“This mic kills fascists,” reads the tagline on Hari Kondabolu’s new special now out on Netflix, Warn Your Relatives. It is just the commentary we all needed right now. In a politicized era where almost any topic and any comment is being evaluated under a political microscope, Kondabolu gives us an hour that is not pedantic but just a self-deprecating recounting of a comedian of color’s experience in 2018 U.S.A.
Hari Kondabolu’s comedy is reminiscent of several comedians; it’s a weird blend of Marc Maron with a sprinkle of Richard Pryor. Kondabolu brings the mix of joy from being a comedian and making audiences laugh and the countering discontent at the content in their standup set that Maron is famous for.
Telling jokes and making a living from it seems like a happy, cheerful gig. But this special has an underlying tone of frustration. Add in that vulnerability that Pyror brought to stage and you have Kondabolu. And that frustration is so relatable in today;s political climate.
He doesn’t give lectures, he just relates his experiences, whether it’s being mistaken for Kumail Nanjiani or Kid Rock, being heckled by Tracy Morgan, or dealing with family.
Still fresh out of the metaphorical limelight from his critically acclaimed documentary, The Problem With Apu, his special continues the similar method of not attacking people but illustrating what a different experience is in the country.
Kondabolu also has a podcast with his brother, Kondabolu Brothers. In the interview, Kondabolu spoke about the angle he takes when writing his material and discusses a lot of where the material in this special came from. The interview was done over the phone.
Antonio Villasenor-Baca: Warn Your Relatives was done at the Neptune theater in Seattle; was there a particular reason why you wanted to do it there?
Hari Kondabolu: I started my career in Seattle, I feel like I still owe so much to that city and much of this particular album was written there. One thing I’ve been doing in recent years is I rent a 40-seat theater and I start from scratch. I start with almost no prepared material just a bunch of bullet points and I kind of try to improvise my way through the material so I can figure out what the strongest bits are so it sounds more natural. So Seattle kind of gave me that opportunity in recent years to kind of work out the material that way, so I felt like considering that I’ve never recorded properly in Seattle; it’s a city that I started my career in and is a major part of this special in terms of it’s development. I wanted to do it there.
AVB: And what about the actual process of writing this material? You mentioned in the special how a lot of people ask you what’s it like being a comedian during this time, what is it like actually writing the material, trying to bring this optimistic side or make people laugh for something that’s not really happy to begin with.
HK: In the special I mentioned Trump very little. I mean I feel like you know that Trump is too much of a variable. I recorded this in December. I had no idea if he’d even be president by now. Things have been so crazy it’s really hard to kind of predict so I mentioned him in a way that indicates like this is the time that we’re in and you know clearly there’s a shift but a lot of the issues that we’re talking about predate him you know what I mean? Like he just makes it worse where we’re talking about racism, immigration stuff. I mean that’s not Trump, that’s before Trump and he makes it worse. He’s the one that takes the things that have been put in place and he actually makes it worse and it’s the same thing with sexism or homophobia or a broad range of topics. The special really is focusing on the things that were the crack that he exploited; because those cracks were there before why are they there and how do we seal them up? And that’s basically what a lot of my work is.
AVB: What is the goal or the mission. As a comedian you want to get the laugh and you want to make the material for audiences but is there another goal that you want the special or the material to do?
HK: Honestly, I just want it to be funny and honest and by honest I mean that it reflects my point of view and you know it’s my truth. I’m not trying to do this to change the world. I’m not trying to do it to influence others. I think if you start thinking like that about comedy, if you start thinking about the greater impact you could make, I think you’re doing yourself a disservice and you’re doing the material a disservice, and the audience. You have to come from a place of skill first. What is your goal? To do my job the best I can, to do it skillfully and honestly. And then the messages are there because that’s who I am like. I talk about race because I think it’s a social good to talk about it. I talk about race because I think about it all the time you know to me its not you know we have to separate we have to stop separating the political and personal because they’re the same thing like whether or not we want to admit it like these things affect all of us and the people we know. When I think about my parents and their lives and them as immigrants I don’t think you know when I talk about my parents that’s about immigration, no! They’re about my parents and it happens to also intersect with racism and immigration. To me I think the goal is to be funny and to do your job well and to be honest that’s a big thing I don’t wanna write stuff I don’t mean you know my heroes wrote what they meant and so I wanna do the same thing.
AVB: Where does the name, Warn Your Relatives come from I mean obviously you mention your parents in the special and so the text messages that you read or like when you talk about them is that where the title of the special comes from?
HK: No Warn Your Relatives comes from the last joke in the special, at the very end of the special its kind of referenced but I think the main thing for me was I was trying to think about a name and my writing partner actually came up with it, Warn Your Relatives, because theres a joke that kind of hints at or uses a similar phrase at the end of the special, but to me the meaning is like after the Trump election there was a lot of talk about you know especially white people saying ‘Oh we need to talk to our relatives at Thanksgiving. When those awkward racist conversations happen we can’t ignore them we have to say something’ and I thought about that I that’s good but it’s a little too late now but yes it’s good that you’re thinking like that but whether or not you talk to your family and challenge your family, change is gonna happen whether you like it or not. I find it inevitable. You can make that step but we’re past that; whether it’s the kids in Parkland whether its the demographic of the country changing. People want their rights and that’s not gonna stop or start just because you’re talking to your relatives so instead of just talking to them warn them that change is coming and they better shape up because it’s gonna happen whether they like it or not.
AVB: How much are [your family] an influence on you now writing comedy and how involved were they with you growing up was comedy something that you always wanted to do growing up in New York?
HK: I mean comedy was something that I loved I just didn’t think it was particularly realistic considering there was nobody else that looked like me out there doing comedy on TV, but I saw Margaret Cho do stand-up when I was like I don’t know like 15, 16 and that really planted a seed like, oh my God maybe it is possible. I never really saw it as a career I kind of stumbled into the career, I got discovered in Seattle like when I was only doing it as a hobby so sometimes you can do something you love and it turns into something else. But yes certainly that wasn’t the aim. I think my family has always been funny, my mom’s always been funny, my brother’s always been funny, like I’ve been really privileged in that regard like being with funny people constantly and my mom’s really witty and I think you know my brother and I we have that podcast together and I certainly think one thing the podcast has given me is the comfort to improvise and be honest. I feel like with my brother I can’t control what he’s gonna say so I have to respond honestly when we’re on stage together and because of that like you know when I’m on stage by myself the same impulses happen where I’m like well I need to speak honestly I have to respond in the moment so he’s definitely influenced me in recent years because we do that podcast together and he forces me to confront something that I can’t control which is him- I can’t control him.
AVB: And so now it’s been a couple handfuls of episodes for podcasts, where do you want that to go just because, like you said, it is kind of improvisational?
HK: The podcast is ten episodes in so it’s more than a handful I mean we’re towards the end of the season but it feels pretty good I feel like it’s it has pretty good shape, were putting new segments and we have a double episode coming out about with me my mother and my brother in it together I mean we did it live all year and I don’t know whether we’ll keep doing it live but definitely I enjoy the live performance but I also question like would it be interesting to do something in the studio and experiment with that, cause even though you don’t have the audience aspect you have the ability to do anything you want in the studio like video clips audio you can really play with the form of it more, you’re really restricted with the audience cause you have to play to them but you know we’ll see. This is the first season of this hopefully we get a second season but the first season certainly felt successful it was twelve live episodes and it really was- let’s see what this next season holds.
AVB: What kind of praise or what reaction have you gotten to Warn Your Relatives?
HK: It’s been really positive I feel like a lot of people are discovering my work for the first time and I’m proud of the stuff I do. I think it’s thoughtful I have my own style. I have longer setups and I have lots of call backs and I have a particular way that I tell jokes and it’s nice to see people discover that and be excited that they’re seeing something new and excited that they’re hearing a voice they’ve never heard before and you know there’s a lot of people especially this time that is so politicized that are discovering my work and feel like, I heard a lot of people say like ‘I’m so glad this exists because this is necessary right now/’ These are nice things to hear. These make me feel like the work is being justified all these years in and its actually being appreciated so its been really overwhelmingly positive and because its on Netflix the response is global which is so exciting you know to go on twitter and to translate people’s tweets and be like, ‘oh they did like it!’ It’s pretty amazing so yeah its what I’ve been hoping for, so I’m pretty excited.
AVB: Alright that’s it for my questions I don’t know if there’s anything else you want to add about the special or in general?
HK: No I feel good man I feel like I just hope people give it a chance that’s all any performer wants is like will you give my work a chance that’s all I hope for.
By Antonio Villasenor-Baca