Since the much bally-hooed debut of stand-up Hari Kondabolu’s buzzy TruTV documentary The Problem With Apu brought further awareness to television's diversity problem and representation through stereotypes, that’s all anyone has been asking him about...
So while the New York native will gladly touch on the biting take down of The Simpsons’ long-time problematic Kwik-E-Mart manager, that’s not all he wants to discuss – the rising star has a packed tour schedule, a soon-to-be-filmed debut special and writing projects on his career plate.
“To be honest, I wasn’t crazy talking about Apu to begin with because as an artist, you want to be challenged,” the 35-year-old explains. “You want to do stuff that will be interesting to you, and I’ve had this conversation with my community for like three decades, so… everyone else is just catching up on it now. Which is good! But its also a story I could have written without the research, because I already knew the story.”
By opening a dialogue on a subject Americans tend to flee from – media depictions of race – Kondabolu has aimed to bring some accountability to one of television’s crowning jewels. “To me, one of the main ideas of the film is accountability. It’s about being more informed and critical when you take in media. Its about a community and how representation matters - about the nature of comedy and why its great and tough and terrible at times. The idea that you can criticize something that you love, [because] Apu is not there to hurt people, he is there to make you laugh! But why does this make you laugh? And why did the creators think it would make you laugh? Every decision generally has a reason for it. Art is meant to impact people.”
With contributions by fellow South Asian comedians and performers including Daily Show stars Aasif Mandvi and Hasan Minhaj, recent Emmy winner Aziz Ansari, former Simpsons writer Dana Gould and Kondabolu’s longtime comedy partner and podcasting buddy W. Kamau Bell – the hour long special has even made its way up the chain to Apu voice actor, Hank Azaria.
But changing The Simpsons literally seems to be less of the filmmakers’ mission – the comic has the loftier goal of changing perceptions. “It’s not that I want to talk about it less, it’s that discussions are less nuanced. The discussions I’m generally having with people are not thoughtful conversations. For the people who have seen the film, the conversations have been great, but the rest of it is not even about the movie. Its just a reminder that America doesn’t engage in this type of discourse and we’re in a place where we’d rather yell at each other. People are screaming at me without having seen the film, which is more that disappointment than anything else. I realize people are upset about the film, but its not even the film. Its every month, there is a new thing that pisses [certain people] off, this new thing the exemplifies political correctness gone mad, or social justice going wild, or whatever. It’s not about engaging with the specifics of a thing, it symbolizes everything they hate.”
While internet trolls and ignorance may get the performer down, the outreach from student groups have had the opposite effect. “A lot of high school and college classes have been asking about it. They say that it's a lot more interesting than the old sociology things they’ve played in the past about representation because it’s funny and honest and current. It’s a nice surprise that it's reached so many people, but then parents are telling me they’ve watched it with their kids and telling me about the conversations they have. I guess I never thought of it that way. I imagined people more my age, generally. So I didn’t expect it to be an educational tool. This starts the conversation, you know?”
While The Problem with Apu has certainly helped propel the writer-performer to the headline of plenty of think pieces, Kondabolu’s love and focus remains crafting a killer hour of material – which he’ll showcase in back-to-back spots at the Secret Group. “The Secret Group’s room is great,” he praises. “The guys who created it I really respect them and like what they’re doing with comedy in Houston.”
The hour the comic plans to perform will be very similar to what appears in his debut special, which he’ll record in his hometown-away-from-home of Seattle at the Neptune. If his 2016 audio-only release Mainstream American Comic showcased the former Totally Biased writer’s gift for political satire – he hopes this new night will showcase his developing ability to get personal. “I feel like what I’ve done historically is talk about this I care about and you get a sense of who I am based on the passion I have about things,” he says. [The flip side is], how did I get that passion? What is my background, and what are my folks like, and my family and education and all those things that make me who I am.”
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“I feel like I’ve been pushing myself more into the personal,” he continues, “which I feel some people are able to do the personal better because they feel a sense of ownership of it. But I think for me, the political and the personal are the same thing. I end up talking about things in a way that are deeply personal to me, but not the actual stories of my life. I try to avoid those because they’re scarier. They’re the ones that leave you most vulnerable and that’s what I want to push myself towards. It’s not there yet, but its closer where I want to go.”
With most of the material in place, Kondabolu admits his latest act is closing in on its final form. The only thing that’s still in flux – is his title. “I’m still trying to find it,” he divulges. “But I think you get those answers in an edit. It’s gotta be thematic – the essence of the whole piece. Chris Rock always has great titles. Bring the Pain isn’t about a particular bit, it’s just what he does. He brings the reality to you. It’s almost a psalm that makes sense to the piece. Big & Blacker is very blunt. Never Scared. I’m looking for something that encapsulates what it is, maybe it’s a punchline, maybe it’s a phrase I like, or maybe its an idea.
"But I do understand why people just settle for Live in something! Live in Seattle! When you do Live in Seattle, that is safe. You can’t think of something and you don’t want to put anything on that show you don’t want to because a title will influence you sometimes. You would rather have it be interestingly vague, or right on. If it’s off, it makes you see the piece differently for a while. It markets it poorly – people won’t click or want to see it! But in the end, if the piece is good, it makes the title for you.”
Hari Kondabolu’s performance is scheduled for 7 and 9 p.m. Saturday, December 9 at The Secret Group on 2101 Polk. For information, call 832-898-4688 or visit thesecretgrouphtx.com. $20-25.