In advance of comedian Hari Kondabolu's performance tonight at The Woods, I called up the 29-year-old Queens native to talk about English racism, the Occupy movement and his two upcoming pilots.
WW: Hello! How are ya?
Hari Kondabolu: I am lying on a mattress in my friend’s attic in Seattle. My friends have a thing they call the Hari Kondabolu presidential suite, which is this mattress in the attic. I sleep on the mattress and remember my humble beginnings.
Do you spend a lot of time in Seattle?
Seattle is the default. I get booked here a fair bit, whether it’s at colleges in the area or me booking a theater or a club. I didn’t need to come up to Seattle this trip—the plan was Portland, then a school in Austin and then home. But if I come up to Seattle I can set up some shows here and work out new material, and this city will forgive me for it. They’ve heard all my other stuff, and for me it’s practical just to get work out of my mouth. I can do that here better than anywhere else. When you connect with an audience and it’s a real connection, it feels like you're hanging out with friends, even though you don’t know them. In Seattle it’s that, plus I have real friends here. It’s creatively where I get the most done.
The show in Portland won’t be so loose. I mean, it'll be loose, but hopefully with less ranting. I don’t think you need to pay to see another man do what you can do at home. In Portland I’m planning to do a more polished set with some new stuff. New material gives [a set] some life. You’re trying to find that inspiration that originally made an idea funny, and the new stuff brings it back to life. I’ll have some days-old stuff with some older stuff that the Portland audience has maybe heard before, and some stuff that they haven’t heard but I’ve been doing for a few months. It'll be more structured than the shows in Seattle, but if people leave thinking, that was a well-structured comedy show, I suppose I would be disappointed. Funny is important, too.
There was too much killing last night. Way too much killing. It’s a lot of the same kind of punch lines about 1-percenters getting killed in this situation, and rich housewives having their husbands killed in this situation. That's kind of odd for me. I’m in many ways a Ghandian, I’ve never thrown a punch, and I can understand the need for violence to effect social change but I’m not the one who's going to do it. I'm like, God, Hari—These words are coming out of my mouth, and I suppose there is a release from saying it, in the way that when you are frustrated with another human you might for a moment imagine punching them in the face. There will be a little less of that in Portland, perhaps. I’ll space out those jokes.
I hear you’ve been working on a pilot?
I was working on something that W. Kamau Bell has shot in LA. I was writing on that. Hopefully something will happen with it. It’s fantastic. It has his voice—lots of discussions of race and politics. What I love about Kamau is that he doesn’t compromise. We’re friends in part because we share that philosophy. Work on a pilot’s hard, but I couldn’t imagine a more ideal person work for.
We shot it last week. We’ll see what happens with it—at a certain point it’s beyond your control. You do the work, you write, you perform, and you hope that it gets edited the way you want and that people are interested.
I'll also be inn London to shoot a pilot in December for the BBC. Or the hope is that if it got picked up would get picked up for the BBC. What's it like working in England, with your act?
It’s very interesting. I have to make adjustments because while the language might not be different, their views on race and class are different. We're an immigration country. From first the colonial immigration of showing up and killing shit, this country has always been about coming from another place. America, as an entitity, is based on immigration. England is different. Immigration is not new, but it’s newer [than it is here]. Now, with all the refugees, the changing idea of Britishness—there’s a class lens to most discussions, and I think that the racial lens is seen as an American concept. When the riots happened in London, I kept hearing, “this isn’t a race thing, this is a class thing.” But you were hearing young people in London talking about [the riots] in racialized language. I’m not saying that was the focus of it, but it was there.
When I talk about race in an American kind of way, they understand, oh, Americans talk about race. But when I apply it to what’s happening there, there’s a degree of discomfort. I’m not saying I’m Tocqueville out there, but there’s a degree of me trying to figure out their system. An American telling me how I am and how I’m doing is seen as condescending [in England], which is an incredible feeling because I’ve never felt that way. I'm not seen as an American by default here, but I am there.
The reactions, just like here, are varied. If you share a worldview with me, it makes it a lot easier, but I still have to be funny regardless. If it’s my audience, an audience that gets what I’m seeing, it makes it easier. I have a much longer base there, which is strange. I did a show called Russell Howard’s Good News,
and his age-range is 16-21. And after that I’m getting all these emails from 14-year-olds. It’s on Youtube. Who are these kids? How are they getting what I’m saying? I can’t imagine liking what I’m doing when I was 16. Part of it is that I’m an American, and seeing someone talk about race and class and gender in a way that’s a little bit different, so I’m sure there’s some intrigue.
My favorite comic, Stewart Lee
, is over there. I have faith that if he has been growing this organic audience of people who really appreciate long-form, well-written comedy, there might be an audience for me as well.
If I may be topical, what do you make of the Occupy thing?
I hear the complaints when people say that there’s no direction, there’s no clear asks. I understand that, but I don’t think that’s what this is about right now. We’re used to complaints with a clear outcome, but that’s not what this is. This is a bottom-up movement. This is building a base of people.
You need numbers. There are folks who are there who haven’t completely bought into it, who are there for the moment, but then there are people who are sacrificing their bodies, who are going to jail. There are people who are there documenting what’s happening, there are people who are sharing the stories. Maybe there’s a percentage of people who are there who are just there because they want to be around a rebellion, but I’m glad they’re there rather than not.
I did not see this coming. Our generation, we’ve been telling ourselves, we’re apathetic, we’re distracting ourselves with the Internet, we don’t leave the house, and then this happens! There was no campaign that said we need to meet at this place and then it just started happening. I can’t imagine people just doing that. Good god, this could just have been Burning Man. This is not that, this is real. This is people who see the pain that’s around them and they want to do something about it. There’s other ways to dick around, so I’m just amazed by it. I’m glad it exists. This should exist. The generations thing has been amazing to me. The fact that this cuts across. I haven’t made any of that funny yet, but the thoughts are there.
Do you, for the sake of comedy, have a favorite in the Republican primary?
Mumia. Every year it’s Mumia again. I don’t think he can vote, but get Mumia on the ballot, Republican nomination for 2012. It’s that or none of the above.
Hari Kondabolu performs at 8 pm tonight at The Woods, 6637 SE Milwaukie Ave., 890-0408, thewoodsportland.com
. $10-$12. 21+.