In the two years since Hari Kondabolu’s debut release with Kill Rock Stars, the Brooklyn comedian has been unequivocally killing it. From the speedy success of Politically Re-Active, his podcast with W. Kamau Bell, to making a documentary about Simpsons’ character Apu, to realizing feminist dreams during a public dialogue with bell hooks, 2016 has treated Kondabolu well. Now the comic returns to the Portland stage for the first time since his summertime sophomore release, Mainstream American Comic.
Taped during a live set at Mississippi Studios, the album delivers 67 minutes of clever, hilariously candid comedic gold. Touching on topics like racism, politicians, and wet dreams, Kondabolu tackles the taboo like it’s normal. And that’s exactly the point! Talking over the phone on Election Day, I asked Kondabolu what it means to be “political,” and why he’s rejected that particular label.
“When it comes to comedy, you hope for an open mind.... The second you put a label on, there are a bunch of people that aren’t interested anymore,” he says. “They don’t even know what they’re not interested in—they’re not interested in an image they have in their head.” Yet the minute you remove that label, Kondabolu swears they’ll laugh. If a joke is funny, he says, it should be able to stand alone.
“I like talking about people’s issues whether it’s racism, sexism, homophobia, or religion,” he says. “Whatever people hold close or have to deal with is interesting and that’s not political to me—that’s people’s lives.”
To those who accuse him of being caught up in being political, he responds, “I’m not. I’m telling you what happened in my life.... This is coming from my lens. It’s natural [and] very much ingrained in me. I have a joke on the album where I say I’m a killjoy who does comedy—that’s a fundamental part of who I am.”
Kondabolu considers his upcoming documentary a significant mainstream feat. Through a partnership with TruTV, he’ll not only speak to South Asian immigrants who may be able to relate, but also a nationwide audience. Here he emphasizes another problem with using labels: “When you’re reading or watching stuff that’s made by mass media for a majority white audience,” he says, “it doesn’t get labeled as white.”
If you’re tempted to dismiss that as simply a question of semantics, the idea that comedy can be a means of human connection—and that it should reach as many people as possible—lies at the heart of Kondabolu’s refusal of labels. “The strength in comedy is accessibility.... Comedy simplifies complex things so people understand the concepts and ideas,” he says. “Why should people be left out of it?”
Kondabolu’s upcoming show promises a mix of material from both albums, plus some brand new jokes. As for the setting, he says, “I’m excited to play a venue that’s called the Revolution Hall. It seems perfect.”