Stand-up comic Hari Kondabolu spoke with Ricochet by phone about his upbringing in New York, his use of comedy as a coping mechanism, and what he thinks about Canada. His first album, Waiting for 2042, was released last March. On Dec. 5 he performs at the Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver.
Hari Kondabolu’s sharp observational comedy relies as much on a lively intellect as it does on a world infiltrated by the absurdity of race.
“I get accused a lot about being obsessed with talking about race,” declares Kondabolu in one of the tracks on Waiting for 2042, his debut album. “Accusing me of being obsessed with talking about racism in America is like accusing me of being obsessed with swimming when I’m drowning.”
Kondabolu found his comedy career taking off unexpectedly when he was working as an immigrant rights organizer in Seattle. Until he was noticed by the HBO Comedy Festival in 2006, he practised stand-up as a hobby, with no view to pursuing it as anything more. In 2008 he earned a master’s degree in human rights from the London School of Economics, completing a dissertation on Mexican returnees as internally displaced people.
His résumé certainly doesn’t look like that of most comedians.
In this interview with Ricochet, Kondabolu talks about his upbringing in New York, his use of comedy as a coping mechanism, and and what he thinks about Canada.
‘We all came from somewhere’
Growing up in Queens, New York, says Kondabolu, diversity wasn’t a concept. It was life.
Acknowledging that tensions still existed, he explains that people weren’t just having experiences; they were “experiencing life together as a community.” Groups of people, diverse in all ways, were “going to work together, riding the train and the buses together.”
“Diversity was so day-to-day life that it wasn’t a defined thing. When people talk about diversity, it sounds like a social sciences experiment.”
“In New York it was so natural. It was the purest kind of thing.”
In such a setting, says Kondabolu, “whiteness was a strange thing,” in the sense that people still had a connection to their immigration history. When he asked white people in New York where they were from, they didn’t answer with the name of a city or neighbourhood. They replied that they were Irish, or German, or Scottish, or Italian, or Greek.
“There was ownership of an ethnic background, so it wasn’t like I was the outsider and my family were outsiders. We all came from somewhere,” he says. “It was instilled in us at an early age that we were all from somewhere.”
But mainstream media communicated a different message, either failing to show people of colour or depicting them in demeaning ways. Watching television and films, Kondabolu knew something was off. “Whatever America they’re talking about and showing and describing, it isn’t our America.”
When he moved to Maine to attend university, he experienced what he calls “that really sharp break of having to adjust to a white space.” Leaving the unquestioned diversity of New York, “you’re shocked into understanding you’re an outsider,” he says.
Then came 9/11. “The way I heard brown people being talked about, it kind of illuminated everything, that racism wasn’t something that happened before the ’60s, that it’s alive and well, it’s always been there, and it’s the foundation of this country.”
“That certainly made me a political being, a much more thoughtful being.”
As the U.S. moves toward a time when white people will become a minority, anxieties play out in national discussions. But for Kondabolu, lived diversity has already happened.
“Whatever future that America is fearing is what we grew up in.”
‘My defence is to try to be funny’
Waiting for 2042 refers to the predicted year in which people of colour will outnumber whites in the U.S.
“Are there white people in this country who are actually freaked out by this?” he asks on the track “2042 & the White Minority,” adding that whites can be considered a minority group only if the other 51 per cent of people are a homogenous mass. “Don’t worry, white people, you were the minority when you came to this country. Things seem to have worked out for you.”
Recently, in the New York Times video series “Off Color,” Kondabolu spoke about the pain and loneliness of racism and the ability to recycle anguish into laughter.
When asked to talk about the gravity of racism versus the comedic material that comes out of it, Kondabolu replies, “The comedic take and the serious take in some ways are the same thing because comedy is my response to that pain and that frustration. To me they’re woven together.”
“My defence is to try to be funny, as a coping mechanism.”
Racism has wide-ranging impacts, says Kondabolu. “On a basic level you feel less about yourself. Your self-esteem is lower.” You learn from media what society thinks about certain people — “I guess I don’t count. I guess I don’t exist. I guess I’m worth less. I’m valued less. My stories are less important.”
One end result can be that people of colour “start thinking that the oppressor is right.”
“I know brown people who, when they were being profiled after 9/11, said, ‘Well, it’s for national security. You have to admit that the people that attacked our country look like us.’” Kondabolu describes the extent to which people have bought into the oppressor’s narrative as “mind-boggling.”
‘If it doesn’t kill you, you have to laugh about it’
While racism renders psychological and physical detriments, even death, there’s nothing natural about race.
“It’s such an illogical absurd thing when you think about race,” says Kondabolu. “It’s the thing immediately I’m going to gravitate to. It’s so absurd and constructed and unfair. I have to. I have to go talk about that.”
“If comedians are looking for things that don’t make sense and are deconstructing the world,” he continues, race is “a big one that we take as a given that’s not real. . . . You’re telling me, based on a set of assumptions that has nothing to do with me, based solely on whatever minimal images you have, your behaviour towards me is going to change on a personal or institutional level?”
“That’s so absurd that if it doesn’t kill you, you have to laugh about it.”
Though his material is often considered to be politically charged, and he admits that his work might have some educational value, Kondabolu says it’s laughter he wants to provoke.
In a comedic landscape dominated by white men, where violent bits are defended with invocations of freedom of speech and the disengaged cliché “it’s just a joke,” comedy that kicks upward at the absurdity of oppression can mean a lot for those buried beneath it.
In the audience, says Kondabolu, “there are going to be other people of colour who have been oppressed in a variety of different ways. They hear the things I’m saying and they clap and they cheer and they laugh, because it relates to their experience and it feels empowering and cathartic.”
“Hopefully it’s a reminder that we don’t need to put up with it, that we don’t need to feel responsible for our oppressions,” he says. “We deserve more.”
‘We don’t complicate Canada’
In a track on Waiting for 2042 called “Moving to Canada,” Kondabolu skewers the country’s reputation.
It’s not so great up there, he opines. “The prime minister, Stephen Harper, is a dick. He’s rolling back all their social welfare programs, all the things that apparently made Canada amazing.” The only reason people think Canada is so great, he concludes, is “the U.S. happens to be the biggest asshole in the world.”
When asked to elaborate on the idea that Canada is not so glorious, Kondabolu responds with a mixture of American envy and critical analysis.
Canadians may see Harper as the equivalent of former president George Bush, but he’s still not Bush. And while Canada has significant issues to contend with, the severity of the political situation in the U.S. makes Canada look pretty good by comparison. “We can’t get there,” says Kondabolu ruefully in reference to how much distance the U.S. has to cover to even achieve parity with Canada in many respects.
And he maintains that Ottawa is unlikely to be the target of an internationally coordinated attack as New York was, an idea put forth in the same joke about Canada, even though some people have raised October’s Parliament shooting as a counter-example.
“I saw bigotry in how people were talking about that,” says Kondabolu. The shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, “wasn’t funded by foreign parts that we know of. . . . Yet because this person is who they are, immediately they’re seen as part of something bigger.”
“But if it was a (non-Muslim) white guy with a gun who was doing that, would you assume immediately they were part of a white supremacist group and that they had funding from outside white supremacist parties?”
In many ways, Canada and the U.S. more closely resemble one another than either cares to recognize.
As an American looking at Canada, Kondabolu explains that “the history is as horrific, and I think that’s one shocking thing that when we give Canada all this credit . . . it almost makes it feel like it was a barren land that had no history, you know? Unlike the U.S. where there was genocide, in Canada people just showed up, the French and British just showed up, and occupied it like there was nothing.”
“And it’s so fucked up because that’s not what happened and it was so brutal,” he says, citing the residential school system as an example.
“It’s a history that is ignored. And when we talk about Canada, we don’t complicate Canada. It’s just better than us. It’s a better option. And I think that does the struggles in Canada a disservice.”