Hari Kondabolu thinks his younger brother, Ashok, is funnier than he is. “My brother is fucking brilliant,” he tells me. “He has no interest in stand-up, which has always upset me because he kills it as far as I’m concerned.”
The pair recently started a fantastic new podcast called Kondabolu Brothers, though Hari is being too hard on himself when he jokingly deprecates himself — a performative feat he often employs in his new Netflix special, Warn Your Relatives.
A former writer for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, Kondabolu has since released three albums and a Comedy Central half-hour special. Last November, he exploded onto the national pop cultural stage with The Problem with Apu, a biting documentary that takes The Simpsons to task over its stereotype-heavy Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, voiced by white actor Hank Azaria. We spoke to Kondabolu about the conversation the film has started, as well as Warn Your Relatives, which was recorded at Seattle’s Neptune Theatre in December.
Directed by comedy and filmmaking veteran Bobcat Goldthwait, Kondabolu’s first hour-long special features a mix of the political material his fans know and love, and some hilarious forays into his childhood and young adult life. In either case, the comedian stays true to himself, what he believes and thinks is funny. “I’m less interested in current events as much as bigger topics,” Kondabolu explains. “I don’t want to punch downwards. I always want to go after power.”
Warn Your Relatives does just that, though not without Kondabolu tossing in a few playful bits here and there — like the time Tracy Morgan heckled him during a particularly disastrous set.
Den of Geek: You just did a weekend of shows in St. Louis. Now you’re off to Ann Arbor for the same. I imagine you’re already trying out new material.
Hari Kondabolu:It’s always a little bit of everything. When the special airs and I go back on the road, I don’t want people to hear the same stuff. You do keep a little bit of the old stuff in as a buffer. Also, some people like to hear certain bits from the last album or special. But I want to give people a really fresh new show. Plus you get sick of the same jokes, because you’ve been doing them for so long. It’s been exciting. It’s been really fun writing again, getting back into the creative part of it.
Is it easier for you to write new material on the road?
I’m better when I’m writing on stage. You can write bullet points and have ideas, but until your forced to do something with it, they just linger. You have to throw them out on stage. What I like to do is write bullet points, go on stage and talk through the jokes so they sound natural. The way you write and the way you perform aren’t always exactly the same. The way you talk doesn’t always match up with what you write. I have to find my cadence. Some things read well, but when I say them on stage, I’ll slip over the words. I keep bumbling them because the syllables or the structure is weird. So I do it on stage.
Generally I’ll rent out a little 50-seat theater in Seattle and I try out an hour of new material at a time. The audience knows what they’re in for and I just bomb repeatedly, to learn what’s working and what isn’t. Then whenever I’m headlining, I’ll slip some of the new bits that I feel are ready into the show. When you have an audience that’s excited to be there and the jokes that are working, that gives you the confidence to push it a little further. Especially when you’re touring a lot and performing all the time. It becomes a lot easier to think funny. You’re not worried about every single word then. You’re just being in the moment.
You tell a lot of great stories in Warn Your Relatives, more than you have in your previous comedy albums and the half-hour special, I think.
I’d like to think that I have an interesting life, and I feel like I’ve been able to travel and have all these experiences. The one thing that benefits me and all comics is that we actually keep track of things that happen. All sorts of things happen and people usually forget them, or at least some of the details. Maybe it’s a thought or a conversation they had with someone. Comics don’t do that. I mean we do, but it makes us very upset because we’re supposed to be documenting everything. You never know what could end up being your next big bit.
That being said, I just get lucky. All these things happen to me and I don’t let them go. The Tracy Morgan thing, for example, was pure luck. It lined up perfectly. He came outside to say hello to me after the show and really said those things. It was great. And that Kid Rock thing? People are like, “It’s nice to see you experimenting with absurdity.” And I’m like, “That actually happened. Someone thought I was Kid Rock!” Or the story about the old man at the end? Also true. Sometimes you get lucky and stumble into these things that do so much of the writing for you. It’s really up to you to make sense of them. The story in itself is great, but what can you do with it? The comedy isn’t just the storytelling. It’s the storytelling plus the insight. Your job is to find the humor outside of what’s clearly present.
Speaking of Tracy Morgan heckling you, how long ago was that? Was that before or after the accident?
It happened in 2013 or 2014, so it was definitely before the accident. I remember feeling weird about doing it right after that. And when I started doing it, it was just a crazy Tracy Morgan story. It needed more, so I stopped doing it. When I felt he was doing okay, though, that’s honestly when I decided to bring it back. It wouldn’t have been right if I hadn’t waited for his recovery. So I brought it back with a clear conscience. To be honest, I actually completely forgot about it, because I hadn’t thought about Tracy heckling me since I’d last done the bit before his accident. And then you remember something like that it’s like, “I’m sitting on this and not doing anything with it? Why am I not doing that?” Those are the experiences that really stand out. They’re absurd. And I only have them because I perform in New York and I’m around people like Tracy. It’s funny, because it happened four or five years ago but it feels like it just happened.
But it works wonderfully. I mean, we can’t really know Morgan solely based on his public persona, but the man your bit describes sounds exactly like him.
Yeah, and his stand-up is filthy. It’s consistent with his style. I get what he was saying, that it would be funny if someone who looked nerdy started being filthy. I guess that’s what he was getting at, but I also fundamentally don’t like his idea that the audience is not smart. Or, that I’m too smart for my audience. My job is to translate what I’m thinking in a way they can understand. I think people can be closed-minded or think comedy is narrow. They expect a certain thing. But I don’t think people are stupid. You should give them credit. If you lead them, they’ll follow you.
How do you determine what does and doesn’t work? Do you go simply by audience reactions, or are there people you trust to give you constructive feedback?
There are a lot of different people whom I consult with. Some of them are my best friends, people who have followed my career since the very beginning. Back when I was 18 doing stand-up in a college pub. They will check me on the politics. “Is this saying what you want it to say? Are you getting the laugh that you want?” We debate my arguments and the ideas supporting them, which often sparks new ideas and jokes. Then there are people like my writing partner and friend, Ahamefule J. Oluo. He doesn’t do comedy professionally. He’s this incredible musician. But he gets my voice almost better than anyone else does, so I’ll say something and he’ll be like, “That sounds like you.” Which means, “That’s a joke only you could tell.” He’ll give me tags or ideas he has, but he always knows when something is in my wheelhouse. When I’m with him, I’m just funnier. The jokes come out.
My friend Liz Miele, who opens for me on the road all the time, is a great example of someone who can see a joke and say, “Technically, this is the thing you’re missing. This is why they’re not getting it.” She can break it down and figure out which pieces of the joke are broken. Sometimes a joke writes itself and it’s perfect. You’re lucky when that happens, and all you have to do is add tags. Sometimes it’s a process. I think that’s why people admire Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up so much. He’s a such a great technical writer of jokes. He knows all these different ways to present a joke. Every word is so intentional. Myq Kaplan is also like that. All of the words are supposed to be there in that particular joke. It’s a really technical aspect that come from other comics.
Right, but a lot of it is also the comedian’s stage presence.
The stage presence can’t be understated. There’s a reason why some people do stand-up and then go straight into the writer’s room, and why others become these incredible performers who influence people. My friend Carmen Lagala calls it “flirting with the audience.” That’s basically what you’re doing. You have your ideas and your jokes, but you’re playful with how you deliver them the audience. You’re flirting. You’re finding a way to get them to like you. That’s not something you can write. You can’t write them to like you.
When you’re a good stand-up, you’re both writing and trying to create a presence that can win people over. When I’m saying things that I know are going to potentially upset people, I have to figure out how I can keep them. A great example is Patrice O’Neal. I disagree with so much of what he said. I find it atrocious, but at the same time, I find him likable. How is that possible? Part of it is because I know that’s him. He is that guy. He’s not just saying it to say it. So when you see him perform, that clicks and it makes sense. It’s that flirtation between the audience and the comedian. This is why you end up liking him.
Bobcat Goldthwait directed Warn Your Relatives. What was it like to work with him?
Oh god, it was amazing. He’s one of the great comics of the last 30 years. His comedy instincts are strong, and he’s a great collaborator. Bobcat is a comedian, writer, director and producer, all at the same time. He’s not somebody who doesn’t understand the technicalities. He’s not someone who doesn’t understand what makes a good special, because it’s more than a couple of cameras filming audience reactions. Bobcat is a filmmaker. He makes films and television. He understands what’s new and interesting, and he has a unique skill set that allows him to connect with comics and create really special pieces of art with them. He was the perfect person to work with for me, especially since this is my first hour.
It sounds like you know him very well. Had you two worked together before?
When I had a TV pilot with truTV, and later got the deal to make the Apu documentary, I wanted Bobcat to do both. He initially yes, and we were still in the process of figuring out the schedule, but another deal he couldn’t turn down came up at around the same time. He had to take it, and I was disappointed because he’s Bobcat, but there were no hard feelings. So when it was time to shoot the special, I texted him and asked if he wanted to work on the special. He said yes. There was no hesitation.
We like each other. We’ve hung out. And that’s the thing, when you have chemistry with somebody and you trust somebody. There are a lot of comics who just tell joke after joke, which is great, but sometimes you want someone who can be serious. Who isn’t always on. They let the funny come to them. I’m sure you have friends who aren’t funny all the time, but they’re hysterical whenever you’re having conversations with each other. They manage to find those amazing moments. That’s what I noticed with Bobcat. He doesn’t try to be funny, he just is funny. And when you’re with somebody like that, it’s really comforting. I can talk to him about anything and enjoy being around him. That’s the kind of collaborator you want. Not somebody who’s just trying to outshine you or be the funniest person in the room. But someone who is so comfortable with themselves that you’re comfortable being around them.
Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives streams Tuesday, May 8th on Netflix.