Comedian Hari Kondabolu's Secret Group Visit Is the "Sad Kind of Pioneering"
Comedian Hari Kondabolu
Photo courtesy of Yoon Kim
Hari Kondabolu’s got a unique perspective to share, and he’ll be bringing it to Houston for one night with The Secret Group. The former Totally Biased writer has spent the past “year and a half” developing his new album, Mainstream American Comic, and, according to him, he’s “happier with this one” than his first, which “took [his] whole career to make.”
Concerning the first album, Waiting for 2042, Kondabolu reflects: “I recorded that in Oakland after the Trayvon verdict came out, and they were still suffering from Oscar Grant’s murder. There’s a lot of that energy in the air; those people were protesting the day before. It doesn’t sound like a typical comedy album; it sounds like a rally, almost.” Comparing it to his current hour, the performer says, “Less screaming and cheering, and more me telling jokes that an audience responds to with laughter.”
While Kondabolu’s act is certainly politically active, he dismisses the idea that he’s doing “activist comedy,” saying: “I would never call it that, because for me, it’s more observational. I don’t write stuff with the intent of educating people. I write with the intent of making [you] laugh and speaking my truth."
“I think it’s less activism and more about people who haven’t historically had the chance to talk about certain things getting that chance. How many South Asian American voices who talk about political things were there before me? I don’t think there were any. It’s a sad kind of pioneering, [but] I haven’t existed before.”
Beyond stand-up, Konabolu is an avid podcaster, hosting Politically Re-Active alongside former boss and longtime friend W. Kamau Bell.
"In stand-up, you’re told to cut that fat — get to the joke as quickly as possible, so people’s attention spans don’t wander,” Kondabolu says, even though he cops to keeping his material “pretty fat and verbose.”
In podcasting, the comic explains, the exact opposite is true. “The fat's the best part! The fat stuff is the stuff people want to hear. There’s no audience to play to [so] you can just be yourself. It not like you paid a ticket and people are expecting a certain thing. You can be loose.”
So far, the twosome have landed some choice guests in the realm of political media including MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, activist Shaun King, pastor Michael McBride, hip-hop artist Jasiri X and Face the Nation host John Dickerson. “Me and Kamau can just be ourselves,” he reveals. “We talked about what we want to talk about, often with an incredible guest, and there are moments to educate people. That’s something I could never do with stand-up. A podcast lets you be more thorough.”
But for the 33-year-old New Yorker, live comedy will always be his first love. “I can’t imagine not doing it. It has the adrenaline rush, and the fact that you’re connecting with human beings. There’s the feeling of the crowd, tons of energy. When you’re on and every joke is crushing, or even when you have a tough crowd, and you have to be the escape artist – How do I get out of this one alive? Podcasting is a little between those poles. It’s fun, but it’s a different kind of catharsis.”
Usually he writes evergreen material, Kondabolu says. “I care about big issues, big issues that don’t go away. Even if the racist event was in the past, the lessons learned [are] probably still relevant. Colonialism, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to age well.” That said, the comic won’t rule out discussing the orange elephant in the room.
“For this record, I felt like I had to acknowledge this weird election. Even though I recorded this in January, I had to put a couple of jokes in there, just because of the season.” The title of the album, for Kondabolu, is fairly literal. “I call the record Mainstream American Comic, and I guess I went for my version of mainstream electoral jokes.”
While still early in his career, Kondabolu is in the comedy game for the long haul and is already thinking about where he fits into the grand tapestry of stand-ups. “It can be shocking dealing with something new,” he gleams. “It's like when you first heard Dick Gregory’s stuff from back in the day. Now it doesn’t sound so activist-y or edgy, but keep in mind, he was the first black comic who got to play flat-footed. He didn’t need to shuck and jive; he spoke to white audiences honestly and to their faces.”
During his years on the road, the Queens native has even met a few of his heroes. “I got to work with Chris Rock, who executive-produced Totally Biased – which was thrilling. Margeret Cho is the reason I wanted to do stand-up, and Janeane Garafalo is a friend that time and time again has [helped me out]. Marc Maron was an early hero, partly because I grew up in New York and I’d see him at the Comedy Cellar, doing something truly different. Him and Todd Barry, they didn’t sound like anything else around.” Kondabolu even names English-born Stewart Lee as his favorite comic, a big name across the pond with a smaller following in the States. “He’s absolutely thoughtful about structure. He does stand-up as a long form, thinking about the long game as opposed to each individual joke.”
Hari Kondabolu’s performance is scheduled for 8 p.m.Saturday, October 22 at The Secret Group on 2101 Polk. For information, call 832-898-4688 or visit thesecretgrouphtx.com. $20-24.
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