"That's one of the fucked up parts about racism is essentially with whiteness, if you're with somebody and create a child with somebody who's not white, they don't get to be white. It's actually this weird system of privilege which only gives privilege to certain people but also is self-defeating because under your system you get fucked out of existence. That's how that works."
– Hari Kondabolu
Guy MacPherson: Hello, Hari.
Hari Kondabolu: Hey, Guy, how are you?
GM: Good, how are you?
HK: It's been a while.
GM: When was it? A couple years ago?
HK: Yeah. It's been a while since I've been to the MIX. I think it was a couple years ago. Do you remember, was I writing on the TV show at that point or was it before then?
GM: With W. Kamau Bell?
HK: Yeah, I think I was on the show at that point so it must have been two years ago.
GM: I'm going to look it up... It was 2013 in October.
HK: Oh, last year. Huh. Well, it's good to chat with you again. When I got your message I was excited because it's always nice when you get to talk to someone you've spoken to before. It's a nice way to check in. Like, where were we last time we had a conversation?
GM: We spoke for an hour last time.
HK: Yeah, it was nice. It was really nice.
GM: Where are you now? Physically?
HK: I'm physically at home, at my parents' home in Queens, New York. I live in Brooklyn but for the Thanksgiving holiday, I wanted to be home a bit.
GM: Oh, is that today?
GM: We already had ours, you know, Hari.
HK: Oh, when is the Canadian one?
GM: It's in October.
HK: Oh, okay. Same kinda deal?
HK: Is it turkey also? Is it the same, like, thing?
GM: Yup, exactly the same except earlier. But it's not as big a deal, I don't think. We don't travel as much to get home to family.
HK: Right. You don't have CFL games on? Like, it's not a big football thing, is it?
GM: That I don't know. It might be, but I have no idea.
HK: It probably isn't then.
GM: From what I understand, the holiday has to do with harvests and because we're colder, our harvest is earlier in the year.
HK: Oh, okay.
GM: It's such a big deal in the States. For everyone to get together, family-wise, and then to do it less than a month later with Christmas, it seems too close together.
HK: Right. It is too close together. It becomes the same meal that you're having a month apart.
GM: Exactly. Anyway, but you're doing well?
HK: I'm well. I'm well. I'm glad the year is winding down. It's been a good year but it's been a really busy year and lots of travelling. I kind of want things to slow down for some stretch before they pick up again.
GM: All standup related business?
HK: I released an album in March called Waiting for 2042 and to support that album, I toured quite a bit. And I did Letterman this year and Conan and Fresh Air with Terry Gross and a bunch of radio things on NPR and I did @midnight a couple of times. And I shot my first movie. It was a nice year but it felt like one thing led to the next thing led to the next thing, which is an incredible privilege where it felt like I never really stopped. It just felt like I spent all this time getting the album ready in editing it and getting the cover art and all the things that go into producing a work. And as soon as it came out, it felt like I never stopped moving. In some ways, it feels like I never stopped moving since the show ended. The show got cancelled about a year ago. And it feels like ever since the show got cancelled, some people asked, 'What are you going to do now?' and I immediately went right to work on the album, finishing the thing I started in the summer. I just pushed on with it all year. That has been the focus of my life.
GM: How many seasons did the show run?
HK: A year and a half. It got cut off midway through the second season.
GM: It's a brutal business.
HK: It's brutal but I learned a ton and I got to write with my friends, and how often do you get to do that where you get to write with people you really love and respect and make something that you're really proud of? It doesn't have a gigantic following but the folks who do love the show, love it a great deal. And that means a lot.
GM: You probably got really busy right after that because in your mind it was a sink-or-swim kinda thing, right?
HK: Probably I needed a break, to be honest with you, but to me, I had this standup album I'd recorded in July and I just couldn't finish it. I just didn't have time. Writing on a TV show really took over my life. Even though it was a dream to release a comedy album. It's something I'd wanted to do since I started performing and finally I had the hour that I was proud of releasing. I just didn't have the time to do it. And when I did have breaks from work, the idea of working on the album seemed so daunting. I'd been waiting to do it, but it immediately gave me something I was excited to do. Maybe it was also a distraction from the fact this thing just ended but it was less of a sink-or-swim feeling. Releasing a comedy album isn't necessarily a big money-making thing. You don't really make a ton of money releasing comedy records. I made the money back, which I'm excited about, but that's not what this was about. I was going to get back on the road to do standup anyway, but I was proud to release a thing that had been a dream.
GM: So the work after you recorded it was just the editing?
HK: Yeah. And editing is a long, painful process. Luckily it's words and not music. Music is obviously considerably harder. I recorded two shows; I didn't do, like, five shows or whatever number that people do. And I didn't want to do a magic bullet show. I feel like you have two shows to draw from so if I stumble one time... If I stumble, it's fine, but if it's such a stumble where you don't know what the joke is anymore, then you have another take to use. But it's also looking between shows and balancing it, finding the right mix. And also having an editor you trust. It was done sometime in late December or mid December and after that it was, when's the best time to release it? We picked a March release date and prepared all the promotional stuff for it. I released it on Kill Rock Stars, which is an indie label that's been releasing comedy over the last year and have done a wonderful job. They released Kurt Braunohler's record and Cameron Esposito's record and they have a few more in the works. It really was a campaign. It felt like I was really trying to support this record. I almost felt like a band supporting a record. That's one benefit of, I think, doing it on a music label is that's what they do. They make campaigns to support records and tours to support records. I really felt I did that this year.
GM: It's like a politician running for office.
HK: I feel like comedy always kinda feels like that, to be honest. You're talking about yourself and how funny you are and you have to impress people. There is an aspect of that. The difference is, I think, there's a bit more honesty on stage. And you know if they like you or not by laughter. Ultimately, you're making the choices you want to make and if they don't like it, they can leave. There are differences but certainly there is some degree of when you're promoting a show, instead of voting, can you show up? Please watch me.
GM: With your background and the social issues you talk about, I could see you in the future running for office.
HK: I don't know. It depends on what the future looks like by the time I get there.
GM: You mean like if nothing else is working?
HK: Well, no. There's an aspect of that. But the things I talk about, whether it's race or anything else, I'm fairly blunt and I don't think a lot of voters with that track record of talking so openly about race and aggressively – it's not like I'm always being diplomatc; I'm being pretty harsh – people might laugh at it but I don't know if they'll vote for that. But if we live in a world in thirty years or whatever where we have a different view of race, maybe a mainstream view of race and racism, and we're in a place where we're really being critical of the world and really looking at injustice, if that's actually a mainstream value, then perhaps I could get elected in a place like Seattle or San Francisco or be a fringe candidate somewhere. That's my political future: the possibility of being a fringe candidate!
GM: Aim high. I know you study at LSE. Do you feel that was wasted or you're doing even more good with your knowledge and degree?
HK: I don't think knowledge can ever be wasted, necessarily. I was enriched. I was forced to study for a year and how often do you get to be analytical as your job for a year of just studying and working and focussing? I think it made my arguments stronger. A lot of my standup feels like little essays. They have writing to prove a point. I think it strengthened that approach. But if you mean as a degree in order to get a job, yes, it was wasted. It's a human rights masters. It's a very specific field. It was mostly sociology and law kind of mixed together for a human rights masters.
GM: Your album is called Waiting for 2042. Do you have hope that we'll get to 2042?
HK: I think it's inevitable. Oh, do you mean do I have hope because I think the earth is not going to last that long? There are days that, yeah, I wonder. And I wonder if that's for the best, to be honest with you. I liked Kurt Vonnegut's approach to it, how living things have to get rid of the things, like with viruses you have to get them out of the body, so the Earth's way of surviving is to get rid of humans. Maybe that is inevitable. But if you mean in terms of racial breakdowns, yeah, of course. First of all, race being an absurd, constructed, human phenomenon to begin with is there. So maybe part of it is we stop giving so much of a shit about it, which might be the harder thing and maybe the least likely. But in terms of demographics, yeah, it's inevitable. With immigration. That's one of the fucked up parts about racism is essentially with whiteness, if you're with somebody and create a child with somebody who's not white, they don't get to be white. It's actually this weird system of privilege which only gives privilege to certain people but also is self-defeating because under your system you get fucked out of existence. That's how that works (laughs).
GM: That's a choice, too, that they want to make.
GM: To not be white. To embrace the non-whiteness part.
HK: Some of it's not a choice. That's why racism sucks; you don't get to choose what you want to be. If I wanted to say I'm white, for whatever reason, I can't. 'No, you're not white.' Why? 'Because you're not.' Why?
GM: It's not like gender identification, where however you identify yourself, that's okay, even if biologically you're not that.
HK: What is biology?
GM: Well, like if you have a penis and you identify as a woman.
HK: I think the difference with transgender stuff is, that's a construct, too. We know that this will lead to the production of children, but the idea of the constructed 'men are this and women are this' and how you think and how your brain is, that's all constructed. We made that up a long time ago. And it looks different in different cultures. So that part's made up. You can be born and have these parts and be not that. We just assume that dresses and ways of behaviour and nurturing and all that, that's all associated with women but that's what we created. That doesn't mean anything. That's just what we said. That's not an actual thing.
GM: But we name everything.
HK: Some people don't even think that's a real thing, either. The idea of gender in itself is not real. There is no real gender. We have these parts and we decided...
GM: If we all agree that these parts equal this word...
HK: We don't agree, though. We just bought into it. It's like the idea of a social contract with the government. We can talk about Hobbes and Locke as much as we want, but really, I never signed a thing. I never agreed to this.
GM: But you agree that you're a man?
HK: I didn't agree I was a man. At a certain point it was like, alright, yeah, this seems to be working and I feel the way I feel and I associate myself and it comes with cultural things and the way I was wired. But more than wiring, I don't think it was wiring. If someone had told me I was a woman, and I was trained to be a woman, I might just be a woman. But I might also at some point question it, like I don't know if I really feel this way. I don't know how that feels like. I would imagine if I was told I was a woman my whole life, and was raised as a woman who had no parts or had parts, I might question it. Or I might not question it. I don't really know. So I think it's hard for us to know exactly how we would be in that situation. I've had the privilege of everyone saying that I'm right and what I'm doing is proper and this is the way it's supposed to be and it's God's way or it's natural my whole life. I've never been in the other situation. So I don't really know. But I'm not going to say that I'm right because I really don't know I'm right. And to be honest, I don't see it as a right and wrong anymore anyway. I'm questioning all that stuff. I do know that this seems to work for me and I like it. And I'm lucky enough that I'm a man who has the privilege of feeling like this is who I am and that's it.
GM: This is all very philosophical. We've all agreed that what I'm sitting on is called a chair but it doesn't have to be.
HK: It doesn't have to be a chair. We can call it whatever we want to call it. This is the function that it serves.
GM: So you could go through anything and say, well, that's not a car I'm driving, it's just what we call it.
HK: Correct. That is true, but I think the difference when it comes to legislating people, you can't do the same thing because people are living things that must live and be free. And a chair is an inanimate object so how we legislate that is different. We legislate it mostly on how we sit on it. Like if a chair had spikes, we'd say you can't have spikes because it will hurt people. So when it comes to hurting people in society at large, that's a different discussion. It's just constructs. It's about, well, if our constructs are hurting people, and there are children who are not allowed to be themselves. There's a history of this happening for thousands of years and we've just pushed it away, like it's an anamoly, that doesn't happen. Well, it does happen. That's when we have to think, okay, then how do we make our society function so we all have a place in it? It's philosophical, but keep in mind, my comedy's like this!
GM: That's what I love. I could talk to you about anything and you can go on about it.
HK: But that's the thing with comedy, right? I feel like so much of it is about... I mean, you know this from years of watching comedians, there's a contrarian nature that we have. Some of the contrariness, I think, is maybe a childishness of constantly 'No, I don't want to do what you tell me to do.' There's some degree of that. I call that the Sex Pistols route. Then there's also the part that thinks about justice and fairness, which I think is part of comedy because when we deconstruct so much of norms of people and why we do what we do and make jokes about it, you can't help but wonder, 'Wait, it's funny, but why is it that way?' That is weird. And I think that then leads to you questioning fairness, which is what I do. I call that The Clash route. I'm a big believer in The Clash route, about finding those things and putting them out there. Everything does get kind of philosophical with me. Like, definitely on the album there are jokes. There are really clear, hard, this is what a joke looks like. But a lot of it, also, is a person's brain meandering. And the gaps, I feel, are as important as the jokes. The gaps in the laugh actually fill in a lot of things. And I'm very much a big fan of deconstruction. I think we talked about Stewart Lee last time. I think. I'm sure we did. And my love for his work. That definitely informs a lot of the choices I make. I fear silence less than I used to, even though it's still the most frightening thing in comedy is not laughing.
GM: That shows a lot of confidence when a comedian can embrace the silence.
HK: Oh, my God. We talked about him last time, didn't we? I think his work... The things that he does, I just feel that anyone who can be confident enough in their choices and know that it will go somewhere, and even if the people ultimately don't like it, knowing that there are ten people who get it and they get it really hard, and the faith that you'll get everyone back hopefully because he's good enough and he's road-tested, how can you not be in awe of that?
GM: The topic of racism is a big part of your act. This is timely because of the Ferguson verdict. What's your take on that?
HK: I'm still processing it. I mean, it's kind of an absurd thing. They didn't even take it to trial! The bar for a grand jury to go to trial is so low, it's very rare that it doesn't go to trial. And usually it's a quick decision. It takes maybe a few days or weeks. It took a month for them to say no, even though there's so many witnesses. A child is killed, there was lots of bullets, it's clearly controversial and many different opinions it takes, there's enough there to at least warrant a 'how did this happen?'
GM: And then they'd have a verdict either way but at least it would be heard.
HK: At least hear it out! A lot of people asked me if I was really surprised. To be honest, I was surprised. I assumed injustice would continue and the cops would win because the cops always win. But I thought there would be a chance for it to get to a place to have a discussion. I wrote it right after, it's not the funniest thing, but this really isn't about whether this person is guilty or not, the grand jury hearing was about whether a black man's murder is worth further discussion. And in this particular place, no. No, it's not, even with all the different pieces of evidence and all the controversy about the case. And it didn't even go that far. It's so contemptible. I read something yesterday that there was a 'I Support Darren Wilson' t-shirt. People are raising money for the police officer, which is a little shocking. Why were you raising money for him? What does he need the money for right now?
GM: Did he lose his job?
HK: No, not at that point. He had the option of whether to resign or not. He's still technically on the force. So they were raising money for him even though he was still... They were raising money for the bounty that should have been on the kid's head to begin with. That's the logic I have. That must have been what it was. Because why else would you raise money for somebody who didn't have legal fees? It didn't go to trial.
GM: Maybe he needs to buy a new identity and move to another country.
HK: This is all after-the-fact. The interesting thing is the president of one of the charities they gave the money to was the prosecutor of the case, Bob McCulloch.
GM: You glossed over that you made a movie in the past year.
HK: Oh yeah! I was in a film called Five Nights in Main. It's a drama, which is interesting that someone saw my standup act and said, 'This guy should be in a drama.'
GM: But they had a role for a convenience store clerk and you were available.
HK: Right. What I love about it was it was the role of a doctor who's the best friend. The movie's about a guy whose wife died in a car accident and he drives from Atlanta up to Main to see his mother-in-law and come to terms with his loss. He stops in Baltimore to see his best friend along the way and I play the best friend. The best friend who's a doctor who is trying to support his grieving friend. And it was a hard role. It wasn't just comic relief, which was my initial hope. It was really struggling and trying to help a friend who was in a great deal of pain. It's very hard to switch modes. It was an interesting week: I shot the movie, then the next day I was on @midnight, and then the next day I was opening for Kathleen Hanna in Las Angeles at the Troubadour and her band The Julie Ruin. Those three experiences consecutively are so different. I think they very much define my year: it's very broad and exciting. The idea of shooting a movie – it's a drama, David Oyelowo, Dianne Wiest and Rosie Perez are in it; I go from that to the next day and I'm on @midnight with Chris Hardwick with Bridget Everett and Jeff Ross and I'm improvising and I'm making jokes on TV; and then the next day I'm at the Troubadour, the place where John Lennon was thrown out for heckling the Smothers Brothers and I'm opening for the rock band, The Julie Ruin, with Kathleen Hanna, who I respect greatly, who also is on the record label that my album's on. It there were ever four days that represented my whole year, it was that.
GM: Do you know when the movie's coming out?
HK: No. They're in edit mode right now. But David Oyelowe has a film coming out soon called Thelma, where he plays Martin Luther King, so it was kind of an honour to perform with such an accomplished actor. It was also really intimidating because I've never been in a movie other than a shitty Sandra Bullock film, which I try to forget. And here's a bunch of really hard scenes with an actor that really knows what he's doing. It'll probably come out after Thelma, I'd imagine.
GM: Do you feel the doctor role is a stereotype or is that a more positive stereotype?
HK: It wasn't a stereotype in that it was not really what the part was about. It has symbolic value but they didn't play me as just a stereotype. I was a person with a back story and emotions, I was a friend. The doctor part really had almost nothing to do with the role, which was incredible. Because initially, I didn't balk at it but I'm like, I don't know him being a doctor seems kinda right down the middle. Then you read the script and it's not about that. It's not about him being a doctor at all. It's about him being a friend to somebody else. The only role the doctor part plays is that I'm wearing scrubs and I have to go to work, which also has, I think, incredible symbolic value in terms of this guy struggling with the loss of his wife and he's talking to a doctor who's also his best friend. But that's what I love about it is that it's more complicated than what I'm used to. That's what I love about standup is that I get to call the shots. I get to be who I want to be and play who I want to play on stage. When I have to deal with other people giving me parts or asking me to do things, it's other people's visions of me and what I look like. And this was an example where that vision was a complicated person and a human being that has multiple facets. I think that's the least I can ask for, isn't it? The bare minimum. To be a person.
GM: Is your show here part of the support tour for the album? Will it be much of the same material?
HK: There'll be a couple things that are on the album but not really. Since I released the album so long ago at this point, and recorded it so long ago, certainly I've written a ton. So most of it will be stuff that isn't on the record. It kind of is to promote the album. I was going to come up to Vancouver months ago and it didn't work out. I got so many emails and people saying, 'How could you do Portland and Seattle and not stop here?' Even though I had no intention of doing anymore shows, at the end of the year I’m visiting a friend in Seattle and I'm like, 'I need to do a Vancouver show while I'm up here.' The idea of going the whole year without doing a show in Vancouver seemed really wrong. And I was getting so much heat for not going that it seemed like, okay, let's make this happen. The Biltmore Cabaret had that date free and I've heard nothing but great things about the space, so it was perfect. It was fate. I'm excited to finally do this show that I had meant to do all year.
GM: You owe it to us.