Brooklyn-based comedian Hari Kondabolu has amassed an impressive reel of TV appearances, released two chart-topping albums, and been called “one of the most exciting political comics in stand-up today” by the New York Times. TruTV will release his Simpsons-centered documentary, The Problem With Apu, this fall. In the meantime, the accomplished and influential comic is touring the U.S. and Europe with a new hour of material that will soon wind up on his third album. Friday night, Kondabolu will come to Milwaukee to perform two shows at The Underground Collaborative.
Instead of interviewing him ourselves, we decided to ask someone with a unique knowledge of Kondabolu’s career to do it. Milwaukee comedian Greg Bach has opened for him on occasion, including a few shows in Wisconsin last year. Before they share the stage again this weekend, Bach (acting on our behalf) spoke to Kondabolu about his new doc, his relentless touring, and how his work in immigrants’ rights advocacy eventually led to a career in stand-up comedy.
Milwaukee Record: I wanted to start with the documentary you’ve made called The Problem with Apu. What were the origins of this?
Hari Kondabolu: I came up with the idea because I did a piece on Totally Biased, W. Kamau Bell’s old show, about Indian representation, and it did really well. I was surprised because, to me, all of this stuff was an old topic and that I had talked to my community about this forever. Finally, it became a thing where that other people were curious about, especially the part about Apu. I wanted to make a documentary talking about the character’s history, the history of the name, the history of representation of the South Asian community, and how representation works in this country, because I see this as a longer lineage of minstrelsy and exploitative images. So I pitched it to TruTV and they loved it. I still love The Simpsons, it’s one of my top five TV shows and I feel like it has an incredible influence on me, and this critique isn’t me hating it, because you can criticize something you love. If something you love hurts you or upsets you, you want to say something, and I think this is the first time I think anyone has publicly criticized The Simpsons like this.
MR: Did you get a lot of backlash on the project?
HK: When the trailer came out, half the people were so excited about it and the other half the people were furious. I thought “You haven’t seen it yet, so how can you tell me how bad this is and it’s political correctness if you haven’t seen it?”
MR: Hari, have you been to the Internet lately?
HK: [Laughs] Well, I told some of the people who wrote me hate mail to watch the movie and write me back in three or four months and it might be the same thoughts, but it will be from a different view. I don’t think people like anything to be questioned and it as an attack on something they love, and it’s not. It’s just a critical look at thing, because things we love have issues.
MR: You’re doing the podcast Politically Re-Active, which has been a great success. When I listen to it, it sounds like two guys who just said “Hey let’s do this and see where it goes.”
HK: That’s funny, because that’s not far removed from our conversations on the phone and we said we always wanted to make a podcast, but never had the time. Then First Look Media reached out to Kamau about doing something and he said the only way I would do it is if he did it with me.
MR: Excellent, so let’s talk about touring. You’re always on tour.
HK: [Laughs] Yeah…
MR: I take it you’re working towards the next record?
HK: Yeah, I’m working on the next hour. It’s so many things at once, but it’s cool, because when you know something is coming from what you’re doing, whether it’s the documentary or the new hour. It doesn’t feel like in previous years where you say, “I’m touring endlessly, but for what?”
MR: Yeah, I know that feeling well, and I’m sure I would agree with your mother when she says, “Get some rest.”
HK: Soon, hopefully.
MR: Something I’ve always noticed about you is if someone looks at your professional comedy bio, it reads more like the CV of a university professor. So how do you go from doing a master’s thesis on immigrants’ rights to comedy?
HK: Well, comedy came first before anything. I was a fan of comedy and performed when I was 17 or 18. I did it through college, well before I became politically active, and comedy was always present. After 9/11, I became much more politically active and aware of the world, and my art changed as a result. But I never thought it was something doable as a professional. There were no other examples; Russell Peters was the only one who had made their name in 2004-2005, so I didn’t see it as realistic and maybe not the best use of my time. I wanted to contribute, so I went to be an immigrant rights organizer, and my goal was to work with immigrants, refugees and victims of hate crimes and support the communities I cared so much for. I did comedy at night in Seattle where I was organizing and it became a career.
I stumbled into the HBO Comedy Festival, I stumbled into some other things. It wasn’t something I planned to do, it was something that happened as a result of loving something and letting fate happen. I went to grad school even after appearing on TV, because my intention was to continue to organize. I didn’t see comedy as realistic as much as [I saw it as] a fluke thing. When comedy kept calling, so to speak, I finally decided after I got the degree that to not pursue [comedy] would be foolish. The door was open and I had to accept that, and I was shocked because I thought it would never be open, but it was and it was important to take advantage of it and do good work.
MR: I agree and I think it’s important for people to hear stories like this, because there are those out there who want to pursue comedy but are held back, mainly by themselves.
HK: When you start, you can’t do it with the intention of being famous, you do it because you like it. You have to love doing it, even when you’re not being paid or when it’s hard. If you go into it with the idea of “This is gonna lead somewhere,” that’s not the right attitude to have, and if things start to fall into place, then you have to start critically thinking, asking yourself “Is this something bigger than just a hobby?” but I never went into it thinking it was a career, because I don’t see the practical value of that. I don’t see that as a safe thing to do, and it can restrict your life experiences. I feel like the people who start really young, they lose the opportunity to grow as an adult outside of it, because they’re already within the system without any real experience.
MR: Well my friend, I’m going to let you go and do your thing, but I will see you Friday!
HK: Yeah, man. I’m looking forward to it, Greg. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
Hari Kondabolu and Greg Bach will perform at The Underground Collaborative on Friday, September 15. Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. shows are still available.