“Introductions are always weird for me because my name is Hari and it’s constantly mispronounced," laments Hari (pronounced HUH-ree) Kondabolu at the start of his recent stand-up special on Comedy Central Presents. "‘Hurry’, ‘Hairy’—there are different ways to screw it up, and it leads to these awkward conversations.” Mr Kondabolu then goes on to say how excited he was to meet a man named Deyf in Portland—that is, until he learns that the man had legally changed his name from Dave. “That is not my problem,” Mr Kondabolu says through gritted teeth. “That is clearly a Portland, Oregon-based problem", a city so progressive that it doesn't "spay or neuter its hippy population.”
Comedy fans are likely to become more familiar with Mr Kondabolu, whose star is on the rise. A New York City-native, he got his start in comedy while working as an immigrant-rights organiser in Seattle. After earning a degree in comparative politics, he went on to earn a Masters in Human Rights from the London School of Economics in 2008. He recently switched to comedy full-time. In an interview with More Intelligent Life, he talks to us about his provocative brand of comedy, the art of stand-up and how irritating it is to always be compared with Aziz Ansari—another Indian-American comedian (who plays a lead role in the hit sitcom “Parks and Rec”).
How has your approach to stand-up changed since you quit your day job?
I still get terribly nervous. That hasn't changed. I'm constantly thinking, "Why am I doing this? I have friends who love me. I have a wonderful family. Why do I need this?" And then you go up there and you're like, "Oh yeah, this feeling." Connecting with that many people at once—it's electrifying. My brain, when the show is going great, can open up in a way that I can't get out of anything else.
How often do you get your performing fix?
I'm trying to go up at least four to five times a week. Some comics go up like three, four times a night. I've never been good about that. Ideally, if I had the time and the energy—and if it worked out where I could still be home at a reasonable hour and spend time with real human beings—then once a day would be good.
Are you saying that the people who go to comedy clubs not "real human beings?"
No, but there's a difference between the relationship a performer has with an audience versus friends. When you see a comedian on stage, the best comedians make it feel like a conversation. But it's not. We have very little interest in what an audience has to say during a performance. Being a stand-up comedian, you're an egomaniac, to some degree. Everyone wants to hear what you have to say, apparently. That's not how real relationships work. When you go back into the real world, with people who have genuine relationships with you, it can be annoying for them.
Not all show-goers respect the comedian-audience relationship. What's the worst heckling you've received?
I was in Austin at South by Southwest (SXSW) last year. I got on at 1am and I knew there was no way this was going to be good. I have nothing that can appeal to a mind that has been drinking all day. People are so drunk that they just repeat things. I'll be doing a joke about cocoa butter and they'll just be like, "Yeah! Cocoa butter!" It's just everyone screaming for no reason. So I'm going after several audience members who are particularly loud and I try to shut them up. But I don't know what's happening because it's really dark in the audience and there's a bright light in my face. So it's just people yelling at me and I'm just screaming into a void. And then all of a sudden somebody yells out, "I'm gonna cut your head off!" I think the only thing scarier than being told someone wants to decapitate you is not being able to see that person who said it.
Does your stand-up regularly provoke such violent reactions?
I'm not like most comedians. I don't deal with just heckles, I'm also dealing with threats and anger. Here I am, a brown person on stage being quite blunt. I talk about white privilege, I talk about US imperialistic practices, I talk about colonialism. I'm not saying things that are easy for people to laugh at. That pisses people off. I like playing with that space between laughter and discomfort where your discomfort can also make you laugh and you're confused about the mixed feelings. That's challenging and I think that's what makes for some of the best art.
Who are some of the stand-up comedians who inspired you?
I wanted to do comedy at first because I saw Margaret Cho perform on Comedy
Central. I had never seen an Asian-American doing stand-up and she was mesmerising-amazing. Chris Rock, of course. When "Bring the Pain" came out, that was huge. Marc Maron was the first comic I saw that I thought was challenging. He didn't make it easy for the audience—really got into some of the deeper parts of the human condition.
Some black American comedians have joked that in American pop culture,
there's only room for one black comic at a time. You've joked about being upset with Aziz Ansari comparisons. Does the same comic quota apply to Indian-American comedians?
I think it's changing. I don't think I need to dethrone anybody. I'm hoping we're at a place where people understand there are many people with a wide variety of experiences and perspectives who might have similar ethnic backgrounds. Which, by the way, sounds absurd. Aziz Ansari's family is from Tamil Nadu, mine is from Andhra Pradesh. We're talking about the difference of big cultures. And he grew up in South Carolina. At the same time, I suppose the fact that he comes up in conversations is an indication that maybe America isn't completely ready. I can't imagine a young white comedian having to be asked about other white comedians. You're just another comedian.
But what about someone like Larry the Cable Guy? I'm sure he had to deal
with being compared to Jeff Foxworthy and other redneck-loving comedians.
He's put on a certain identity to play to a certain idea to a certain demographic. His name isn't even Larry. He's from Nebraska, not the South. The Blue Collar Comedy tour, they are actively trying to reach a particular demographic. There's a difference between that and my skin colour branding me and my perceived culture. After shows, people still ask me about yoga or some Bollywood film. When "Slumdog [Millionaire]" came out that was obviously hell. I didn't want to fucking talk about "Slumdog". I just hope we get to a point where what I have to say and what I'm doing stands on its own.
Hari Kondabolu can next be seen in London