Contentedly situated amidst the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn, New York, stand-up comedian Hari Kondabolu is heard around the world, thanks to his mercurial podcasts. A cunning linguist who holds a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Politics and a Master’s degree in Human Rights, the erudite Kondabolu has broken down racial and geographic barriers in finding new ways to disappoint his parents. More often than not, his accomplice of choice is his brother, Ashok, who routinely accompanies Hari on his conversational misadventures. Discussing everything from having one’s wallet stolen to the hot-button of cultural appropriation, “The Untitled Kondabolu Brothers Podcast” has introduced an international audience to the candid, fraternal side of his rather astute comedic demeanour.
“When it comes to podcasts, my brother and I have been strangely productive, professionally-speaking, despite of the weaknesses of our technical abilities,” says Kondabolu, who just finished his first full-length comedy album, Waiting for 2042, via Kill Rock Stars. “The natural chemistry between us allows us talk about our opinions in a manner that is very blunt, but also refreshing, because we are truly vested in the material. The balance to me is in the way in which we check each other’s personalities.”
Tapping directly into his listenership via his podcasts and live performances has empowered Kondabolu’s frank and perceptive expositions on race, religion, gender, and politics bring the issues of the day zooming into focus. Framed by his personal histories and backlit by the desire to provoke uninhibited laughter, the Brooklyn natives’ colourful anecdotes are patently all-inclusive. Often riffing on the perks of ethnic identity and pitfalls of social hubris, Kondabolu’s down-to-earth observations are as insightful as they are relatable.
“The gatekeepers have changed,” Kondabolu pronounces. “I feel like the Internet has a lot to do with people finding comedians who reflect their particular points of view. Before, you only had comedy specials and albums that spoke to the broader mainstream. Now the audience can seek out those specialty niches that appeal to them and comedy doesn’t need to be the canned thing you see on TV. Gone is the era when one late-night spot made a career: these days it’s about everything you do pieced together.
“Your strength comes from being comfortable playing clubs and mainstream spaces while being able to communicate to a wider audience found on the Internet,” he elaborates. “It’s now to the point where there are plenty of talented comedians who are doing fine without TV. Things have reversed and they are in turn being discovered by the mainstream because of the impact they’ve made through alternative media.”
Eager to step outside of the studios and into the limelight, Kondabolu will be featured at multiple events during Sled Island’s Comedy showcase. While “selfishly cherry-picking” his brother’s best lines is his go-to manoeuvre, Kondabolu’s second favourite tried-and-true methodology is sizing-up his audiences in and moulding his performance accordingly. Needless to say, his acerbic wit and Brooklyn charm will be in full-effect when he takes to the stage in Calgary.
“It’s my first trip to Calgary for any reason,” Hari confesses. “Realistically, I never imagined a scenario where I would be playing there. That’s part of the reason that festival season is such an exciting time for me. It’s nice to see something that was considered just an afterthought to a festival schedule for years finally start to get its due. Comedy isn’t competing with music for good venues in the same way that it used to at these events. We’re being given places to shine and space to be more interactive with our audiences. It makes a huge difference when we’re all in the right environment and enjoying ourselves together. Sled Island is a great example of finding ways to reach out to a whole bunch of new people and connect them with a diverse range of exceptional comedians.”
The transition from podcasting to performing live has been Kondabolu’s ultimate proving-ground, while his brother prefers to remain behind the scenes; he has embraced the slings and arrows of putting a face to his risky and politically charged humour.
“The pressure is totally different,” he says. “With live stand-up, you have to gauge if your audience is connecting with the material and picking up on the references. There are going to be times when they just aren’t getting a particular reference that’s too specific, or too deep. And it can be frustrating, because you’re trying to enter into a discussion about a specific culture or geographic region, but, sometimes, the explanations are the funniest part. Me having to try to explain and describe things to people is often much another way into that discussion.”
Not your typical attention-seeking class clown, Kondabolu has slowly built the momentum of his sets by testing the waters with his uncommonly intelligent perspective on a dearth of galvanizing global issues. Cultivating his public persona and bolstering his confidence one live set at a time, he has arrived at the summit of his creative powers where the street smarts of his Big Apple upbringing converge with adult understanding and book smarts.
“I really bombed first time out,” he admits. “It’s scary failing; your ego is going to get bruised and you’re going to take a beating, but you’ll get stronger if you stick around long enough. If it looks easy, it’s only because it wasn’t. I have some obviously polished jokes, but I’m happiest when I find something in the moment make people laugh without safety net. That’s one of the reasons I love performing with my brother: the journey is very unpredictable, but I know that I’m not alone in it. For me, it’s the sign of a good local comedy scene when comics come out and support each other. There’s camaraderie amongst the different range of styles, even though our stories are unique we have a strong influence on one another. We all have same goals and it makes me want to try to pay attention and see where this journey is taking us.”
Certainly, there are easier ways to make a living than by holding a mirror up to civilization’s shortcomings and the poking holes in the illusion of race, but Kondabolu is resolved to wait out the arrival of 2042 when whites will become a statistical minority in North America. Quick to recognize that there is room under the umbrella of comedy for anyone who wants to laugh; Kondabolu connects with the world around him by ruminating on the everyday and the absurd. And while he acknowledges that stand-up comedy has pervaded his existence to the degree that he is no longer to turn off his funny-filter, he whole-heartedly encourages comedy club-goers, and podcast listeners, to leave their hang-ups and preconceptions at the door.
“There is a broad spectrum to comedy and I believe there a place for all of these different people, whether it’s on the Internet or out in the clubs. You don’t go to a concert and say, ‘I like music. Does this band play music?,’ but you can assume, with a fair amount of certainty, that you’ll get a chuckle out of whoever’s headlining a comedy bill. My style of rather verbose and kind of intellectual; I talk about race and gender a lot. That may not be your thing and that’s fine, the next guy might be right up your alley. My advice to the audience is to do their best to wipe their mental slates clean between performers. Be open-minded to different styles and backgrounds. Try to really listen to what they have to say. You may be amazed by things you would normally never have been exposed to.”
Catch Hari Kondabolu and the rest of this year’s Sled Island Comedy line-up at Wine-Ohs June 19 and the Big Secret Theatre (EPCOR Centre for the Performing Arts) June 20 & 21.
By Christine Leonard
Photo: Karsten Moran