Comedian Hari Kondabolu On Sanders, Public Radio And 'The Master’s-Level’ Conversation On Race

Aug 26, 2016

You may be tempted to call Hari Kondabolu a political comic, but he'd prefer you to call him a "Mainstream American Comic." That's the title of his latest comedy album. Kondabolu, who will be performing Aug. 26 and Aug. 27 at Vermont Comedy Club, spoke with VPR about the album, discussing race and finding humor in politics.

On the title of his latest album, Mainstream American Comic:

“I get called like an Indian-American comic or a political comic or an activist comic and there’s all these labels,” says Kondabolu, “and it always frustrated me because to me I'm just doing comedy. I don't understand the point of all that. And also the things I talk about, whether it's my experience as a South Asian American, whether it's my experience as a former immigrant rights organizer, whether it's my feelings about the way the world should be, I mean, those aren’t niche-things.

“And I like the idea of someone Googling ‘mainstream America’ or ‘mainstream American’ and my face shows up,” he adds. “So some of it is really just pure ego. Like there's really no artistic purpose other than I want people to see my face more.”

On performing in mostly white spaces:

On the new album, Kondabolu talks about the experience of being a person of color in mostly white spaces, not unlike Vermont. Kondabolu says calling that out elicits a wide range of reactions from his audiences.

“I think it varies. I mean sometimes it gets tight really quickly,” Kondabolu says, “sometimes people are down because maybe we share the same points of view or they've done the required reading. And sometimes it's interesting because the folks who do get it — and especially the people of color who get those experiences — it almost feels like a proxy war, if that makes any sense. Like people of color are laughing just a little bit harder and the white people are watching it happen. And I find that fascinating like ‘don't you see this is our experience! Look at it!’”

Comedian Hari Kondabolu will be performing August 26 and 27 at Vermont Comedy Club in Burlington.
Credit courtesy, Mindy Tucker

Kondabolu says that can sometimes make white people in the audience uncomfortable, but doesn’t shy away from that discomfort.

“I think there's some white people who are uncomfortable with me using the phrase white people,” he explains. “I think that a lot of white people aren't used to being named. Like I don't just get described as a person I get described as an Indian person. You know there's always something that comes before it, a descriptor. Just that alone I think ticks some people off.”

“And I think there are some folks who want a discussion of race but a safe discussion of race. Being colorblind. You know ‘we should have equality.’ I’m less interested in some of that stuff. That's all fine but that's the 101 [level].I want to get to the master's level. Let's actually do the work. What does real change look? What does revolution look like? How do we actually stand together to create change? Will you be with me? And if you don't see race, you don't see racism and then what use are you to me? I mean these are the things I want to get into.”

On Sen. Bernie Sanders:

On the new album, Kondabolu takes on Sen. Bernie Sanders, questioning if his wardrobe is fit for a self-proclaimed socialist.

“Bernie Sanders sure has a lot of suits,” Kondabolu says on the album. ”What kind of a socialist has the whole fall collection from the Men's Wearhouse? I’m friends with socialists. They have like one suit maybe you know for weddings and like arraignments — like that's all. That's all you really need.”

The joke not only plays with the stereotypes many have of what a socialist looks like, all the while scrutinizing a male politician for his wardrobe in a similar way to how female candidates are often critiqued. Kondabolu says both criticisms are intentional.

“I feel like some of the criticisms that Hillary [Clinton] gets, what if we put it on Bernie [Sanders]? So that that's certainly the reason why I did that,” Kondabolu says. “And also I mean you have to poke a little bit at every candidate. I didn't want to just poke at the right. That's easy.”

Please be advised: The following video includes profanity.

Kondabolu says the reaction from Sanders supporters at his performances is generally positive.

“A lot of wooing when I mentioned Bernie Sanders,” he says, ‘before the the the primary certainly there were people chanting and stuff, which I would then tell them ‘there's a better system called voting.’ Now that he's not going to be the president, and we know that for sure, are we still going to fight for the things he talked about? Or was this just sports to people?

"That's not how this works. If you really believe in the things he was talking about. This is this is past the slogan, this has passed ‘Feel The Burn,’ This is about change and what does change look like?

On poking fun at public radio:

Kondabolu is no stranger to public radio: He’s been a guest on a number of programs over the years and even mention NPR on stage. And Kondabolu says there’s plenty of humor to be found there.

“I think what I love about public radio is the politeness of it,” says Kondabolu. “Even when I get hate mail, it's not like a death threat, it’s still fairly polite and clear. And I love the moments where there's tension but you can't show too much tension. You have to be even-handed. The voices — the fact that I don't know who the host is because everyone has the same voice. I mean all of it! It's just funny to me, the culture of it. And I love it — it’s not like I don’t love it — but it's such a particular world.  I'm part of it. I live in Brooklyn and I went to liberal arts colleges. This absurd world I’ve become a part of.”

Hari Kondabolu is performing Aug. 26 and Aug. 27 at Vermont Comedy Club in Burlington. His latest comedy album, Mainstream American Comic is out now.