Sometimes Explain, Always Complain : Code Switch It's Thanksgiving week, so we wanted to give y'all a question to fight about: How much context should you have to give when talking about race and culture? Is it better to explain every reference, or let people go along for the ride? Comedian Hari Kondabolu joins us to hash it out.


You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Gene Demby.


And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. It's the week of Thanksgiving.


MERAJI: And we wanted to give you something to fight about.

DEMBY: Goodie.

MERAJI: Something besides the presidential campaign and your relative's trash-ass boyfriend...

DEMBY: Very trash.

MERAJI: ...Or that trash-ass turkey they're making.

DEMBY: Oh, all turkey's trash. All turkey's trash.

MERAJI: So we're going to re-air one of our most controversial episodes, the first episode where our listeners got good and pissed off at us.


MERAJI: It was our episode on - dun-dun-dun (ph) - the explanatory comma.

DEMBY: Oh, yes. The explanatory comma - do we need to give a little explanatory comma for the explanatory comma?

MERAJI: Let's do it.


MERAJI: So the background for this episode was that we as a team - we had just had a retreat. We were planning out our next year. You know, who did we want to interview? What big story ideas did we want to cover? And one of the things we got stuck on when we were talking about all this was what we wanted to sound like and whether or when or how we should explain certain things to the audience because there's this thing that happens in the news, in radio and television and magazines all the time where someone will explain a reference in a story.

DEMBY: And it was in that meeting that our editor coined this thing, the explanatory comma.

MERAJI: Did our editor coin that thing? What editor? I don't know if that's true.

DEMBY: I mean, I don't want to name names. I mean...

MERAJI: I don't know who coined it. Anyway, somebody coined it in that meeting.

DEMBY: Regardless of who was responsible for the coinage, somebody in that meeting coined this term, right?

MERAJI: Right. And let's see. We should give an example - right? - of an explanatory comma. OK. Here's one. Celia Cruz, probably best - no. Actually, it wouldn't be said like that. Celia Cruz, probably best known as the queen of Latin music, hailed from Cuba, an island in the Caribbean.

DEMBY: They would identify the Caribbean. They would explain the Caribbean.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Whatever salsa is, Celia Cruz is the undisputed queen of it. She was born in Havana, Cuba, probably more than 60 years ago. Celia Cruz says...

MERAJI: That little aside about Celia might be useful for people who don't know her.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: But for people who grew up in a house where her music was played and who can quimbara quimbara quma quimbamba (ph) all day and all night, well, that explanation says to that person, oh, this story is not for me. Where are my claves? Drop that beat.


CELIA CRUZ: (Singing) Quimbara quimbara quma quimbamba, quimbara quimbara quma quimbamba, quimbara quimbara quma quimbamba, quimbara quimbara quma quimbamba, ee mama, ee mama, ee mama, ee mama...

MERAJI: So the explanatory comma became kind of self-referential for us. Like, we do it all the time in our episodes.



KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: So a quick jackfruit explanatory comma - jackfruit's a tropical fruit. It's a member of the...

MERAJI: Explanatory comma time. The Congressional Black Caucus was founded in the 1970s for black lawmakers.

DEMBY: Which means I guess we need a quick explanatory comma - we haven't done one of those in a minute.


DEMBY: We do it to signpost that we're about to explain something, but we also do it so the people who know know that we know that they know. And explaining things is not a small thing. Like, how you decide whether to explain something or not tells you a lot about who a storyteller understands their audience to be. And the CODE SWITCH audience is younger and browner than the NPR audience, and we want our audience to be different than the NPR audience more broadly. So we're going to have to make some different choices about the kind of things we explain and the kind of things we just leave to y'all to figure it out via context or to look up on Google.

MERAJI: You know, there was a lot of disagreement in that meeting, though...

DEMBY: Oh, yes.

MERAJI: ...That we had during the retreat, right?

DEMBY: A lot.

MERAJI: People were like, leave aside whether we're overexplaining for white people. All people of color are obviously not starting in the same place around any set of references.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: Like, maybe I know a lot about Celia Cruz, and the average person may not. Like, you, Gene - do you know a lot about Celia Cruz?

DEMBY: I know a little bit about Celia Cruz. "Azucar" - I know that one. "Azucar"...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: That's what I know. Why is that funny?

MERAJI: I have no idea. OK.

DEMBY: Someone else on our team, though, pointed out that, you know, yes, people of color don't have the same references. However, people of color are used to not being centered in conversation, so they can work that muscle a little bit, right? They, like, know what it's like to be in a conversation and to not be spoken to directly. And so they can navigate those conversations a little more deftly.

MERAJI: And our editors were like, hey. If you all are arguing about this this much in this meeting, there's probably an episode in here somewhere. And they were right.


MERAJI: We did an episode on the 20th anniversary of Tupac's death - his killing. And a listener, a white woman in her 50s, said that she felt left out of that conversation.


MERAJI: She could tell that Tupac mattered a lot to us, but she said we didn't explain why he should matter to her.

DEMBY: So we dedicated an entire episode to that dynamic around explaining. And, y'all, we got so many letters. Some people were angry, explaining, like...

MERAJI: A lot of people, actually.

DEMBY: Yeah. They were like, OK. Your job as journalists is to explain things. That's how it works. And we got some letters from people who were like, you know - they were appreciative of the fact that we explicated that dynamic, right? They were like, learning to sit in that space where you were not the center of a conversation is an important part of having productive conversations about race.

MERAJI: And some of the responses we got were surprising. A lot of white people that listen to this show said they liked getting to listen to a conversation where not everything was explained to them. They liked being that fly on the wall. And there was a woman of color who was like, you know, I'm an immigrant in the U.S., and I need explanations for, like, every cultural reference.

DEMBY: Yeah. I think the reference she was - she - I think she was talking about Duck, Duck, Goose. Like, when she first got here, she was like, what is this duck? What is this goose?

MERAJI: Let's play the episode.


MERAJI: So we wrestle with this question every time we do an episode and every time we write a story. When do we use the explanatory comma? When don't we? And we invited Hari Kondabolu on the show to help us think through the conundrum.

DEMBY: We will be checking up with him after the break. And here it goes - the explanatory comma. Take it away, Shereen.

MERAJI: Hari Kondabolu is a comedian who talks about race and has a podcast of his own called "Politically Re-Active."

DEMBY: That was good.

MERAJI: They do an outsized version of what we're calling the explanatory comma on their podcast. And they call it Hold Up, Wait A Minute.

HARI KONDABOLU: It's like, you want to reach as many people as possible, you have to do it. And I do it reluctantly.

DEMBY: Don't go away. This is CODE SWITCH.


MERAJI: Time to bring in Hari Kondabolu. He's a comedian whose jokes keep him on NPR and off television.


MERAJI: His words, not mine. And...

KONDABOLU: I laugh, but I'm in pain.


MERAJI: And he co-hosts the "Politically Re-active" podcast with Kamau Bell. Welcome to CODE SWITCH.

KONDABOLU: Oh, my God, thank you for having me. It's an honor.

MERAJI: Do you listen to this podcast?

KONDABOLU: No, but I've heard of it.


KONDABOLU: I don't listen to podcasts. I don't watch television.

MERAJI: Come on, man. Well, we listen to your podcast.

KONDABOLU: Here's what I do, OK?

MERAJI: Yes, tell me. Tell us.

KONDABOLU: If there was a "Law And Order" podcast, which I heard there was recently, I would listen to that. And on TV, I watch "Law And Order." And the scripts I'm writing are heavily "Law And Order" influenced. So basically, that's all I have.


MERAJI: We brought you on because I was listening to your podcast - and I know now that you don't listen to ours - "Politically Re-Active." And you had S.E. Cupp on. This was a couple months ago. It was before the election. S.E. Cupp is a conservative political commentator. She used the word cuck (ph).

DEMBY: Can we say cuck? Do we have a - is that a beeper word?

MERAJI: Cuck. And basically, you guys were like, hold up. Wait a minute. And you left the interview and you went into this two-minute-long definition of cuck for your audience.

KONDABOLU: Every time I hear that word, stomach turns.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: I know, right? It just sounds disgusting.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hold up. Wait a minute.

KONDABOLU: OK, that was a very cringeworthy (ph) educational moment. If you're unfortunate enough to Google the term cuck, you'll find that it's got a fetish meeting and a political meaning. We're talking about the second - kind of the first, too. So to properly explain this, we are going to dive into the manosphere (ph).

MERAJI: And you basically said it's what alt-right folks call people who are, you know, pro-feminist, anti-racist, that kind of thing. It's an insult, obviously.


MERAJI: So you did this whole thing, and there was music underneath. It was highly produced. And we loved it, and we were wondering where that idea came from.

KONDABOLU: The Hold Up, Wait A Minute segment?

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: Yes. Oh, it's a whole segment that you guys do more than once?

KONDABOLU: Oh, have you not listened to the podcast?

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: Well, I've listened - you don't do it every time.

KONDABOLU: Oh, that's funny. Yeah, we do it every time, but that's funny.


KONDABOLU: Oh, you didn't get a chance to listen to the podcast, I guess.

MERAJI: No, I listened to the...

KONDABOLU: It's a regular thing.

MERAJI: Whatever, Hari.

KONDABOLU: People actually say that in my show, they say hold up. Wait a minute.


KONDABOLU: That's funny. That's funny. Interesting.

MERAJI: Cut this out, Rund. Cut this out.

DEMBY: No, leave this in. Leave this in.


KONDABOLU: All right. Hold Up, Wait A Minute - where'd it come from?

DEMBY: Yeah, where did that come from?

KONDABOLU: I mean, Kamau and I were both - both of us believe in making sure the audience is up to speed enough where we can actually make the jokes we want to make and have the conversations we want to have. Like...


KONDABOLU: We're both known to do that. That's why I think people called professorial, which also might be because they don't think we'll make money.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

KONDABOLU: But yeah, so, I mean, we knew that we had to find some way to define some of this stuff because, like, some of it was kind of wonky. And some of it was, like, inside, and, you know, we want somebody who's older and maybe doesn't, you know, use the Internet the way, you know, and millennials do to understand the show. And we want people like me who have no idea what's going on outside of "Law And Order" to know, like, what these terms are and how cable news works.

So, you know, it basically is a - is an explanatory comma. But as long as it gets us up to speed, then after that point, you know, we can really push the conversation further.

DEMBY: How do you guys decide what in the conversation deserves that, like, Hold Up, Wait A Minute explanatory comma treatment?

KONDABOLU: I mean, a big part of it is trying to think about who the audience is and what kind of audience you're trying to reach, right?

MERAJI: Right.

KONDABOLU: And for us, we're trying to get as many people as possible. So, you know, we had dream hampton on. And when dream was on, we're like - we defined tons of, like, hip-hop terms and the name - like, who different rappers were. And while I was doing - because that's the thing. I thought about the fact that, like, I hate the fact we're doing this so older white people understand.


DEMBY: Yeah, that feeling.

KONDABOLU: And at the same time, I want them to understand because these figures are not just rap figures. They're important figures. Tupac is, to me, a historical figure. He had a great deal of influence, same thing with Biggie. You have to mention both, otherwise it's bad. And also, I'm from the East Coast.

DEMBY: Yeah, thank you.

MERAJI: Whatever; I'm from the West Coast - Tupac.

KONDABOLU: But, like, I want everybody to be in on the conversation. I want people to know who these people are that I'm referencing and the songs. And, you know, this is part of the culture I grew up with, and I feel like they should get it. But at the same time, while I was explaining it, you know, I was kind of pouting, like, who doesn't know who L.L. Cool J is?


KONDABOLU: Are you serious? You know, things like that.

MERAJI: So you were being transparent about that. You were like, come on, dummies.

KONDABOLU: I - yeah. When I think it's something that people should know - or, more often than not, where I think it's stuff - because, you know, the whole idea of the explanatory comma often ends up being stuff that is about people of color or marginalized groups because of how white supremacy works and what gets put out into the mainstream. Like, ours is the stuff that has to get explained.

DEMBY: Sure, yeah.

MERAJI: Yes, exactly.

KONDABOLU: So, like, to me, I wanted to explain it because I want to reach as many people as possible because we're talking about lots of complicated and big things. And at the same time, I wanted to make it clear to listeners who do know what I'm talking about that, you know, this is also for us. And you shouldn't feel like, you know, this section isn't for you, and me reacting that way is my way of winking at you.

DEMBY: OK. That is a thing that I think we feel a lot, right? It's, like, are we talking to white people here when we do that? You know what I mean? - that sort of specific anxiety over that.

KONDABOLU: Really, NPR? Really?

DEMBY: (Laughter) I know, who would have guessed? But there's other stuff, where you're, like, oh, well, if you don't know that, you can just Google it. Like, you can miss that reference. It's fine.

KONDABOLU: It just feels one-sided. I mean, that's the part that frustrates me the most.


KONDABOLU: Like, really, NPR?

KONDABOLU: Like, you think I know who Marina Abramovic is? Like...

MERAJI: I have no idea who that is.

KONDABOLU: She's, like, a performance artist. And, you know, she did a thing with Jay-Z once, which was a big mainstreaming, and then she complained about it later.

MERAJI: There was probably no explainer after her name.

DEMBY: Right.

KONDABOLU: No, there was no explainer - or not one that felt equivalent to, you know, like, the Tupac example that you gave. Like, I feel like it speaks volumes about who an audience is, who they're targeting, who is valued when it's only one-sided. So I don't mind the comma. I think it's important to put people on the same page. I mind when it's not fairly distributed.

MERAJI: Do you and Kumau talk to your producer - do you talk to each other and say, oh, you know, we wish we would have explained this thing better when you listen back to the podcast? And do you have any examples...


MERAJI: ...Of where you were, like, oh, we probably lost people when we were talking about such and such?

KONDABOLU: Yeah. I mean, you know, because the turnaround time for the podcast because it's weekly, you know, and both our schedules come out - and I have really busy schedules, and so it becomes really difficult. So sometimes, we miss a few things. But certainly during the, you know, Hasan Minhaj episode, you know, we defined a few things, but there was a ton of comedy references that we didn't explain. Like, he said some words in Hindi that we didn't explain. Like biryani - like, we didn't explain what biryani is. And I would like to think people know what biryani is, but that's a - NPR people would explain, I would hope - actually, I don't hope...

MERAJI: You would hope? Yeah.

KONDABOLU: Yeah, I would hope they wouldn't. I mean, I guess I would only say hope because if nobody knows, at least they know this delicious dish exists.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

KONDABOLU: And it's not just like, you mean the Eastern version of paella? I mean, I would lose my mind. I would lose my mind.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Yeah, that's the other thing. Like, what if you do the explanatory comma wrong? Like, what if you say - your explanation is actually trash?

KONDABOLU: Yeah. I mean, you've got to be careful because it almost causes more damage - right? - you know - and also how you minimize something that's important to a group of people. Like, you know, the thing with Hold Up, Wait A Minute on our podcast is that we can go for a while.


KONDABOLU: I mean, that's part of what makes it great. An explanatory comma - you can't write a page after the comma and then end the comma and continue the sentence.

DEMBY: Right.

KONDABOLU: I mean, you really have to be brief, and it's going to be minimizing. So, you know, sometimes I wonder, like, should we actually just do a parenthesis after and just make a longer explanation? Or is a footnote better - in written form, I mean. Or is there another way to do it? - because I think sometimes, you really have to put time in to define the terms and define the people. And it's worth it if people get a fuller picture.

DEMBY: Do you think other people of color need the comma sometimes to understand each other, right?


DEMBY: I mean, it's not just white folks who don't get it, right?

KONDABOLU: Oh, yeah.

DEMBY: I mean, often in our team, sometimes we talk to each other. And I'm like, I have no idea what you're talking about right now.

KONDABOLU: Yeah. I mean, sometimes, I think, you know, white people is also kind of a slang, right? It's, like, for a larger thing, like, white supremacy or privilege or whatever else.

DEMBY: Sure.

KONDABOLU: But, like, you know, you know, it doesn't always just mean literally all white people. That's not what it means. But it's kind of - we're all being forced to live in a system of white supremacy and, therefore, the majority of the references we're going to get fed are things that are dominant in white culture and is claimed to be American culture and only American culture. And then we have our other stuff, you know, like our family stuff, our community stuff. And, you know, that's - that becomes our other consciousness. But still there's that overarching everything is filtered through a white lens. I'm going to know a certain version of history. I'm as ignorant about black - maybe not as ignorant - but I'm certainly more ignorant about black history than I should be if I was taught properly about how this country actually was created. And that's because, you know, this is, again, a system of white supremacy. That's how that works...

DEMBY: Right.

KONDABOLU: ...You know, we are less than. So, yeah, I think it's not just white people.

MERAJI: What about in your comedy? Is it different or the same? You know, I was listening to "Mainstream American Comic." It was recorded in Portland, Ore., so I'm assuming that most of your audience was white. Actually, you made a bunch of jokes about how everyone was white.


KONDABOLU: And Portland's so white that when I see a white dude with, like, face tattoos, I consider them a person of color at this point.


KONDABOLU: Minority head nod - stay strong, brother. Stay strong.


KONDABOLU: I hear that at my shows in cities like Portland, like, every person of color is there, and they know each other. And they're like, oh, my God. It's everybody.

DEMBY: (Laughter) This is all of us.

KONDABOLU: And it's still mostly white.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: So do you feel like you have to explain things in a different way in Portland than you do in Queens or something? Do you add more explanatory commas to your comedy?

KONDABOLU: Sometimes. I mean, you can kind of tell based on how the crowd is reacting to certain things. If they're getting it, I don't, you know? I'd prefer not to. Unless, like - you know, I have a joke on my first album "Waiting For 2042" about "Roots." And I, you know, have to explain what "Roots" is to a lot of people...

DEMBY: You have to explain what "Roots" is?

KONDABOLU: Yeah, you'd be surprised. When I made the joke initially, like, people just froze up.


KONDABOLU: I'm trying to walk by these two people on the street when I overhear what the black woman is saying to the white child. This is what she's saying. Toby, your name is Toby. Can you say it? That's your name. Say it. Your name is Toby. Your name is Toby. One, two, three, four, five.


KONDABOLU: All right. All right. About 20 of you in the core demographic. For the rest of you who are like, why is this is interesting that his name is Toby? There's a book/miniseries by Alex Haley called "Roots." And in "Roots," a slave, Kunta Kinte, is brought to America and is told his name is Toby and refuses to be called Toby, so he's whipped repeatedly. Your name is Toby; Kunta Kinte - whip. Toby; Kunta Kinte - whip - absolutely horrific. Now, flash forward to my neighborhood in Brooklyn two years ago. I saw a black woman tell a white child that his name was Toby, and there was nobody else there to see this. It was just me the whole time. Like, what the - wow. Wow. I have been in a writing slump. This is perfect.

You know, all of a sudden, people remembered "Roots." Or the people who didn't know what "Roots" was - like, they got the joke 'cause I kind of explained it and then made the joke again. And that kind - and the idea that I would explain it would be funny. But, you know, that was a clever way to do it because I was frustrated that a joke I felt everyone should know about, you know, things aren't fair, and the knowledge that we should know what we don't know, I'm still glad it's getting out there.

DEMBY: So what about - are there times - are there guidelines for the times when you want to specifically, like, narrowcast? Like, I'm talking specifically to dazey (ph) people, who are Americans, who are millennials and you say something...


DEMBY: Like, are there guidelines around what you would say or any sort of, like, rule of thumb?

KONDABOLU: I mean, I don't need to explain much of anything. I can go real deep, you know? Like, when I'm with, like, other brown people and it's a brown - it's like - I don't do many brown shows. It's not that I dislike it. I just don't do very many.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

KONDABOLU: But when I do - it's - no - 'cause some people don't 'cause they don't want to be branded, oh, you're just playing for brown people.

MERAJI: Oh, right.

KONDABOLU: I'm like, just brown people - what the hell does that mean? Like, yeah, I like performing culture because there's all these jokes I lose. You know, like white comics don't lose all those jokes, you know, culturally because, like, it's mainstream, right? But for us, we lose tons of stuff that's hilarious because not everybody has the experience. So, I mean, it's great to not explain and it's great to just get on with it. But when I'm on stage generally, like, I think about it in terms of a wide audience. Because early on I remember I didn't explain stuff as much and I was stubborn about it and it just meant that I lost laughs that I deserved because the joke was built well. But, yeah, there's something freeing about performing without that because you're just talking in a conversation.

MERAJI: Yeah. It feels like if you do want to reach the broadest possible audience, you have to do the explanatory comma, which makes me feel like you're watering it down a little bit. It doesn't have that - I don't know, it doesn't have that sabor. It doesn't have that flavor that I would want the product to have if we were just gearing it towards an audience of color. Am I allowed to say - now see, I feel bad for saying that.

KONDABOLU: No. I think - because, I mean, I'm trying to figure out - like, I mean, because there's some examples I'm sure that, like, it doesn't lose as much impact and some where it's, like, man, we're really getting into something and then all of a sudden it has to be like, you know, the Black Panthers were a very important, you know, like, you know.

MERAJI: Right. Let me give you an example. OK. I had a story on NPR's All Things - no, it was on Morning Edition. So it was broadcast. It wasn't on the podcast. Things are a little bit, you know, stiffer.


MERAJI: And I was doing a piece about a Guinean web series and the director referenced Nollywood. And right after she referenced Nollywood, I said - I came back and said, she's talking about West Africa's version of Hollywood in Nigeria, also known as Nollywood. What do you think? Should I...


DEMBY: That...

KONDABOLU: I'm thinking...

MERAJI: I feel like we don't do that for Bollywood.

DEMBY: No, we wouldn't do that for Bollywood.

KONDABOLU: No because it's broad enough. But Nollywood, like, I know what it is but I don't know - I mean, I also grew up in Queens, you know, you pick up stuff.

MERAJI: Right.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: I tried to make it as natural as possible within the flow of the story, but it just felt like it took me out of the story and I'm assuming that it probably took other people out of the story. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's...

KONDABOLU: I mean, if I was - let's say I was Nigerian and I heard that, immediately, it's, like, oh, this is not for me.

DEMBY: Yeah. That's - so that is the thing...


DEMBY: ...I think that we are worried about, that feeling right there. It's like, OK, we explained this and you're like, oh, this is too 101 for the people that we think we're talking to.

KONDABOLU: I think that when a person of color is put in a position where they get to be a lead in a part or get to share their story, it has to be justified, you know, and it has to be explained and made mainstream, right? And when we were growing up, you know, everything was white, basically, you know, on mainstream television and film. We had to figure it out. We had to. You know, we couldn't be like, I'm sick of seeing people that don't look like me and don't represent my stories. Then we couldn't enjoy anything. And so, you know, we had to absorb and figure it out. And since - because of white supremacy, they don't need to absorb and figure it out all the time. It's such a new concept. And so I would imagine it's frustrating, like, oh, my God, they're doing a story about Nollywood. I don't need to just figure it out. Oh, they explained - really, it's for them? After all this? After all, this thing is - this is finally - this is not going be covered anywhere else. OK, great.

MERAJI: Thanks. You're making me feel terrible about that.

KONDABOLU: No. I mean, it's not - we're stuck. I mean, it's a weird situation to be in, right?

MERAJI: It is weird.

KONDABOLU: Because I don't want to leave people out because there's a lot of, like - you know, I want people to be educated on a broad range of things. And it really, I guess, it depends on your purpose. Like, are you making something inside baseball or are you making something that is trying to explain the game to people? And that's a different - those are two different goals.

MERAJI: Can you walk a line? Can you walk a line is what we're trying to figure out.

DEMBY: Right. So we're thinking about, like, the spectrum of - it's a continuum. On one end is Morning Edition - right? - which is where Shereen's piece was broadcast. They're going for this big audience with millions of people. It's, like, easy entry for everybody. They're as broad as possible, right?


DEMBY: Or something like "The Read" - right? - which is a podcast that we love and also does no explaining, right? Like, it's like you have to get all these references...

MERAJI: If you don't know who Future's baby mama is and if you don't know, I mean, too bad. You're going to be left behind.

DEMBY: Right. It's like there's all this assumed knowledge. And so some of that is like, OK, this is really ingroup, right? This is someone who's speaking specifically to me if you are a, like, diehard listener to "The Read." But I bet for a bunch of people it's, like, a big barrier to entry too, like, 'cause I have - like, oh, I have no idea what they're talking about right now.

KONDABOLU: I mean, when people had to explain A Tribe Called Quest on NPR, my brain almost exploded. I was, you know...

DEMBY: So me and Shereen are huge Tribe fans, so it's like, oh, my gosh.


MERAJI: I mean, I've listened to critiques of our podcast and people have said, you know, certain brown people have said I like it much better when you guys don't do that. You know, it sounds like you. You sound more comfortable. You sound more like yourself.

KONDABOLU: Yeah because we've already taken the intro courses.


KONDABOLU: You know what I mean? Like, that was - like, you know, our lives. Like, we've already done all that work. Why do we have to fall behind because somebody else didn't do the required reading?

MERAJI: I feel like you started this out being a real promoter of the explanatory comma and I feel like you're now on our dark side of...

KONDABOLU: No, I'm kind of in between. I'm like, it depends on what your purpose is, right? It's nuanced. If - like - it's like you want to reach as many people as possible, you have to do it. And I do it reluctantly (laughter) but I do it and I find - I try to make the most of it. So I'll try to make a joke out of it. I'll make sure I express some frustration. I try to make it clear that, like, this is something you should know. I don't want people to feel bad but I want you to know that this is important to a lot of people. I mean, until there is a fair media representation, until we're taught in schools a broader range of history, like, this is the way it's going to be. And until that time, like, I'd rather people get educated and be on the same page and be able to understand bigger ideas than not.

MERAJI: I feel like we should leave it right there.

DEMBY: I think so, too.

KONDABOLU: Yeah, 'cause what better way to leave something with a comedian than something that was so sad and depressing?


MERAJI: Misery loves company, though. I actually felt good after I heard you say that. I was like, OK, we're not alone.

KONDABOLU: Yeah. No, it's definitely something that's shared. And, I mean, jeez, I have a joke - a couple of jokes now where I have to do the comma basically. The one's about mangoes.

DEMBY: Tell - can you do it?

MERAJI: Do it.

DEMBY: I mean, we're not paying you, but can you do it?

KONDABOLU: Like, I said like, Indian people love mangoes. You might be thinking, I love mangoes. No, you don't. You like mangoes. Indian people love mangoes. And I explain what that means.

MERAJI: Is it like the biting off the top and sucking out the juice?


MERAJI: That's what we do in Puerto Rico.

KONDABOLU: And I say it's like "The Walking Dead," where you just, like, take the skull and we just, like...


KONDABOLU: ...And then I make a reference - I don't explain, but I hope people get it. And then there's things like this that get said, I want to suck the seed. No, I want to suck the seed. And, like, people who get it, get it. And if not, you figure it out. You go buy yourself a mango. It's delicious. It's an experiment.


DEMBY: Hari Kondabolu is a comedian. He is the co-host of "Politically Re-Active." He has an album out right now called "Mainstream American Comic." Thank you for rocking with us, man. I appreciate you.

KONDABOLU: Yeah. Thanks, man, appreciate it.

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We’re @NPRCodeSwitch. You can follow Shereen - @RadioMirage. That’s radio mirage. Y’all can spell. And you can follow me - @geedee215. We want to hear from you. Our email is And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was produced by Angela Vang, Rund Abdelfatah and Walter Ray Watson. It was edited by Leah Donnella and Keith Woods. A shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Karen Grigsby Bates, Kumari Devarajan, Jess Kung, Adrian Florido, LA Johnson and Steve Drummond. Be easy.

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