For Comic Hari Kondabolu, Explaining The Joke IS The Joke

Apr 21, 2014
Originally published on April 21, 2014 4:23 pm

At first, Hari Kondabolu's comedy was mostly about catharsis: "I was doing some work in detention centers and meeting families who had family members who were going to be deported," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It was really powerful work ... but it was incredibly hard and performing at night was a relief. It was cathartic. It was just a way to get things out."

Kondabolu was working as an immigrant-rights organizer in Seattle and performing standup at night. In 2008, he got his M.A. in human rights from the London School of Economics. He was surprised when his standup career took off. The son of Indian parents, Kondabolu grew up in Queens, N.Y., and a lot of his comedy is about race and ethnicity. The title of his new album, Waiting for 2042, is a reference to the year the Census Bureau projects that whites will be in the minority in the U.S.

Kondabolu was a writer and correspondent on Totally Biased, W. Kamau Bell's FX political comedy series. "It was my first writing job," Kondabolu says, "so ... I have a very probably skewed vision of what writers' rooms are because ours was so diverse and I think most of television doesn't have that."

Bell describes Kondabolu as "the comedy equivalent of a punk rock concert that breaks out at a human rights rally."


Interview Highlights

On incorporating immigrant-rights work into his comedy

I used to do a bit where I used to read the U.S. citizenship application onstage. I think that's part of just being overeducated and wanting to do document analysis, but I'd actually bring it onstage and read questions. Because for people who don't know, this is what immigrants have to go through to gain status in this country, and it's absurd and it's something we take for granted as American citizens.

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 a form — it's a strange thing to read a government form in front of a bunch of drunk people.

On his explaining jokes — especially jokes about racism or colonialism

They tell you you're never supposed to explain your jokes because that ruins the joke, and to me, that is the joke. Throughout the album — there's a track called "Toby" where I have to explain a Roots reference. I like explaining the references. Maybe, again, it's me being overeducated but I do like that. I feel like I'm a cool professor. Maybe I'm not because I just called myself that. ...

I find these things funny and I have to find a way for you to think they're funny and if I have to explain it so you get what I'm talking about and then laugh at the thing that I think is funny, then so be it. It might take an extra minute. It might mean that our attention spans have to go back to 1987 but I think it's possible for us to get through a minute setup for us to get to something else.

On why he doesn't do accents in his comedy anymore

It's hard having an accent in this country and you are judged based on it. 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 was hard.

I've been saying this onstage, but, my father should be judged based on the content of his words and not the accent that comes with it, because he does a lot of ridiculous things that have nothing to do with his accent.

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