Talking to Hari Kondabolu About His New Album and the Impact of ‘Totally Biased’
Hari Kondabolu was not really supposed to become a professional standup. The otherworldly circumstances that brought him from a career as an immigrant rights organizer to the present-day release of his first album, Waiting for 2042 (named for the alleged year in which white Americans will be in the statistical minority), could have easily taken him on another professional trajectory.
This path is probably part of why he is extremely humble. Despite an extremely productive career that included regional fame in the Seattle comedy world, a writing and presenting slot on FX’s now-defunct Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, a well-regarded podcast and live show with his brother Ashok (a.k.a. Dapwell from the now-defunct hip-hop group Das Racist), and a Comedy Central Presents special, he still sees his ever-evolving comic career as something surreal. His modesty underscores a powerful firebrand spirit that has turned Kondabolu into the rising star that he’s become. He discusses race, politics, discrimination, and Weezer with the framing of someone whose experiences with marginalization and education have opened up a painfully-precise insight into the insidious mechanisms that govern our society. I caught up with Kondabolu on the eve of his third appearance at South by Southwest and discussed his new album, his myriad projects’ ends and beginnings, and what brought him to this place.
You came into standup after doing a lot of immigrant rights organizing work and getting a masters from the London School of Economics. How did you end up on this path?
It’s funny… I’ve been doing a lot of these interviews as of late and it’s always funny to recall the choices. It’s a good question because it’s like, “Why are you doing this, given your education?” and it’s funny to have to relive those decisions, over and over again of why I made that choice [Laughs].
[Laughs] Okay, I won’t be that guy. But I will ask, do you feel like you made the right choice at the time and that your life makes sense in this patchwork kind of way? Or does it still feel like a dream?
For the first few years that I was pursuing this full time, even when things were going well and I was on television, I kind of questioned if this was the best use of my time. Should I be organizing? Is this the best use of my privilege and education? Also, I kind of missed being in the trenches and doing the work that I cared about. So there was a lot of that, but I love this. I love performing, writing, and creating. I also knew that whatever window I had to pursue comedy professionally wasn’t going to be open forever. I made a choice after I finished at LSE to pursue a career in comedy because it was a viable option, which I never thought it would be. At that point, I had two TV credits and a manager, and everything had happened while I did it as a hobby. It was all very sudden and I had no idea what to expect.
So it seems like things snowballed from there, and now you’re in New York.
Right. By this point, I felt like I had something to say, and I wanted to see what would happen in New York. And New York is hard. It’s not like when I was in Seattle and I had free range, all the stage time in the world, and people who were always excited to see me. You have to work hard, there’s a grind, and there were a few moments where I thought, “Why am I here? Why am I not in Seattle right now?” So it was hard, but the rewards are greater when you succeed here. I’ve been very fortunate. Most people don’t stumble into a comedy career. I kind of feel like I did, and then had to work really hard to stay there. Not to say that I didn’t work hard before, but it was like… I stumbled into a break. Sometimes, I feel like I had two paths in front of me and I chose this one. It was deliberate, but yeah.
Clearly, your history informs your work and the type of things you talk about in your material. It seems like you and the comedians on Totally Biased were part of some kind of movement in comedy towards something more aware, less pandering.
I don’t see what I do as part of a larger movement. I try to write something that is true to my perspective. If it influences other people, that’s cool, but I don’t see what I do as part of something bigger necessarily. However, I will say meeting W. Kamau Bell was a very big deal to me. He was one of the few comics where I was like “Oh, you get what I’m talking about.” To me, it’s a personal philosophy, not a greater ethos of a movement. Kamau and I definitely agree on a lot of things politically and have similar approaches to standup. It was a privilege to work for him on Totally Biased.
That said, do you feel that Totally Biased had some kind of wide-scale impact?
It’s hard to know about these things until much later, but I do think that we did things that I’d never seen on TV before. Even something like the piece I did about the Mindy Kaling show, where I was talking about Apu [from The Simpsons], when I was writing that, it felt corny. Like, “Ugh, I’ve been talking about this forever, it feels like something I would’ve written years ago!” But then having Kamau tell me, “You only feel that way because you and your friends have talked about this for years.” Nobody has ever put something out publicly that expresses this kind of frustration. It’s like, “Wow, there’s this brown guy, bluntly talking about brown things in an angry and funny way and that’s apparently okay now.” Again, whether it had any impact can’t really be judged right now. But it is interesting to note that brown people weren’t really allowed to talk for ourselves until like five years ago. Being able to have a platform like Totally Biased was amazing.
I remember that, especially in the ’90s. This silence around our voice…
Yeah, there was a silence; we weren’t really able to express ourselves. Characters were very stereotypical, and we weren’t able to just say what we wanted to say. It was the same thing with Janine [Brito]’s stuff, or Guy [Branum]’s stuff, to see someone be that aggressive about gender, sexuality, race, and from all these angles and experiences…that is new, and Kamau wanted us to be true to ourselves. There’s no other show I can think of where that was the case. It lived a short life, but I really think that there were kids who saw that who are going to think about things, and if they perform, that’ll seep into how they write.
What’s the future of the Untitled Kondabolu Brothers podcast and show?
Well, we put one out recently, but with the frequency of the podcast… I feel like Ashok and I succeed in spite of ourselves. There’s a lot of technical problems, and when we do live shows, there’s lots of rambling, and inside references — basically, all these things that you’re told not to do. But there’s an incredible chemistry that siblings have, and my brother is one of the funniest people I know. So I don’t really know what the future is for the podcast or show, but I think that us doing it more consistently, with more focus, I’m curious to see what happens with it. There’s something that feels natural about me and my brother on stage together, and it’s nice to know that people feel the same way that we do.
So, you’ve just dropped your first album. What was the impetus to put out Waiting for 2042? Why put out a live album?
I think it’s important for comedians to put out work. To have something that you control the flow of and have a narrative, whatever it is you want to do to have full control… it just felt like something that I had control over, where I made the editing choices, I picked the cover art, and I said, “This is the best version of this joke.” For fans of mine, this is a definitive work of this era of my career; and for people seeing me for the first time, this is an overview of what I do. It’s also something performers have to do, especially with audio. There’s nothing wrong with TV or video specials, but I’ve always loved audio more. I’ve always enjoyed hearing great performers and imagining what they do. If someone is strong enough of a writer and performer, you can hear it without seeing it.
Sameer Rao is a writer based in Philadelphia.