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22 January 2016updated 03 Aug 2021 8:48am

Comedian Hari Kondabolu on his diverse fans, Asians in TV, and racism in America

The comedian talks to us about his experience as the son of Indian immigrants, working as a human rights activist, and stereotypical casting.

By Emad Ahmed

“You can not eat beef and be an asshole, or you can eat beef and follow everything else,” he says. “I think she was more about the principles.”

Hari Kondabolu, an American comedian with an Indian-Hindu background raised in New York, is recalling his days eating at a local Burger King, where his mother used to take him to in order to get a taste – literally – of the new American culture she was still unfamiliar with.

He’s at ease on the sofa, still jetlagged from accumulating more air miles and performing two consecutive nights in Soho.

“I love the fact that my room, wherever I’m performing, offers the possibility of that kind of mix. Whether it’s Muslims wearing hijabs, kids with green hair, older couples, gay couples. It feels as though each of those people is a part of who I am. Like I could be friends with any of those people.”

If there’s a comedian who can prove that it’s possible to be funny without being mean, in a world where the aforementioned minorities can be derided by some for being oversensitive, Kondabolu is the man. His successful debut comedy album, Waiting for 2042, references the year in which the white population of the US is predicted to no longer be a majority.

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“Saying I’m obsessed with racism in America is like saying that I’m obsessed with swimming when I’m drowning,” he says on the album. “But don’t worry white people, you were the minority when you came to this country. Things seemed to have worked out for you.”

Growing up in Queens, New York, working in Seattle, and then completing a masters in human rights at the London School of Economics is more the career path of a future, cosmopolitan and modern politician than a stand-up comedian. Political and social issues are the bread and butter of his comedy, after all.

“At this point it’s no holds barred. Nothing is too embarrassing,” he says of Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions.

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The power of the internet can make it hard for comedians to provide the quiet snorts and laughs fans expect, whilst also remaining true to their message and giving the necessary food for thought. When asked about the benefits of technology, he quickly bats back, “I’ve never lost a notepad. As a joke writer, I think the instant gratification Twitter brings can be harmful to the process.”

But it’s the complex social issues that drive Kondabolu’s work, not the insecurities of the 21st century. He carefully uses his experiences as a human rights worker as a lens to show the difficulty of “fitting in” for newcomers, such as the American citizenship application.

“The one I hated was ‘have you ever been a sex worker?’ People might use the term prostitute. Imagine if someone was here and was a victim of trafficking. Do you really want to call them a prostitute? Is that fair? And I had to ask them that. It’s very frustrating.”

Asked about these frustrations and whether they feed into a stereotypical “sad comic” persona, he rebuffs and says it has an opposite, inclusionary effect with his audience. “I love it when people laugh at the hard things I talk about because it makes me feel less crazy. ‘Oh, other people have this experience? Good, I’m not alone’.”

In recent years, there’s been an explosion of comedians from a wide range of backgrounds finally getting their share of the stage. Mindy Kaling is simultaneously releasing books and producing her own show (now in its fourth season); Aziz Ansari has transitioned from his wacky Parks and Recreation character to lead a more subtle, thoughtful series on Netflix; and Randall Park and Constance Wu have brought fresh energy and acclaim into the often-derided category of family comedy with Fresh Off the Boat.

In his Netflix series Master of None, we follow Ansari’s character auditioning for film roles where he’s asked to perform his lines with an Indian accent, a request that Kondabolu also declines whenever he has auditions of his own. “It’s really fucking awful, because they’ve wasted my time.”

But he’s just as ambitious as his fellow comedians. “I’d love to have a show,” Kondabolu declares, railing against the small, minimal roles films and TV shows often given to ethnic minority talents.

“If someone’s a cab driver – even in a stereotypical thing, which is fine, there are brown people who are cab drivers – but what’s his story? Why is he there? Does he have a point of view? Because usually he’s just a weirdo, just in the way, with the smell of his car.”

At the end of discussing scripts and auditions, he snaps open a soft drink, concluding his feelings about ethnic minority characters on screen: “If he doesn’t have depth of character, he’s nothing.” The same can’t be said about Kondabolu.