Hari Kondabolu on Comedy, Race, and Being a Queens Kid in Maine
In Conversation with Guest Host Mira Jacob on Thresholds
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the essay collection Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, comedian Hari Kondabolu joins Mira to talk about seeing space for himself on the screen, discovering an answer to the question of how to be in the world, the first joke he was really proud of, and the power that comes from alienating an audience on purpose.
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From the conversation:
Hari Kondabolu: I decide to do standup in high school. I go start doing it in college. There were open mics and things; there were no comedy clubs so there were no other places to go. I was the only show in town. And I liked it. I was at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. I’m a Queen’s kid in Maine. I stood out like a sore thumb. Not even a sore thumb, just a brown thumb. I didn’t need to be sore. It was just that, that’s a perfectly fine thumb, but it’s a different pigment.
Why is that thumb that color? That was shocking, coming from Queens, to be in a place with so much wealth and so much whiteness, and a type of whiteness I’d never really seen. You know, kind of a WASPy, New England prep school/boarding school whiteness with a different set of standards I didn’t understand.
Mira Jacob: Just to ask again, because I am so curious about that, how does that make your body move through the world?
Hari Kondabolu: Very aware of my skin in a way that I’d never felt before. Very aware of how others perceived me in a way that I’d never felt before.
Mira Jacob: Can I ask the weirdest question? I sometimes feel like it boils down to this for me, and I don’t know if it does for you: did it make you feel bigger or smaller in rooms?
Hari Kondabolu: Both. It depended on the context. If I was at a party, it made me feel really small. It made me feel like nobody was interested. I wasn’t seen as attractive. When I’d be asked where I’m from, then I felt way too big in the room because then all of a sudden it’s like, okay, I do stand out, I am somebody people are aware of. The thing is, it was never where are you from and a follow up about anything other than that. That’s always the thing people have to understand about that question: if that’s not either a starting point to something that isn’t about just your experiences in India or Indian culture….
First of all, it being the first question to me is strange, because when you meet people and you try to be friends with people, you look for things you have in common generally, right? Things that you find interesting about them, but that you also find like, oh, there’s something here that I see in myself that makes me feel comfortable. And so to start with difference and then move away from there and feel like, okay, I’ve got what I needed, is so transactional in a way. It’s like, “I got what I needed, let me move on.” There’s no way you feel like more than an exhibit at that point.
Mira Jacob: Yeah, and I feel like it directly translates to “why are you here?”
Hari Kondabolu: “You don’t make sense in this context.”
Mira Jacob: Exactly.
Hari Kondabolu is a comedian, writer, and podcaster based in Brooklyn, NY. He currently co-hosts the Netflix food competition show Snack vs. Chef with Megan Stalter. His 2018 Netflix special Warn Your Relatives was named one of the best of the year by Time, Paste Magazine, Cosmopolitan, E! Online, and Mashable. In 2017, his truTV documentary The Problem with Apu was released and created a global conversation about race and representation, and is now used in high school, college and grad school curriculums around the country. Hari has also released two comedy albums, Waiting for 2042 & Mainstream American Comic. Additionally, he has performed on Conan, Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Late Show with David Letterman and among many others. He is also a former writer and correspondent on the much loved, Chris Rock produced FX show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. He’s a regular panelist on Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me and a regular guest-host on Midday on WNYC. As a podcaster, he co-hosted the popular Politically Reactive with W. Kamau Bell. Additionally, he also co-hosts what he politely describes as a “pop up podcast,” The Untitled Kondabolu Brothers Podcast with his younger brother Ashok (“Dap” from HBO’s Chillin’ Island and rap group Das Racist.) Hari attended both Bowdoin College and Wesleyan University and earned a Masters in Human Rights from the London School of Economics in 2008.