Hari's Big Break
Hari Kondabolu Talks About Being a Pseudo-Celebrity, His Brother's Act Das Racist, and His Fear of Dying in an Airplane Crash
Sat, 2:45 pm; Sun, 4:30 pm;
Mon, 6:15 pm;
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Hari Kondabolu's big break in comedy came when he got booked at the 2006 HBO Comedy Festival in Aspen, after some important show-business person saw him on the local stage at Bumbershoot. This year, Kondabolu is back at Bumbershoot—but on the national stage this time—a semimeaningful homecoming, which is obviously ADORABLE. Hari talked to me about being a dick, being on television, why he loves Seattle, eating Tums at midnight, and the preeminent funniness of his little brother, Ashok (aka Dap from the band Das Racist). [Ed. note: I was supposed to also interview Ashok for this issue, but found him... difficult to locate.] Enjoy!
Hello, Hari Kondabolu! How are you?
Hello, Lindy! I'm well. If we were actually doing this interview in person, we'd be sitting in the Cupcake Royale on Capitol Hill right now. In reality, I am in Edinburgh, Scotland, and getting an unfried cupcake in this town is quite difficult.
How come Das Racist won't answer my e-mails?
I ask myself that question quite often. Most of the time I'm just trying to track down my brother. He is usually asleep.
So you've been on TV. What is your life like now that you're this kind of weird pseudo-celebrity?
Sometimes, people come up to me and say, "Hey, I saw you somewhere, and you were funny. What's your name again?" That's about it. Also, I have health insurance until the end of March.
Do you fly a lot?
YES, and I hate it. I was told that flying would feel less scary the more I did it, but it has proven to be the opposite. The more I fly, the more I fear death. It's like my fear accumulates, and each time I land safely, I think I got lucky again. It's a horrendous feeling considering I fly two to three times a week during my busy season. (If I die in a crash, this answer will be pretty spooky, huh? Even spookier now that I mentioned how spooky it will be. Now even more so... infinite mirror.)
Do you feel bad about your carbon footprint?
You know what they say about a guy with a huge carbon footprint? He's a huge dick. (I just wrote that.) Yes, I feel awful.
You should. What do you eat for breakfast?
I'm usually asleep.
What do you eat for lunch?
I'm usually asleep.
What do you eat for dinner?
Cereal, sandwich, pizza.
What do you eat for midnight snack?
Tums and tears.
Tell me about your first time doing standup.
My first gig was January 14, 2000. I was 17 and I performed at a comedy night I started at Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, Queens, called "Comedy Night." (Yes, I came up with the name. I have a history of bad show names. In Seattle, I created a local comedy show in Ballard called "Local Ballard Comedy Show.") I did 20 to 25 minutes of derivative material that my classmates laughed at because they were also teenagers and didn't know any better. This show changed my life both because I was immediately addicted to standup and because I was so excited to perform that night that I forgot to send in my application to NYU. I ended up only getting into Bowdoin College, a fine institution... but in Maine. I spent my college years dealing with being out of place by listening to indie rock and writing jokes.
Describe your writing process.
I used to write every single word of a joke out, memorize it, and recite it onstage. I do much less of that now, since it tends to leave you disconnected from the audience. Now I'll have an outline of a new joke in my head with some key lines and some direction and just see where it goes onstage. If you know your point of view and have a general idea of where a bit is going, then being forced to express yourself to strangers can lead to some very funny and genuine stuff. I mean, I still have some jokes that are pretty tightly worded, but I try to be more in the moment now than I used to. Let me also say that a good chunk of my stuff is still written in Seattle because I find the audiences here generally more attentive and patient. I always leave Seattle with 5 or 10 new minutes.
You live in New York. Do you think you're better than me?
New York has nothing to do with me being better than you.
Why won't you leave Seattle alone?
You make it sound as if I'm stalking Seattle. SEATTLE AND I ARE IN LOVE, OKAY? Hmmm... that makes it sound worse.
What's your favorite block in Seattle?
Well, 22nd off Union in the Central District has a ton of memories. I used to live there. Broadway is always fun. I used to walk up 12th to work from Madison to Weller. I don't know, man. I love the whole city. It's like picking your favorite kid. Yes, Seattle, I'm your daddy.
Being a comedian seems hard. Is being a comedian worth it?
It depends on who you are and what you want from your life. I travel a lot and never get to see my friends and family. That's hard. Ask me in five years and tell me to get out if I'm not happy.
Are famous comedians nice to you?
HA-HA. Most of the time. I've had the privilege of becoming friends with some notable comics, and they've been pretty great. Margaret Cho, my teenage hero, is WONDERFUL. I'd like to think that most comedians who really love the art form remain humble on some basic level because they know how hard it is to create and perform, and they have an appreciation of anyone doing it. I mean, I've had similar chats about tweaking new material or stage dynamics with big comics and with open micers. There's something universal there.
Will you give me secret dish on famous comedians?
I know nothing.
All I will say is that Chris Hardwick has not aged at all. There seems to be no explanation for this. Here's a little story: Chris Hardwick and I both shot standup sets the same night for John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show in 2009. I was a little starstruck and told myself that if we got to chat, I would not mention Singled Out under any circumstances. I assumed the last thing he would want to hear is some idiot mentioning a television show that he was on 15 years ago that I, like many other teenage boys, watched only because Jenny McCarthy was on it. Within minutes of hanging out postshow, I said, "Hey, man, how do you look exactly the same as you did 15 years ago? It's really unbelievable. You haven't changed a bit since Singled Out."
Describe your family.
My mom and dad work at hospitals in Queens. Both Indian immigrants. Both proud of their kids, despite the fact that their two sons wasted their educations to pursue jobs in the field of nonsense. Mom is very funny, and Dad is very unintentionally funny. Ashok, my little brother, is brilliant and hilarious. We used to play basketball as a family for a short stretch in the mid- to late '90s. If there were video footage of these games, it would ruin our lives.
What position did you play? Who won?
I played "older son." My whole family lost. The unsuspecting neighbors who watched us play won... and they laughed... and laughed.
Do your parents get your jokes?
They get some of the jokes. My mom much more than my dad. If my mom doesn't get it, she just says, "It's okay, I'm not your audience." I know she liked that one story I tell in my Comedy Central Presents about getting hit with a belt as a kid. In fact, she liked it too much.
What's the funniest thing in the world?
My brother, Ashok.
Will you tell me an Ashok story?
There are so many funny Ashok anecdotes. Here's a quick one from the 1980s: When Ashok was 2 or 3 and I was maybe 5, our family lived on the top floor of a two-story house in Jackson Heights, Queens. My parents left us alone in the house for maybe 10 minutes to run an errand. When they returned, they noticed the ceiling of the ground floor was leaking, meaning something had happened upstairs. When they ran up, they saw a tricycle in the fish tank in the room Ashok and I shared. Ashok had somehow gotten the tricycle in there, shattering the glass and killing all the fish. When they walked in, he was yelling, "RIDE, FISH, RIDE!!" over and over at the tank. According to my parents, I apparently jumped in front of him and said, "Please don't hurt him. He's just a kid."
Can anyone be funny? What does it take to be funny? Is it an inborn trait or is it conditioning? NATURE OR NURTURE?
Little bit of both. Some people seem to be born with a sense of timing and are good at picking up and playing with language. Some of it is being around funny people and being exposed to funny, well-crafted art. I've had the privilege of being surrounded by very funny people throughout my life and wherever I've lived.
Are there types of humor that you stay away from (e.g., poop, rape, etc.)?
I'll stay away from anything that I don't think it's honest for me to talk about and that I think will hurt people. I don't mind offending, angering, or confusing people... but I don't want to hurt them.
Is racism over?
I wish! I'm getting sick of writing about it. I have all this stuff about dogs and cats I'm dying to use. I can't even tell you how many bits about the ShamWow or Shake Weights or other meaningless bullshit I haven't had room to talk about because I spent it talking about racism. What a waste!
Are there any jokes you've written that you don't perform because you find them embarrassing or you don't like the audience response?
Yes. Some ideas are just too short or don't really fit my voice onstage and are better off being tweeted. Or sometimes I'll have a bit that's working, but it's getting laughs I don't like from douchey audience members who don't get irony or satire and are laughing at something at face value. If that happens often enough, a thoughtful and funny critique of a sensitive topic can become sharp and hurtful. And if I don't think it's worth the cost, I won't do it.
Do you really think you can heal the world with laughter?
No. I'm not an idiot. I think laughter can be cathartic. An incredible release. Proof that you're not as alone as you thought you were. Comedians play an important role in people's lives... but come on now. Let me put it to you this way, I've never been to a rally or protest where I've heard a comic's routine blasting from a loudspeaker. Marley, Dylan, Blue Scholars (in the Northwest), and that one Ben Harper song.
Who's your favorite comedian?
Stewart Lee. He's a British comedian I first saw when I was living in London in 2008. An incredibly intelligent and patient comedian. My biggest influence right now. YouTube the hell out of him!
If people want to creepily follow you around at Bumbershoot, what shows will you be going to?
Obviously, Das Racist. My parents are actually flying to Seattle this year from NYC to attend Bumbershoot and watch me and my brother perform. They've seen me do standup before, most recently at my Comedy Central Presents taping, but they've never seen Ashok (or Dap, as the kids call him) hypeman it up.
I also want to see Shabazz Palaces, Broken Social Scene, and my buddy Macklemore, too. After that, it's whatever my friends are planning to do. I honestly haven't followed music seriously since I was a DJ at my college radio station (WBOR 91.1 FM) in the early '00s. I'm the Modest Mouse fan who only wants to hear songs up to The Moon and Antarctica.
In terms of comedy, I'm excited about sharing a stage with my friend and former 2007 HBO Comedy Festival alum Kyle Kinane and watching Seattle comedy hero (though he never officially lived here) Rory Scovel.
Do your parents listen to a lot of hiphop? How do you think they'll like the show?
They don't actively listen to hiphop, except when watching Das Racist videos on YouTube. My Dad really likes "Coochie Dip City." I don't think he knows what the song is about (thank God). They love their kids, so I think they'll enjoy the fact their son and his friends are having a good time and people are enjoying it.
Who are you ABSOLUTELY NOT GOING TO GO SEE AT BUMBERSHOOT BECAUSE FUCK THEM?
Hall & Oates. I get the joke. It's funny. "We booked Hall & Oates at Bumbershoot. HA!" This doesn't actually mean we have to watch them. I think it'd be funnier if no one saw Hall & Oates. Or maybe if they played to no one for 30 minutes and then everyone came in at the very end and said, "Sorry, we were just screwing around. Now play 'You Make My Dreams Come True' and 'Maneater' and get the hell out of here."