April 21, 2014
Guest: Hari Kondabolu
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is comic Hari Kondabolu. A lot of his comedy is about race and ethnicity. His parents are from India.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JOHN OLIVER'S NEW YORK STAND-UP SHOW")
HARI KONDABOLU: I've been traveling all over the world telling jokes. I was doing a show in Denmark last year. I don't know why.
It didn't go particularly well, not really the target demographic for this career.
I got heckled in a way I'd never been heckled before. A man got up in the middle of my show. He interrupted, and he said hey, go back to America. Wow.
It's amazing, it's amazing because I've been told to go back to so many countries, and...
Never to America.
I've been told Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. Whatever country we're bombing, I'm told to go back there.
GROSS: That was Hari Kondabolu, performing on "John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show" in 2010. Kondabolu was a writer and correspondent on W. Kamau Bell's FX political comedy series "Totally Biased." Bell says Kondabolu is the comedy equivalent of the punk rock concert that breaks out at a human rights rally.
Human rights was the direction Kondabolu initially headed in. He worked as an immigrant rights organizer in Seattle while performing standup at night, expecting that comedy would remain a sideline. In 2008, he got his MA in human rights from the London School of Economics. He was surprised when his standup career took off.
The title of his new debut album, "Waiting for 2042," is a reference to the year the census bureau projects that whites will be in the minority in the U.S. Let's start with an excerpt from the track "2042 and the White Minority." Kondabolu says a lot of white people are freaked out about 2042.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ALBUM)
KONDABOLU: Here's the bigger point, here's the bigger point, right: 49 percent white doesn't make you the minority. That's not how math works, right? Forty-nine percent white is only the minority if you think the other 51 percent is exactly the same, right. It only works if you think, well, it's 49 percent white people and 51 percent you people. That's the only way that works.
Because that 51 percent is not a united front, OK, and it's easy to find out. Just ask a black guy and a Korean guy what happens when the black guy walks into the Korean guy's store, all right. I bet you the interaction might be pleasant. I bet you it's not going to be like hey, teammate, how's it going, teammate. Pretty excited, you? 2042, am I right? It's not...
That's not what's happening. There's some historic tension there. It's not a united front. And some of you might be thinking, well, Hari, you're saying that 51 percent is not exactly the same, but you're assuming that all white people are the same. Yes.
No, no, of course not. I'm joking, right, because white isn't a thing. Race isn't a think, right. It's a social construct; it's a way to divide us. It's not real, and we know this. There used to be signs in this country that said no blacks, no Irish, no dogs, right. The Irish weren't white; the Jews weren't white; the Italians weren't white, right. Race is a way to divide us. It's not real, and the people of color in this room, you know this.
When you ask your white friends what their cultural heritage is, they don't just say white. They give you a math equation.
Well, I'm a third German and a fourth Irish and one-sixteenth Welsh and one-fortieth Native American for college applications.
You know how this works.
GROSS: Hari Kondabolu, welcome to FRESH AIR. You have your masters in human rights from the London School of Economics, and...
KONDABOLU: Yeah, I've wasted a lot of money before I decided to standup fulltime, Terry.
GROSS: Well, I've sure you've made so much money in standup that it well...
GROSS: It well made up for it.
KONDABOLU: Have you heard my act, Terry? I can play 10 cities.
GROSS: So you got your MA from the London School of Economics in 2008, and in 2005 you moved to Seattle to be an immigrant rights organizer. So what was your plan? Like what did you think you were going to do?
KONDABOLU: I thought I was going to be a lawyer. I moved to Seattle as part of an AmeriCorps program to work in an immigrant rights organization. And I took the LSATs that fall. My first week...
GROSS: That's the legal SATs?
KONDABOLU: Yeah, the legal SATs, yeah. And my first month in Seattle was spent at the big library downtown, just studying for this LSAT, and I took it, immediately started doing comedy as soon as I finished the exam and, you know, at night, when I was working during the day. And my plan was to be an immigrant rights organizer.
And I applied to the London School of Economics with this masters program because at a certain point I realized that law wasn't going to happen, just if the LSAT was that miserable, I think law school would have been worse. So I kind of dropped that, and I was talking to lawyers and them telling me do not be a lawyer, like that - having lawyers tell you that it's a terrible idea, you have such a nice personality, why would you waste it, like hearing things like that repeatedly, it became clear maybe this isn't for me.
But I know, you know, I loved organizing, and, you know, I was working with victims of hate crimes, I was doing some work in detention centers and meeting families whose - you know, who had family members who were going to be deported, and, you know, it was really powerful, workplace discrimination cases, and, you know, I was the in-between often, like the advocate, you know, to lawyers and to other people, and, you know, that was incredible, but it was incredibly hard.
And performing at night was a relief, it was cathartic. It was just a way to get things out. And, you know, comedy was something I always had. Like I started doing it in high school in Queens, and, you know, I did it through college. And doing it in Seattle was for fun, and I really didn't expect it to be a career because you don't become famous out of Seattle.
And, you know, I'm from New York. I know that the New York scene is harder, and that's where it happens, or in Los Angeles, but it doesn't happen out of Seattle. And I applied to London School of Economics for this masters in human rights program, and while that happened, I got found by the HBO Comedy Festival, wanting me to be in their festival. And I auditioned, went to San Francisco for the first time to audition, went to Los Angeles for the first time to get a callback, and I nailed it, I got a spot.
And then I was on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" shortly after that, which was remarkable because I flew to Los Angeles, stayed in a hotel, you know, a nice hotel and was on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." And I think William Shatner was on that night; it was absurd. And then I flew back to Seattle the next morning and right back to work and organizing.
It was a hobby that kind of got away from me, you know. It became a career, and I didn't expect it to.
GROSS: Did those two worlds ever come together? Did any of the immigrants you were working with ever recognize you from, say, Jimmy Kimmel, or did you ever tell jokes about deportation, which I guess is probably unlikely?
KONDABOLU: I mean, a little bit. I mean, I did talk about, you know, immigrant rights, and I talked about immigration and my parents' story, and I talked about, and I talk about in the album, too, just the ridiculousness of Mexican immigrants being called lazy and stealing all the jobs. Like how do those two ideas even work together?
So I tried to find ways to incorporate a lot of that. I used to be a bit where I used to read the U.S. citizenship application onstage. And I think that's part of just being over-educated and wanting to do document analysis. But I would actually, like, bring it onstage and read questions, and, you know, try - because for people who don't know, it's like this is what immigrants have to go through to gain status in this country, and it's absurd and something that we take for granted as an American citizen.
So, you know, sometimes that was hard in a club on a Friday night, and it's 10 o'clock, and everyone's drunk, and there's a dude onstage reading, you know, a form. It's a strange thing to read a government form in front of a bunch of drunk people. But I felt like if enough...
KONDABOLU: Which is a lot of, like, late-night comedy, but I feel like if I was able to connect with enough people, it was worth doing.
GROSS: You'd get more laughs if those forms had breasts on them.
KONDABOLU: That's something that - I will send that to - I'm sure there's a government websites where I can give feedback. That's a great idea from me and Terry Gross.
GROSS: Well, so what was funny about the forms, like, that you would read and actually, you know, think was funny?
KONDABOLU: People, like there were questions about, like, whether you were affiliated with a terrorist organization, which is like why would you even include this?
KONDABOLU: You know, there's a lot of things that were just relics of another era, and, you know, whether you were a, sex worker. They don't use sex worker, obviously, they use prostitute, but whatever it is in me had me say sex worker right now to you, but - because it should be sex worker, that is the proper term.
But yeah, like, they had questions like that, which I always thought, like, let's say you were somebody who was forced into sex work, that's an awful question to have to address on this form when you're so close to something amazing, that gives you so much access and power, you know, American citizenship.
So, you know, to me, like going through these questions with people and kind of making of them, like, felt great. And for people in my audience who have gone through that process, it was probably cathartic, and for me it was cathartic because I'm like - I was thinking about my mom, and my mom's a U.S. citizen, and what her process was like and the fact that she had to go through this, you know, as an Indian immigrant, you know, applying for citizenship.
Like, you know, it felt - it was pretty great to be able to do that.
GROSS: Do you ever feel guilty that you're doing standup comedy instead of helping immigrants?
KONDABOLU: A lot. I try to get over. I have to because you can't be a part-time organizer. There's no such thing. Even if organizers are paid part time or not at all, like they're working full time. Like you're supporting your communities. You know, there are a lot of folks who don't even get called organizers. They're just folks in their communities who have fulltime jobs and families who are doing this because it helps their community. And they're organizers, too. They just don't get called that, and they don't get paid for it.
And it's a fulltime thing, and I felt like if I did community organizing part time while doing standup, I would be doing both a disservice. I can't, I can't, I know I organized the rally, but I can't be there because, you know, I'm going to be on Kimmel.
KONDABOLU: You know, it's a TV spot. I got my tight five ready to be on Kimmel. I can't - what, you expect me to give up Kimmel because - you know, that's not how this works. And so I felt like, you know, there was a lot of guilt, but, you know, there's also been a lot of positive feedback and people saying that my work means a lot to them, and my comedy is new, and they never thought a voice like me would exist in the mainstream.
And I'm shocked by it, too, to be perfectly honest. And whenever I hear things like that, I'm like OK, maybe I am doing good. And it's tricky, you know, because, like, I don't - I don't see myself as an activist onstage. I do this because I love comedy, and the points of view that I'm sharing are my points of view. They're like genuine points of this is how I feel about the world; I'm being myself.
And it's a strange thing because I don't want to go up there and think I have to change the world, everything I'm saying is going to have this impact because I think it's very easy for comics to be egomaniacs already, like just by the nature of people are paying attention to us. I didn't want that in my head, but I also knew that the stuff that I was saying was having impact.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hari Kondabolu, and he has a new comedy album, which is called "Waiting for 2042." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more and hear more of your comedy. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hari Kondabolu, and he has a new comedy album, which is called "Waiting for 2042." So since you got your masters degree in human rights from the London School of Economics, I thought we can hear a bit that you do that's called "My English Relationship."
GROSS: OK, do you want to hear that?
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ALBUM)
KONDABOLU: When I was living in London, I was dating this Englishwoman, and the first three months I was there, I was, like, really excited. We were - she was over at my place like three nights a week, immediate trust. And then four months in, she was over at my place four nights a week, and I noticed she was starting to tell me what to do, like when to wake up and when to sleep and what to eat, and I'm like this is weird.
But, like, early on in the relationship, you have to set boundaries. So maybe this was part of that boundary-setting process. I'm like OK, let's go with this. Five months in, she's over at my place five nights a week, and my brother had come to visit. I don't know what she said to my brother, but by the end of his week there, like he was angry at me. She had, like, turned my brother against me. It was so strange.
And then six months in, I hated how I was being treated. I decided to assert myself. I said I don't like how I'm being treated, I'm a human being, I deserve more, and that's when the beatings started, and...
I don't know why she felt comfortable hitting me, but she did, and it was terrible. I felt defenseless. I felt like nobody could help, nobody was listening. And after seven months, she's over at my place seven nights a week. She has her own place. She has her own place that she's paying rent for, but she's over at my place every night of the week, eating my food, telling me what to do, hitting me, and that's when I knew this wasn't love. This Englishwoman was trying to colonize me.
And I of course did what I was trained to do in such situations: nothing.
I simply didn't cooperate. I used nonviolent resistance. And after a month, she finally left, and she took most of my best stuff with her: food; art; self-esteem, all gone. And she left a few things. She left some clothes and some books and of course an extensive railway system.
So for the non-South-Asians in the audience who perhaps didn't understand why there was applause, the British built a really extensive railway system throughout India before they left, and it wasn't so much for transportation for the Indian people, it was because it's really hard, of course, to plunder on foot. And...
GROSS: That's Hari Kondabolu. That's a really funny bit, and...
KONDABOLU: High-end colonialism material.
GROSS: Exactly, and I think part of the problem of being a comic from a minority group is that you have to explain some of the jokes to audiences.
GROSS: That aren't of your group or that never took a history class.
KONDABOLU: Sure, sure.
GROSS: And you have to make the explanation funny, like you do about, you know, the extensive railway system.
KONDABOLU: That's part of my style now, at this point, I think, to...
GROSS: To explain your jokes?
KONDABOLU: Yeah, I actually have fun with it because they tell you you're never supposed to explain your jokes because, like, that ruins the joke. And to me that is the joke. Like throughout the album, like there's a track called "Toby" where I have to explain a "Roots" reference.
GROSS: Exactly, right.
KONDABOLU: But I like explaining the references. I feel like, I don't know, maybe again it's me being over-educated, but I do like that. I feel like I'm a cool professor. Maybe I'm not because I just called myself that, but like there's something about OK, maybe I can - you know, because I find these things funny, and I have to find a way for you to think they're funny, and if I have to explain it so you get what I'm talking about and then laugh at the thing I think is funny, then so be it.
It might take an extra minute, it might mean that our attention spans have to go back to 1987, but I think it's possible for us to get through a minute setup to get to something else.
GROSS: So with the bit that we just heard, how did that come to you? What came first, thinking about you wanted to do something about this relationship, or thinking, like, what kind of metaphor can I find for colonialism that would be really funny?
KONDABOLU: I mean part of it is just thinking about how British colonialism worked and how systematic it was, and I think I must have read something, or I read something where the word relationship was used, like the British colonial government's relationship with India, and the word relationship I think stuck. Relationship, what would it have looked like if it was an actual relationship?
And I kind of worked - I already knew what it was, and I had to work backwards to actually make it fit the structure I created. Every now and then you get that, where you have, like, you already know what the punch line is, and you're trying to work backwards to get to it. And I got lucky on that one.
But I also knew that it wasn't going to be - even if I wrote it perfect, and I'm pretty proud of that joke, I think it was fairly well-constructed, and I'm saying that because it doesn't work very often.
KONDABOLU: Like it's hard joke to sell, and that night it just happened to work. But it kind of depended on who was in the crowd. And I often get this with some of my jokes. You'll have like five or six people, let's say, out of like 40, say it's, you know, 40 people in the show, random night, working on new material, who will laugh hysterically.
I just, I hit them in a way that no one's ever hit them before, and the other maybe 34 are kind of what's going on. Do we have to pay more attention to get it? What did we miss?
GROSS: So when a heckler heckles you, what do they usually say? What are the typical insults you get?
KONDABOLU: It varies. Heckles always vary. I mean, some people are just drunk, and it's nonsense, or, you know, some people just want to just repeat something I've said or add their own two cents about an opinion, but because of the nature of what I do and who I am, like I also get the racist stuff, which is hard. Like, and the worst stuff actually is not just the racist, like, stuff about being Indian or whatever, it's folks in the front rows who occasionally, they don't - you know, it's usually at a comedy club.
They don't know what they're coming to. They stumble into my show. They want to sit up show because the worst people always want to sit up front, and they want you to talk to them. And even if you make fun of them, they love it, it's awful. And, you know, I've been in situations at clubs enough times where that front row, somebody in the front, will start whispering racist things to me or saying something soft.
So it's not loud enough where other people would potentially say something to them but loud enough where I can hear it. And I have to choose at that point do I stop the show to call somebody out, or do I just keep going because everyone else is having a good time. It's such a cruel thing. I hate it. It's like - because you know you're annoyed by my standup. You know this is going to hurt me. But at the same time, like, you're too much of a coward to say it loud enough where other people might go after you, as well.
GROSS: So your parents are from India. How did their lives change when they moved to New York?
KONDABOLU: Everything changed when my parents moved to New York, but my father moved first. It was the late '70s. I think he spent a year in a small town in Louisiana, which for some reason he didn't tell me this for years. He eventually moved to New York, worked at a Duane Reade drugstore, I think the original one, I think on Duane and Reade Street in New York, and did not have proper shoes, did not have a proper coat, would unload boxes in the snow and stock shelves.
I remember my father telling me this story, which is like this is like a typical, beautiful, like, New York story. The folks who I think owned it were Jewish immigrants themselves, and they saw my father was studying, because I guess my father was going to take an exam. My father's an echocardiogram technician now.
And they saw him studying, and, you know, he thought he was in trouble because he got caught, like, reading on the job. And he explained, like, oh, I'm trying to take this test, I'm studying, and they were so moved by the fact that he was studying that they would let him take shifts where they would hire someone else to do the work, and he would just sit in the back room and study.
And they just - and the other employees would be, like, why is Ravi not working, why is he just studying. And they would say he's studying, all right, you mind your business, let him study, leave him in peace. And it was just - that was - you know, I hear those stories, I'm like this is beautiful, and this is what New York is.
But it was hard. You know, my father really, really struggled. And my mom, like it was an arranged marriage. My mother was a doctor in India. And, you know, an Indian woman who was a doctor in Southern India in the '70s with her own practice. You know, my mom is a pioneering figure. Like she's - there are not that many women of that era in that region of India who had that, and my mom was that.
And, but, you know, tradition is what it is, and my grandfather really wanted her to get married, and, you know, she married my father and gave up being a doctor, moved to America. It didn't transfer over and, you know, had two kids, and that was something that never happened for her.
GROSS: Hari Kondabolu will be back in the second half of the show. His new comedy album is called "Waiting for 2042." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with comic Hari Kondabolu. He has a new album called "Waiting for 2042," a reference to the year the Census Bureau projects that white people will be in the minority in the U.S. When we left off, we were talking about some of the sacrifices Kondabolu's parents made when they immigrated from India to the U.S. in the late 1970s.
KONDABOLU: It was hard. Like, my folks struggled. And also I think there's this assumption, especially from relatives back home that we must be rich. You know, you're in America, you're rich. And the thing is, a lot of my parents' friends in India are retired now. My parents can't retire, like they have to keep going. So it's funny because I think because I talk about class a lot, I think there's the assumption that I'm a working class kid and that I struggled a ton and that's a lot of what informs my perspective. And the truth is that I was a middle-class kid - an upwardly mobile middle-class kid - and I got what I wanted and I went to rich kid's school and I was informed by that education. And it's not, you know, which is the truth. It doesn't mean I don't have a conscience and I don't talk about things that affect me, but that is also the truth. Sometimes I get bitter, like how come my parents are hogging all the struggle?
KONDABOLU: Rich kids get a trust fund, they get money, they get legacy and they get to go to these nice colleges. Why isn't there a struggle trust fund? Why can't I take some of their struggle to give myself some legitimacy?
GROSS: But do you ever feel how extremely different, like, your parent's culture was - the culture of an arranged marriage with the culture - compared to the culture you are part of now, even though that's not your humor...
GROSS: ...it's the world that you work in.
KONDABOLU: Well, I may not even just with comedy, just in general. Like the idea of an arranged marriage was such a foreign thing, even though my parents had one. So even outside of comedy, just the idea of like growing up, it was very confusing like, you know, I'm an American kid who is brainwashed by romantic comedies - I still am, you know, and has certain ideals, maybe unrealistic ideals, about love and how love works - how magical it is. And meanwhile, my parents have an arranged marriage, and their sense of love is very different, the idea of you growing into it and you building a life with somebody, and I like that it's very practical. My folks are very practical people. Not to say love is a part of the equation, but it's about like practical things. What do we need to do to survive? What do we do for kids who are in different country? And there's something about the privilege of love, of just like not thinking about what you need but what you want, which is this feeling.
So it was confusing in that way of like not having parental role models that were in love in the way that I saw love, that didn't fall in love and get married based on it, and the fact that there was a division between arranged marriage as a term and love marriage as a term. Love marriage is a term in India and so, you know, that itself was hard. And especially, you know, in being a teenager and growing older and getting into relationships, it was confusing because like, you know, my mom, to her credit, is so ahead of her time in just considering like all the stuff that she, you know, how she was raised in India and compared to it, you know, what America is. You know, understood that but, you know, of course, it's hard, like, she, I don't know if she was ever in love and I don't know like, you know, she didn't, you know, marry somebody she was in love with. That's not how it works, so like to try to relate to a teenager who is falling in love left and right, you know, must've been very difficult.
GROSS: I want to play another example of your comedy. And this actually comes from a performance that you gave on the standup comedy show that John Oliver used to have in which he showcased standup comics. In this part of your act having to do with God.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOHN OLIVER SHOW")
KONDABOLU: I went bowling the other night and I saw then pray to his bowling ball, an adult human, an adult human being pray to God for bowling help.
KONDABOLU: Please God, please, oh, give me this moment of strength. Please, Lord, in your name, give me this moment of glory. No. No, man. God is not going to help you bowl, OK?
KONDABOLU: I think God has more important things to do than help you bowl. But then, I started thinking about how screwed up the world is right now, maybe God does have time.
KONDABOLU: Because haven't you ever had a long list of things to do for the day and you only pick the easy things to do first?
KONDABOLU: Maybe that's what God is doing. All right, see, genocide, poverty, war. I'm going to get that 7/10 split. Here you go.
KONDABOLU: You're welcome, buffalo. Oh, hey, Africa, sorry again for the delay. Maybe after the Super Bowl.
KONDABOLU: I'm kidding. Of course, I'm kidding. God doesn't exist. Surprise. We're adult humans here.
GROSS: That's my guest Hari Kondabolu, appearing on John Oliver Show. Are there places where you can't make jokes about there is no God?
KONDABOLU: It's funny, hearing that joke for the first time in a while. I don't tell that joke anymore because I can't stand by it. It's weird hearing it. I stopped doing it in my act because for a variety of reasons I think I started thinking more about God after that time when I - even probably when I was doing that joke. And I think my view of God has changed a lot because, of course, I question God a great deal, like any human being should. And I want to believe there is a God, and I think I got to that to a lot of really hard personal things I actually don't want to talk about, but I felt like I needed there to be something. There has to be something. And not just when I'm on an airplane and I'm scared to death, then God, save me please. But, you know, I feel like everything is so horrible in this world there must be something, there has to be something. And I don't know what God is. I don't know if God is gendered. I don't know if God is just a force or - but I want to believe there's something. And so I stopped telling that joke. And it's a good joke. Like, I listen to that joke and I'm like, wow, that is well written and well structured and I made a sound effect of a bowling pin falling down and I don't usually use sound effects. And so at least if you didn't like anything in the act, you'll like the sound effect. Yeah. So I don't know. I just, I feel like I don't know. How can I say it with such certainty when I don't know and what I really want there to be a God. So...
GROSS: You were brought up Hindu, right?
KONDABOLU: Yeah. Yeah. And I still - I pray after my showers. I wear prayer strings on my right arm that I got near my grandmother's town in India. It's a town called Tenali, and we went to a few temples when I was last there and I got a bunch of prayer strings and I wear them and it's a great deal of comfort and it's a cultural thing. You know, it's not like I want to impose my values on anyone and it's not like I don't respect atheists and folks who are agnostic. And in fact, I probably relate to folks who are atheists and agnostics on some level more than I do with other Hindus, to be perfectly honesty. But, and my version of Hinduism is whatever it is to me and it's a very close personal connection to some idea. It's not something that clearly regimented and it certainly not whatever, you know, we were taught in one or two lessons in global studies class, whatever nonsense that was.
GROSS: Were you practicing those rituals during the period when you were telling the there is no God joke?
KONDABOLU: A little bit. Yeah. I mean praying in the morning after my shower is something I started doing a few years ago. Like I always kind of did it, but like I started doing it on my own and not just when I was at my parents' place. My father is not particularly religious at all, but my mother definitely is, and in her own way. I mean it was more values-based. You know, it's like we ate beef growing up. So already, you know, we modified something that most people associate with Hinduism, which is no cow. She's like, there's a lot of terrible people who don't eat beef. So it doesn't really matter if you eat beef or not. Ultimately, just be a great human. And growing up, we watched, you know, the big Hindu epics were the "Ramayana" and the "Mahabharata." And there were these miniseries that were created in India, which were so long. Like they would go on for weeks at a time and each segment was like a half hour, an hour. And in India, like it captivated the nation, like everything would stop when these things would air on TV. An episode would air and people would watch the next episode of "Ramayana."
And so, you know, in the '80s, since didn't have like satellite TV and all that, like, you know, growing up in Queens, we lived in Jackson Heights - which was Little India, I'd see lines around the block trying to get a VHS copy of "Ramayana." Like, last week's episode that was like I guess smuggled in the country and its people just trying to see this thing that everybody back home was watching. And we kind of - my sense of religion grew up in the story my mother would tell me and the mythology and also watching these miniseries. So to me part of the very cultural and part of it is very personal.
GROSS: My guest is comic Hari Kondabolu. His new album is called "Waiting for 2042." A lot of his comedy is about race and ethnicity. His parents emigrated to the U.S. from India in the late '70s.
So American popular culture is popular all over the world. Nevertheless, a lot of immigrant parents don't really get the popular culture that their American children grow up with. It's a big stretch, bigger than the typical generation gap in the family, between parents and children's popular culture. So being the comic by definition, you're part of popular culture.
GROSS: So is there a kind of culture gap in that respect in your home between like the context that your jokes come from and the context that your, you know, the cultural context that your parents are familiar with?
KONDABOLU: Sometimes. I mean I think my mother and father view it differently. I think my mom gets more of it than my dad does, to be honest. And I don't mean that in an insulting way at all. I just think that my mom just has, I think, a better sense of American popular culture and she watches more stuff. And I think, you know, especially since we got like satellite TV where you can watch programs in India, I feel like my dad watches a lot more, like, Indian programming. And not only Indian programming, but just a lot more of it and follows more news from India. I think my mom kind of has her feet planted in both worlds. And I mean the fact that my mom got citizenship, you know, she's invested in America clearly, you know. My dad does not have citizenship and I think he still sees himself as more Indian, and my mom like sees herself as American. Like, she sees herself as somebody who like I bought in, I've been taking my kids to Burger King since they were like 3 years old...
KONDABOLU: ...like, were all about this place. And, you know, for her I think she's I would say like more feet in both world and watches a lot of movies and read a lot of books and my mom has always been a voracious reader in different languages. So for her it's, you know, it's not that hard. And I find my mom just, like, I know this is a little bit of a tangent, but I find her amazing in that she was able to adjust as a parent in a different country. Like she, you know, her parents obviously, she grew up in India, or Indian parents, different cultural context and my mom had to make adjustments when she came to America. And I hear stories about things she had to consider because in India, like, the idea of strangers was a foreign concept. Everybody looked after each other's kids. And they were safe and, you know, when she moved to New York with my father, like, when mom said like I had to explain the idea of strangers and not talking to strangers. And it was really hard for me because the idea that there were people that could hurt you was a very strange. Why would anybody hurt you? And I was told I have to tell you about this. And the fact that we didn't, you know, I didn't have my grandparents living with me and I didn't, I wasn't around older people all the time. My grandmother lived with us for short stretches but, you know, not consistently. So my mom would leave us with these two older white Irish women that were in our complex or apartment complex, Bobbie and Kitty. And we would stay there for afternoons. And I ask why mom like, recently, like why did you leave us with these older women. And she said, well, you didn't have grandparents around and I wanted you to know how to relate to older people and take care of older people and get the love that comes from older people, you know, that kind of special, like, the kind of love that grandchildren get that you weren't getting and I wanted you to get that from them. And they didn't have grandchildren around and it was important that you were that to them as well. And those older women treated my brother and I like we were their grandkids and they bought us presents and they fed us and they cared for us and when we were sick they checked on us. They did need to do that. We weren't family. But that goes beyond race. It's more beautiful than that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hari Kondabolu, and he has a new comedy album called "Waiting for 2042." And I want to play another track. It's actually the final track on the album. So, let's listen to it.
(SOUNDBITE FROM ALBUM, "WAITING FOR 2042")
KONDABOLU: You all get the general sense of what I do, right? Some of you like it, statistically, I'm sure some of you don't.
KONDABOLU: Some of you don't really understand the jokes but you like clapping at the politics, right?
KONDABOLU: Some of you are white dudes dating minority women and you have to pretend you enjoy this, like I...
KONDABOLU: I know. I've been around. I know how my audience works. I get it. But you get a general sense of what I do, so it's always interesting, right, when I go to casting offices, right, and talk to casting directors who have seen my standup. Then they'll say things like really funny, really unique point of view. We have a role that we think would be perfect for you. It's the role of a convenience store clerk in a deli. Can you do accents? Are you comfortable with that? What part of my act did you like, exactly?
KONDABOLU: Your skin is so beautiful. So cocoa butter. Thank you. Cocoa butter.
KONDABOLU: Now the thing is I get how Hollywood works, right? Like you get typecast based on your appearance, what they think you are. And the thing is if you really wanted the typecast me based on my appearance in what I have to say, there are roles that I would be perfect for. I actually made a list of those roles tonight.
KONDABOLU: Here are a list of roles that Hari Kondabolu would be perfect if they existed in the world. The first row, of course, is the role of a young sociology professor at a small liberal arts school in Vermont who is desperately trying to stay hip, right? But that is not hard for me.
KONDABOLU: That is not hard for me. It is a scene from that. Hey, hey, you don't need to cite your sources in this class. I trust you. I trust you.
Now, the second role, of course, that I'd be perfect for is the role is of a mutant created after a nuclear accident in Winnie-the-Pooh Land. A mutant that has Pooh's body, Piglet's anxiety, Owl's insomnia and Eeyore's depression. A mutant that only has one line he repeats over and over again. I'm so hungry and I so want to die.
Now, the third role that I'd be perfect for, if it existed in the world, of course, is the role of a former radical leftist activist who is compromised and is now living a life as a middle-class, middle-aged father of three in suburban New York. Right? And here is a scene from that movie. Daddy, Daddy, I want to be princess for Halloween. I want to be princess.
No. You will not be a princess because we do not believe in monarchy in this house. Do you understand me? Do you understand me, Gloria Steinem Kondabolu?
Now, you walk into your tent and you finish your quinoa and beets and you bring your sister Bell Hooks Kondabolu out here...
And have her explain to me why I found a box of Monopoly in her room with the bank still in it.
GROSS: That's Hari Kondabolu from his new album "Waiting for 2042." So the part of your performance that we just heard is about how you're offered all these, like, stereotype roles and, like, what are they thinking? Do they know anything about you or your act? Why are they offering you this? So do you think, like, you will write something for yourself sometime?
A TV show or a movie so that you could play a part that you wanted to play?
KONDABOLU: Absolutely. I mean I want to write my own stuff and, you know, it would be nice to put myself in it. But I would like to hope that there are going to be better roles offered as well and that I don't need to do everything. You know, like, I appreciate my career being somewhat DIY but it would be nice to get some help.
KONDABOLU: I mean, certainly, like, you know, working for W. Kamau Bell, you know, when "Totally Biased" was on the air, like, that was somebody supporting what I did but it would be nice to get more. I mean, Jim Gaffigan cast me in a pilot for CBS two years ago as a vegan cashier at a vegan bakery, and I am not vegan. I am actually a bit chubby and I eat everything.
I eat in a way - if my parents fed me the way I choose to eat as an adult, they would've lost custody.
KONDABOLU: You know what I mean? Like, I have no - I have no limitations. And so, like, that to me was like he just saw me as a funny comedian who could play this role and could figure it out. And that's all I think any of us are asking for, is just a chance to be humans and show our range.
GROSS: I'll talk more with Hari Kondabolu after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is comic Hari Kondabolu. His new album is called "Waiting for 2042." A lot of his comedy is about race and ethnicity. His parents emigrated to the U.S. from India in the late '70s. So you worked as a writer and performer on W. Kamau Bell's show "Totally Biased," which was a very topical comedy show once a week. And then it became daily.
But when he was on the show he talked about how the writers' room - it was a very multicultural group, an intentionally multicultural group of writers that he put together so that they could write jokes with confidence about a lot of different subjects and ethnic groups and religions and, you know, racial jokes and have a comfort that it was coming from a good place.
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about what that writer's room was like for you as an experience?
KONDABOLU: I mean, it was my first writing job so, you know, first of all, I have a very probably skewed vision of what writers' rooms are because ours was so diverse and I think most of television doesn't have that. And you have the one or two people of color or women, you know, like basically it's white dude writers and everybody else, is often the case.
So our room was so racially diverse and we had queer folks and Kamau also - I mean, another great thing is in addition to wanting to get an authentic, you know, authentic is a terrible word but a joke that was written from the heart that was genuine from the right place that was kicking upward from folks who had points of view similar to him and who had many difference experiences, what Kamau would also do is have us perform on the show, which was extraordinary, the fact this is your first TV show and you want your writers to perform on the show as well. Because there are things - you know, we'd pitch jokes and he'd, like, he would say, like, that's very funny but it would make more sense coming from you and I want this on the show and it would be more genuine coming from you. So why don't you just do it?
We'll just give you a section and you can just do it. Which is extraordinary. Like, I know of no other shows where you can just do that.
KONDABOLU: Where the star just lets you do whatever you want to do.
GROSS: So can you give an example of something that Kamau wanted you to say yourself as opposed to giving it to him to say because it was more - it related more to your experience than his?
KONDABOLU: I mean, I think I - I'm trying to remember. There was a thing I did about the Spelling Bee. I basically talked about how the Spelling Bee was the Indian Super Bowl and how it was an achievement. Like, I don't remember. I think I might've pitched that originally for Kamau as a joke and he's like you have to do that. Like, that's totally in your ballpark.
And it was one of those bits where, you know, people still come up to me about that bit.
Just because it was - yeah.
GROSS: But it's one of those things, like, if W. Kamau Bell, who's African-American, was making jokes about how the Spelling Bee is the Indian Super Bowl, would Indians have taken that the wrong way, differently than if you as an Indian-American makes that joke?
KONDABOLU: Sure. But, I mean, I think the bigger point is most people wouldn't even consider that an issue. The fact that Kamau considers that an issue and wants this show to be a show that is kicking upward and is, you know, sharing perspectives, I mean that's unique.
You know, that is not everybody. Most people aren't concerned about that. And Kamau very much thinks about his place. How is this going to sound if he says it? Will it make sense and will, you know, does the context come through? And I think that's to his credit, always to his credit. Like, that was one great thing that the show did.
Also, like, Guy Branum had some incredible pieces on the show. You know, that's what I loved. Like, I felt like something would happen and there was a genuine heartfelt reaction. And normally the way things work are something happens and there's a bunch of community groups and they have a petition and then they have to push it forward and then it becomes a news story.
You know what I mean? That's what we usually get, and our show, something would happen and then the next day one of us would go onscreen and rant about it in a funny way with visuals. And we could still make the points that activists were trying to make but we would do it in a funny fashion. I mean that's - it was remarkable what the show - what that show had.
GROSS: You first did standup when you were in high school, right?
GROSS: So what was your comedy like when you were in high school? Do you remember any of your really early jokes?
KONDABOLU: A lot of my early material was Indian-centric stuff. Lots of accents. I used accents. I talked about my parents. I mean it was stuff I'm not proud of but, you know, the goal was to make people laugh and that's all - the only goal I had was to make people laugh. The idea of being true to myself of - I mean, to be fair, like, I really didn't have a self. I was 17, you know.
KONDABOLU: And I had no real firm opinions at that point. So if the goal was to get the high of making people laugh, well, then mission accomplished. You know, I'm still doing it, so.
GROSS: At the risk of embarrassing yourself, would you be willing to share some of that early material?
KONDABOLU: Oh, lord.
KONDABOLU: You know, I talk about things my father would say with his accent. I don't do that anymore, obviously, but at the time it was like it if worked, it worked.
GROSS: Why don't you do that anymore?
KONDABOLU: It doesn't - first of all, I don't do impressions well. That's not the main reason but that should be noted, to begin with. It's hard having an accent in this country and you are judged based on it. And I can imagine that it must be hard for my folks to work twice as hard to communicate.
And also the idea that when maybe my father says something and he walks away, the idea that people are laughing because what he said is funny to them because of how he sounds crushed me when I thought about it. And the idea that I was contributing to that, it was hard. I've been saying this on stage.
Like, my father should be judged based on the content of his words and actions and not the accent that comes with it. Because he does a lot of ridiculous things that have nothing to do with his accent. And I think that's kind of how I've been approaching it. Like, they're human beings and they should be viewed as parents and human beings and not just a series of funny sounds.
GROSS: Hari Kondabolu, thank you so much. It's really been fun.
KONDABOLU: Oh, it's been great, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: Hari Kondabolu's new album is called "Waiting for 2042." He'll perform in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. later this month. He hosts a podcast with his brother Ashok, a performer and hip-hop artist.
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