about, like, whether you were affiliated with a terrorist organization, which is like, why would you even include this?
KONDABOLU: You know, there's a lot of things that were just relics of another era, and, you know, whether you were ever, you know, a sex worker. They don't use sex worker, obviously; they use prostitute. But whatever it is in me had me say sex worker right now to you, but - because it should be sex worker. I mean, that is the proper term.
But yeah, like, they had questions like that, which I always thought, like, let's say you were somebody who was forced into sex work. That's an awful question to have to address on this form when you're so close to something amazing that gives you so much access and power, you know, American citizenship.
So, you know, to me, like, going through these questions with people and kind of making of them, like, felt great. And for people in my audience who have gone through that process, it was probably cathartic, and for me it was cathartic because I'm like - I was thinking about my mom, and my mom's a U.S. citizen, and what her process was like and the fact that she had to go through this, you know, as an Indian immigrant, you know, applying for citizenship.
Like, you know, it felt - it was pretty great to be able to do that bit.
GROSS: Do you ever feel guilty that you're doing stand-up comedy instead of helping immigrants?
KONDABOLU: A lot. I try to get over it. I have to 'cause you can't be a part-time organizer. There's no such thing. Even if organizers are paid part time or not at all, like, they're working full time. Like, you're supporting your communities. You know, there are a lot of folks who don't even get called organizers. They're just folks in their communities who have full-time jobs and families who are doing this because it helps their community. And they're organizers, too. They just don't get called that, and they don't get paid for it.
And it's a full-time thing, and I felt like if I did community organizing part time while doing stand-up, I would be doing both a disservice. I can't - I know I organized the rally, but I can't be there 'cause, you know, I'm going to be on Kimmel.
KONDABOLU: You know, it's a TV spot. I got my tight five ready to be on Kimmel. I can't - what? - you expect me to give up Kimmel because - you know, that's not how this works. And so I felt like, you know, there was a lot of guilt, but, you know, there's also been a lot of positive feedback and people saying that my work means a lot to them, and my comedy is new, and they never thought a voice like me would exist in the mainstream.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hari Kondabolu, and he has a new comedy album, which is called "Waiting for 2042." So your parents are from India. How did their lives change when they moved to New York?
KONDABOLU: Everything changed when my parents moved to New York. Well, my father moved first. It was the late '70s. I think he spent a year in a small town in Louisiana, which for some reason he didn't tell me this for years. He eventually moved to New York, worked at a Duane Reade drugstore - I think the original one, I think, on Duane and Reade Street in New York - and did not have proper shoes, did not have a proper coat, would unload boxes in the snow and stock shelves.
I remember my father telling me this story, which is, like, this is like a typical, beautiful, like, New York story. The folks who, I think, owned it were Jewish immigrants themselves, and they saw my father was studying 'cause I guess my father was going to take an exam. My father's an echocardiogram technician now.
And they saw him studying, and, you know, he thought he was in trouble because he got caught, like, reading on the job. And he explained, like, oh, I'm trying to take this test, I'm studying, and they were so moved by the fact that he was studying that they would let him take shifts where they would hire someone else to do the work, and he would just sit in the back room and study.
And they just - and the other employees would be, like, why is Ravi not working, why is he just studying? And they would say, he's studying, all right, you mind your business, let him study, leave him in peace. And it was just - that was - you know, I hear those stories, I'm like this is beautiful, and this is what New York is.
But it was hard. You know, my father really, really struggled. And my mom - like, it was an arranged marriage. My mother was a doctor in India. And, you know, an Indian woman who was a doctor in southern India in the '70s with her own practice. You know, my mom is a pioneering figure. Like she's - there are not that many women of that era in that region of India who had that, and my mom was that.
And - but, you know, tradition is what it is, and my grandfather really wanted her to get married. And, you know, she married my father and gave up being a doctor, moved to America. It didn't transfer over and, you know, had two kids, and that was something that never happened for her.
It was hard. Like, my folks struggled. And also I think there's this assumption, especially from relatives back home, that we must be rich. You know, you're in America, you're rich. And the thing is, a lot of my parents' friends in India are retired now. My parents can't retire. Like, they have to keep going.
So it's funny because - I think because I talk about class a lot, I think there's the assumption that I'm a working-class kid and that I struggled a ton and that's a lot of what informs my perspective. And the truth is that I was a middle-class kid - an upwardly mobile middle-class kid - and I got what I wanted and I went to rich-kid schools, and I was informed by that education. And it's not, you know - which is the truth. It doesn't mean I don't have a conscience, and I don't talk about things that affect me, but that is also the truth.
GROSS: I want to play another example of your comedy. And this actually comes from a performance that you gave on the stand-up comedy show that John Oliver used to have in which he showcased stand-up comics. And this part of your act having to do with God.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JOHN OLIVER'S NEW YORK STAND-UP SHOW")
KONDABOLU: I went bowling the other night, and I saw a man pray to his bowling ball - an adult human, an adult human being pray to God for bowling help.
KONDABOLU: Please, God, please, oh, give me this moment of strength. Please, Lord, in your name, give me this moment of glory. No. No, man. God is not going to help you bowl, OK?
KONDABOLU: I think God has more important things to do than help you bowl. But then, I started thinking about how screwed up the world is right now, maybe God does have time.
KONDABOLU: Because haven't you ever had a long list of things to do for the day, and you only pick the easy things to do first?
KONDABOLU: Maybe that's what God is doing. All right, see, genocide, poverty, war. I'm going to get that seven-ten split. Here you go.
KONDABOLU: You're welcome, Buffalo. Oh, hey, Africa, sorry again for the delay. Maybe after the Super Bowl.
KONDABOLU: I'm kidding. Of course, I'm kidding. God doesn't exist. Surprise. We're adult humans here.
GROSS: That's my guest Hari Kondabolu, appearing on John Oliver's show. Are there places where you can't make jokes about there is no God?
KONDABOLU: It's funny, hearing that joke for the first time in a while. I don't tell that joke anymore because I can't stand by it. It's weird hearing it. I just stopped doing it in my act because for a variety of reasons I think I started thinking more about God after that time when I - even probably when I was doing that joke. And I think my view of God has changed a lot because, of course, you know, I question God a great deal, like any human being should. And I want to believe there is a God. I want to believe there's something. And so I stopped telling that joke. How can I say it with such certainty when I don't know and when I really want there to be a God. So...
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hari Kondabolu, and he has a new comedy album, which is called "Waiting For 2042." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more and hear more of your comedy. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hari Kondabolu, and he has a new comedy album called "Waiting For 2042." And I want to play another track. It's actually the final track on the album. So let's listen to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "WAITING FOR 2042")
KONDABOLU: You all get the general sense of what I do, right? Some of you like it. Statistically, I'm sure some of you don't.
KONDABOLU: Some of you don't really understand the jokes, but you like clapping at the politics, right?
KONDABOLU: Some of you are white dudes dating minority women, and you have to pretend you enjoy this, like I...
KONDABOLU: I know. I've been around. I know how my audience works. I get it. But you get a general sense of what I do, so it's always interesting - right? - when I go to casting offices, when I talk to casting directors who have seen my stand-up. And they'll say things like, really funny, really unique point of view. We have a role that we think would be perfect for you. It's the role of a convenience store clerk in a deli. Can you do accents? Are you comfortable with that? What part of my act did you like, exactly?
KONDABOLU: Your skin is so beautiful. So - cocoa butter. Thank you. Cocoa butter.
KONDABOLU: Now the thing is I get how Hollywood works, right? Like, you get typecast based on your appearance, what they think you are. And the thing is if you really wanted to typecast me based on my appearance and what I have to say, there are roles that I would be perfect for. I actually made a list of those roles tonight.
KONDABOLU: Here are a list of roles that Hari Kondabolu would be perfect for if they existed in the world. The first role, of course, is the role of a young sociology professor at a small liberal arts school in Vermont who is desperately trying to stay hip, right? That is not hard for me.
KONDABOLU: That is not hard for me. This is a scene from that. Hey, hey, you don't need to cite your sources in this class. I trust you. I trust you.
Now, the second role, of course, that I'd be perfect for is the role is of a mutant created after a nuclear accident in Winnie-the-Pooh Land, a mutant that has Pooh's body, Piglet's anxiety, Owl's insomnia and Eeyore's depression, a mutant that only has one line he repeats over and over again; I'm so hungry, and I so want to die.
Now, the third role that I'd be perfect for, if it existed in the world, of course, is the role of a former radical leftist activist who is compromised and is now living a life as a middle-class, middle-aged father of three in suburban New York. Right? And here is a scene from that movie. Daddy, daddy, I want to be princess for Halloween. I want to be princess.
No. You will not be a princess because we do not believe in monarchy in this house. Do you understand me? Do you understand me, Gloria Steinem Kondabolu?
KONDABOLU: Now, you walk into your tent and you finish your quinoa and beets, and you bring your sister Bell Hooks Kondabolu out here...
KONDABOLU: ...And have her explain to me why I found a box of Monopoly in her room with the bank still in it.
GROSS: That's Hari Kondabolu from his new album "Waiting For 2042." So the part of your performance that we just heard is about how you're offered all these, like, stereotype roles and, like, what are they thinking? Do they know anything about you or your act? Why are they offering you this? So do you think, like, you will write something for yourself sometime - a TV show or a movie so that you could play a part that you wanted to play?
KONDABOLU: Absolutely. I mean, I want to write my own stuff, and, you know, it would be nice to put myself in it. But I would like to hope that there are going to be better roles offered as well and that I don't need to do everything. You know, like, I appreciate my career being somewhat DIY, but it would be nice to get some help.
KONDABOLU: I mean, certainly, like, you know, Jim Gaffigan cast me in a pilot for CBS two years ago as a vegan cashier at a vegan bakery, and I am not vegan. I'm actually a bit chubby, and I eat everything. I eat in a way - if my parents fed me the way I choose to eat as an adult, they would've lost custody.
KONDABOLU: You know what I mean? Like, I have no - I have no limitations. And so, like, that to me was like he just saw me as a funny comedian who could play this role and could figure it out.
GROSS: You first did stand-up when you were in high school, right?
GROSS: So what was your comedy like when you were in high school? Do you remember any of your really early jokes?
KONDABOLU: A lot of my early material was Indian-centric stuff, lots of accents. I used accents. I talked about my parents. I mean, it was stuff I'm not proud of, but, you know, the goal was to make people laugh and that's all - the only goal I had was to make people laugh. The idea of being true to myself or - I mean, to be fair, like, I really didn't have a self. I was 17, you know.
KONDABOLU: I had no real firm opinions at that point. So if the goal was to get the high of making people laugh, well, then mission accomplished. You know, I'm still doing it, so...
GROSS: At the risk of embarrassing yourself, would you be willing to share some of that early material?
KONDABOLU: Oh, lord.
KONDABOLU: You know, I talk about things my father would say with his accent. I don't do that anymore, obviously, but at the time it was like, it if worked, it worked.
GROSS: Why don't you do that anymore?
KONDABOLU: It doesn't - first of all, I don't do impressions well. That's not the main reason, but that should be noted, to begin with. It's hard having an accent in this country, and you are judged based on it. And I can imagine that it must be hard for my folks to work twice as hard to communicate.
And also the idea that when maybe my father says something, and he walks away, the idea that people are laughing because what he said is funny to them because of how he sounds crushed me when I thought about it. And the idea that I was contributing to that, it was hard. I've been saying this on stage.
Like, my father should be judged based on the content of his words and actions and not the accent that comes with it because he does a lot of ridiculous things that have nothing to do with his accent. And I think that's kind of how I've been approaching it. Like, they're human beings, and they should be viewed as parents and human beings and not just a series of funny sounds.
GROSS: Hari Kondabolu, thank you so much. It's really been fun.
KONDABOLU: Oh, it's been great, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: My interview with Hair Kondabolu was recording in April. His album is called "Waiting For 2042." We have an interview with John Oliver in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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