“Building a standup career that's sustainable is so hard. It's something I never thought would really happen. It was a hobby that took off. That's hard enough. The idea of imagining film and all this other stuff is just absurd.”
– Hari Kondabolu
Guy MacPherson: Hari, it's been a while.
Hari Kondabolu: It's been a few years.
GM: I used to arrange talking with you by just emailing you. Now you've got people working for you. Look at you; you're a big shot.
HK: (laughs) Ah, what's happened? (laughs)
GM: One positive is you're much better known now than when I first started talking to you. Has your life changed on a day-to-day basis at all?
HK: I get free coffee now at my local coffee shop. I think that's about it. Other than, I think it's pretty much the same.
GM: You're no doubt busier, I would imagine.
HK: Yeah, there are a lot more projects. Before it was just standup. What's nice now is I get to do a lot of other things. There's more of a demand for me in other areas: doing podcasts or TV stuff. That's certainly a blessing. It's something I certainly didn't expect when I start all this. It makes me feel good that the work paid off. Careers are long and for most people it's not an overnight thing so it just feels good, like after a decade we're finally getting to do all this stuff I'd hoped to do so long ago.
GM: Podcasts are not a blessing for me because when I first started doing one, I could get just about anybody. Now I ask and they're busy doing somebody else's podcast. I guess you get inundated by requests.
HK: Yeah. I feel bad because you want to say yes as much as you can and there's just so much time. I've had podcasts so I know what it feels like to really get somebody, especially when it's a friend and all of a sudden they're no longer available. But it's hard. There's just so much time and I spend so much time flying and everything else. I want to take the time to actually be with friends and family. Part of the sacrifice of doing this and it going well is that you're never home. So it's like a mixed blessing. I have Diamond Medallion Status for Delta, which in theory is good, but I got it because I never get to see the people I love. That's the consequence of a little extra legroom and upgrades.
GM: Home is New York?
HK: Yes, still Brooklyn.
GM: When you were starting in standup, did you look ahead to these other things you're now getting to do or were you solely focussed on standup and this is all just a byproduct of that?
HK: Totally focussed on standup. Building a standup career that's sustainable is so hard. It's something I never thought would really happen. It was a hobby that took off. That's hard enough. The idea of imagining film and all this other stuff is just absurd. I was just trying to get stage time. Also, I didn't start in New York or L.A., a big industry town where people are always looking two steps ahead; I started in Seattle. I just wanted stage time, that's all it really was. So everything after that point is all gravy.
GM: Comics in Vancouver can develop their own voice without being seen by industry. It's both positive and negative. I assume it's like that in Seattle, where you can just worry about your standup without worrying about whether some producer is going to be watching.
HK: That's why I still go back to Seattle constantly. I work on most of my new material in Seattle. I rent a little theatre and do an hour of new material. I do it because of that. I have a bunch of people who want to see me and at the same time I don't need to worry about who's going to be there. I can just take risks and I can fail miserably and people can understand what's happening. I bill it as a night of mixed reactions. I'm very clear, like this could be terrible. I let people know up front. I even tease the audience, like, 'You might be thinking, How can I see Hari Kondabolu for seven dollars? How is that possible? And by the end of the show, you'll understand.'
GM: You're a pro enough that even when you fail, it's not that big of a fail; it's just a fail for you.
HK: When you take big risks in particular – and there's a lot of things I'll do off the top of my head or something I wrote that day... Some of the stuff has enough punch lines and tent poles where I can build around it; some things are just ideas that I find fascinating and I want to talk through it publicly. I feel when you talk through things publicly, you naturally get the wording that you want because it sounds like you uniquely. Because when you convey thoughts every day, you're not thinking about phrasing, and that's what I want to get. But the risk with that is if it works, it's fantastic – you have a bit that's pretty solid and ready-to-go in your voice – however it often doesn't work and you have to deal with the consequences of that. It's a high-risk thing in terms of a show, but in terms of the actual consequences because it's a new-material night, the audiences are really supportive. There's a reason why Broadway shows sometimes will preview in Seattle to get the kinks out, because you have a supportive audience that's excited that you showed up in their city. At the same time, they're not dumb; they're discerning.
GM: Do you also take risks with certain topics or themes?
HK: Absolutely. And I feel like in New York I have a tough time doing that as easily as I can in a place that's out of sight. There's such a culture where everything gets tweeted and everything gets videotaped. In these small settings, I feel like you build enough trust with an audience where you can go a little further and they actually know what they're in for. Like this is a place where things can go terribly awry. I say things that I will never say again. It's more of a safe space for me than it is for anybody else. They know that going in and I make that clear, so I can really screw around. That's important. I think that's a key part of the process of building standup. There's only so much you can do in terms of preparation; it's something that's edited live. That's part of the rawness and the reality of it. That's what makes it real. So that comes with great risk and I love that about the form.
GM: You never really know how something will work. You can have a good sense but you never really know until you try it.
HK: Absolutely. That's part of the thrill of it.
GM: You said it started out as a hobby. How long into it were you when you realized it was more than just a hobby?
HK: Probably at a year or two. Doing in Seattle, it's not a big industry town, but I got discovered by the HBO Comedy Festival and I was on Kimmel. All of a sudden it's like this thing I was doing in the Northwest that I thought nobody saw was being seen. Back then, there really weren't other South Asians who were succeeding in it. There was only a couple. The idea that this was sustainable or real... It just didn't seem possible. But after you get a manager and you get the infrastructure of a career and you have TV appearances, it's like, 'Oh, I guess this isn't going away.' I just kept thinking it was going to go away.
GM: That's pretty quick to get national exposure. Do you feel it was too quick? At the time, you always want everything right away, but looking back at it, do you think you should have developed more?
HK: No, I was good. I had done it through college. It was two years in Seattle but I had been doing it for four years just being on stage. So at the stage I was at, I was prepared for that. The thing I discovered too, is I was off to a really quick start. My assumption, I think because I was naive, was that the pace I was on would continue. And careers don't work that way. There's a lot of ebbs and flows. You have to deal with when it's not working great and when the work is slow and you don't know where you're going. I've had that, like every other performer has had at some point. So I feel certainly feel like in terms of development, when I started I was ahead of the curve in a lot of ways, but since then, like everyone else, it evens out at the end of the day.
GM: How long have you been doing it now?
HK: The first time I got on stage, I was 17. It was in high school. And I did it through college and during summer breaks when I would go home to New York. But then it became an every-night thing in 2005. So depending on your math, it could be either 14 years or 19 years.
GM: I know from all the comics I've spoken to, you're improving even 15 years in.
HK: Oh yeah. I mean, if you aren't, that means you've lost something for it. The idea of a comic using the same material for 20 years working the road, at that point you've lost it to me. Your jokes shouldn't be a toolkit that you use from gig to gig. They shouldn't simply be a, 'This is my act and this is my plunger and this is my hammer.' They're not supposed to be consistent. They're supposed to be things that you're constantly working on and developing. It should be something that is a moving art form, a developing art form. Constantly. It's never supposed to be done.
GM: Although the Seinfeld model is to keep a lot of the same material and just tweak it for years. He doesn't like the big changeover.
HK: I think only so many people can do that. And the jokes have to be masterpieces where people want to hear them again. He tweaks and tweaks and tweaks but I think for most of us it's, I wanna talk about something new. There's infinite possibilities; why would you want to talk about all the same things?
GM: When you do political material, do you need more changeover because it changes all the time? Or do you prefer general political stuff that will stay the same?
HK: I'm getting more personal. I've pushed myself into uncomfortable places. I think that's good. I think that's part of the growth that you hope for as a performer. I'm definitely not who I was when I started. That's what it's supposed to be, I think.
GM: You say there's more non-standup work now. Can you tell me about some of it?
HK: I shot a film with my friends Lindy West and Ahamefule Oluo, who was my writing partner when I started in Seattle. He's married to Lindy West, who's an incredible writer. She has a show called Thrill that's on Hulu. We've been friends a long time. They wrote a film and they got me in it, which was incredibly fun. Other than that I'm working on a couple of other projects that aren't quite ready to talk about. But it's good to know it's not simply writing jokes. I think for a long time I felt like that's the only thing I should be focussing on because it's so hard to write jokes. You start to realize you tend to burn out if you're just focussing on the same thing all the time. Being able to use different art forms and use different parts of your brain is important. A joke, you cut the fat. Sometimes the fat's the best part! And sometimes you need to write that in stories or essays or use other forms to do it. So I'm excited to explore ideas in other places. Hopefully I'll have more to tell you in the next couple of years.
GM: Are you drawn to other socially conscious comedians or is there a wide variety of comedic styles you like to listen to?
HK: Absolutely a wide range. Just because you have different comics talk about the same subject matter, they approach it different ways. That means you have a broad range of influences. I love W. Kamau Bell; he's a great friend; I'm inspired by him constantly. But I also love watching Rory Scovel and I love watching Aparna Nancherla. I love watching comics who are constantly innovating the form. Stewart Lee is still my favourite comedian of all time. I love comics who are doing things that are not straightforward. For Rory, his goal is to not do any jokes on stage, to go from scratch. How can you not be inspired by that? I don't want to be narrowly looking. The goal should be how do I take these messages and convey them to as many people as possible. To do that, you need to be really skilled; you need to be able to use all the tools comedy can offer you, and that requires lots of learning constantly. Hiding a punchline can't be done the exact same way each time. I think people will figure it out. You have to keep people guessing. So I'm watching as much stuff as I can.
GM: I know you were an immigrants rights organizer in Seattle. That seems like that's needed more now than ever. Do you feel that you're needed in other non-show business areas?
HK: I did that a long time ago. I think at this point, my skills are between creating media and talking about it. This might be the best use of time. I wouldn't have said that probably the first few years. I think there was a lot of guilt and questioning is this really what I should be doing? But at this point, this is what I know to do best.
GM: And you can make a difference doing what you're doing.
HK: Yeah, but I try not to think about it when I'm doing the stuff. I don't like being in my head, like, 'What impact is this making?' The goal is to make people laugh. If you fail at that, it doesn't matter what you write about. You just focus on the micro: is this effective in the moment? But at the same time I know that my stuff gets studied in schools. My Netflix special, my albums, my documentary, I know they're on curriculums in high schools, colleges, grad schools. That wasn't the goal but clearly the fact that's happening is a good sign. Plus I see my quotations, things I've tweeted or said in jokes, on protest signs. That certainly isn't the goal. I'll see something and I'm like, 'That was a set-up to a joke.' The punchline is not on the poster but the set-up made it on. And that feels pretty great, too.
GM: Was there much backlash to your documentary?
HK: Yes, a certain amount. Death threats and things that really seem absurd. The idea that we had to beef up security at shows because of death threats, it's embarrassing. Like, really? This is how we have discourse? Most people didn't watch the film. They're angry at what they think it's about. And they're angry at what they think it reflects of society, but they didn't see the film. The film was a fan writing about something that bothers them about something they love, as well as a personal experience that a lot of other people share. It's not 'I hate this thing; I wish it didn't exist.' It's more critical than that.
GM: That's so often the case when comedians get in trouble over something they said on stage. No one has the full context; they just hear it through something else and they half pay attention and then they're up in arms about it.
HK: I never thought about language in terms of characters. Growing up, I thought of them in terms of words and sentences and paragraphs and essays and books, not in terms of the number of characters. The idea that we're worried about the number of letters that can fit into a tweet I think is troublesome. That's not how thoughts are supposed to be dealt with. That's not how you engage with a character limit. That's not how it works. Some things take more than a sentence to explain. Context and stories are more than a sentence or two. I feel like we're training ourselves to not really debate critically. The idea of outrage culture, I'm not against the idea of people standing up and fighting and being clear; the problem I have I think is people sometimes don't know the full story or the full context. Twitter and things like that are not built for discussion. They're the protest signs; they're not the critical essay about the thing. They're not the full story. There's value in that, but I feel like you can't have a discussion like that.
GM: Exactly. You don't mind the protest if it came from a place of knowledge.
HK: Right, exactly. And I feel like when I get criticized for stuff I've done, I can't even argue with it because it's arguing with someone who has no idea where you're coming from and has no interest in knowing because it's not about your point of view, it's not about a discussion; it's about destroying. 'Let me destroy this. I don't like the idea this person has an opinion; let me destroy it' versus 'What's the opinion? What is my response to the opinion?' Nobody wants to do the work because in order to watch my documentary it costs three to four dollars, and an uninformed opinion is free.
GM: You're a famously nice guy. Is that harder when you're exposed to the haters and the ugly side of social media?
HK: Yeah. It's a funny thing because I'm seen as nice but also incredibly aggressive on stage. Both analytical but also I yell, and it's kind of a weird combination of things. I'm pretty forthright: when I have an opinion I make it blunt and clear. But at the same time, when I'm off stage I like to have real conversations. That's very different. It's a very different way to approach life. Off stage, you're not fighting for your life; you're having a discussion, you want to hear different points of view, you want to have a debate.
GM: It seems there are more nice people in standup these days.
HK: I think part of it is the culture is different. It's not like the old days where it was just clubs. There's such a wide range of ways to get your audience; there's a wide range of ways to pick up fans. I think when you're in clubs and you're dealing with tourists or people who are just wasted, it develops certain defensive instincts: How do I stay alive on stage? But when you're developing fans through a broad range of different things, it's not necessarily the same thing. Plus people are exposed to more styles so there's more people who feel they can share their voice now. It's great. I think this is the golden age.
GM: It's a relatively healthy scene.
HK: I think so. For comedians, yeah. I know the opposite is it's the worst time for comics because you can't say anything. I think it's the other way around in a lot of ways. Maybe some people feel like they can't say what they used to be able to say, but to me it's like why do you want to talk about the stuff that's been talked about? There's new opinions no one's ever heard before. That's the exciting part. There's more ways to hear new things. Isn't that what ultimately the audience wants, is things they've never heard that will surprise them?
GM: Will your show here include much material from your Netflix special War on Your Relatives?
HK: There might be a couple of jokes [the same] but it's going to be new. It's definitely more personal. There's a broader range of topics. It's certainly not the same thing.
GM: What are those topics?
HK: You're going to get some, obviously, race and the big topics: gender, sexuality. That's been consistent. But I'm going to talk about depression. I want to talk about family. I want to talk about relationships. There are takes on certain things I've never really wanted to get into because it felt too personal and now I feel like what am I holding off for? That's what makes people connected. You're more connected to the performer when you hear something that's personal. So when you get into things that might be trickier territory with harsher opinions and things like that, at least you know where the person is coming from. I feel like that aids everything to be more honest and personal. For me creatively it's harder, which makes it good. If it's uncomfortable for me, that means it's good. I have to try.
GM: Do you find when you do your material on race that you get different reactions depending on what part of the country, or outside of the country, that you're in?
HK: A little bit, but I think it's more to do with do I have fans in a place or not. If I don't, if it's a club show in a place where I don't have a lot of fans, it's good for me because it means I have to find a way to make something funny and explain it in a way that's funny and the joke becomes bullet-proof almost because then you're finding ways to get laughs even if they're not on board initially. As opposed to when it's people who like what I do, and that can be anywhere. I was in Louisville, Kentucky, and I didn't think I'd have a ton of people there, but I had fans there and a lot of people who like comedy and they loved what I did. And I've done shows in other places where I'm like, 'Ah, that was a rough gig' and it was in a part of the country I thought I'd kill at. So you never know. All you're looking for or hoping for is people who are open-minded enough to listen and let you have a chance to win them over.
GM: The issues aren't that different from Vancouver to the States, are they?
HK: It's different from place to place. I've performed in Calgary and Edmonton and different places and it certainly varies, but we're in an era where people can actually google things and look them up and make decisions. I think that makes it easier to actually narrow the crowd. When I'm going to these cities, often I'm performing in clubs or theatres and it's not like someone stumbles in. So that certainly changes it. I will say on average, the shows in Canada the people are a little more polite. And Vancouver, that's like playing at home. Usually it's pretty friendly. It's like having my Seattle audience. It's just really thoughtful, fun, diverse. I love a crowd that's incredibly diverse in every way that's possible: racially, different sexuality, different religions. I love looking at my audience and seeing like New York City wherever I go. I feel that's what I'm privileged enough to get even in cities that aren't particularly diverse, like my crowd generally is. Vancouver's always been good to me.
GM: And diverse in age, too?
HK: Oh, yes. Yes. There are 14 and 15-year-olds with their parents and their grandparents. There's stuff I do about family and there's stuff I do about music and there's stuff I do about politics and there's stuff that I do about race and people find the thing that they like about me. There are comedy fans who are there because they're comedy fans and they like the way I do comedy and they like the form and they like how I hype punchlines. I love that. I love the fact I can bring a lot of different people to a show.
GM: And as you say, it's like your backyard from where you started out in Seattle.
HK: Yes. I love it. It's always a town I love returning to.