Hari Kondabolu's grandmother died this summer. He spent three weeks in India, saying goodbye and grieving with family. And even then, even at such a sorrowful time in his life, he couldn't turn off the part of his brain that looks for jokes.
"To call it comedy is weird," the comic said by phone from his home in Brooklyn. "It's almost my natural instinct, right? Even if I wasn't doing stand-up comedy, there would be a part of me that tried to heal myself doing that. That's me. That's always been me."
That habit of mining comedy from uncomfortable facets of life and society keeps winning the 35-year-old Queens native larger and larger crowds. He's had a few acting and writing gigs, notably on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, but it's his deft work on topics like activism, social justice and the evolving world that's earned the most acclaim.
Case in point: A few years ago, Kondabolu did a Totally Biased piece pegging Apu from The Simpsons as a racist, out-of-touch stereotype voiced by a white actor, Hank Azaria. The bit struck such a nerve he turned it into the documentary The Problem with Apu, a deep dive into what he called minstrelsy on the part of one of the most beloved TV shows of all time. The doc got so much attention that the show actually responded, vaguely, in an episode this past season, essentially admitting they don't know how to fix Apu.
Kondabolu's latest special, Warn Your Relatives, debuted on Netflix this spring, and his podcast The Kondabolu Brothers will return next year. But first, he's coming to Tampa Oct. 5 for a gig at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. And it sounds like he'll have a lot on his mind.
Can you get a sense of a city's Indian community whenever you parachute in for a show?
I used to have this joke that I did on the special about mangoes. That one usually is a good indication that there are south Asians in the audience. But I don't know until I get there, or I peek into the audience.
How has the live audience changed since The Problem With Apu?
It's just gotten bigger. I don't know, but I have a sense that those fans, I would have gotten either way, if they'd seen me. I've gotten them sooner, because they saw me sooner.
Back in 2007, when The Simpsons Movie came out, Fox turned a bunch of 7-Elevens into Kwik-E-Marts. At the one in Orlando, they had — I don't know if he was Indian, but he was definitely a brown-skinned person wearing an Apu name tag working the counter. People were taking photos with him. That publicity stunt must have been on your radar, right?
Yeah, and that was definitely something I thought about including. It's not maliciousness; it's maybe an insensitivity, a thoughtlessness or an obliviousness. When (a studio) can see people simply as a prop or whatever ... I'm like, Really? At a certain point, you just assume everyone catches up to where you are. But then you realize, no, this is why you've got to make a documentary, because they don't.
To me, there is no way in my mind that I will be wrong at the end of the day. Knowing what I know about this country and the pattern of racist characters, I can't imagine how I could possibly be wrong about that. It seems clear that if I wait it out, I'm not looking like the a--hole.
Do you feel like that about Colin Kaepernick?
Oh, yeah. That dude's going to be an icon forever. It's gotten to a point where I don't think the NFL understands that he might outlast the NFL. You have a league full of concussions, where kids are being encouraged not to play football as children anymore. Come on. I don't know how much Nike really cares about civil rights, but they know Colin Kaepernick represents something bigger. Investing in him is smarter than investing in football.
Is race in America just a never-ending font of material?
Yeah, unfortunately. (laughs) It's tricky, because if you're someone who studies race or has some consciousness of some of the depth of it, it's never-ending. But if you're somebody who, the second you hear anything about race, it makes you uncomfortable, then there is no difference between a joke about immigration, versus a joke about hate crimes, versus a joke about affirmative action, versus a joke about colonialism. To me, those are all dramatically different jokes that all have very different characters. If you're not attuned to that, it's all the same joke.
How far from your debate over Apu or race in America is the #MeToo conversation?
That spirit of change — enough is enough, the fact that things are still out of proportion — all of it. There is a group and they're individuals, and eventually larger groups of people join in that are like, I've had enough! I feel like my Apu doc was that as well: "I have just enough power to make this much noise, and let's see how it grows." This doc I made on a cable network, on truTV, turns into an international story. #MeToo is obviously this giant thing, but it started out like a decade ago, and it just slowly got bigger and bigger. Then as the hashtag grew and all these stories came out and all these men were exposed, that spark finally created this fire.
When you're a woman or a minority, you're putting a different target on your back than if you were a white male.
I know there are people who don't want to do business with me now, because they like The Simpsons or their friends wrote for it. I'm sure Fox is not particularly interested in working with me. And that's fine. The Kaepernick thing, I feel like he's one of the examples of that. It's amazing how many people have gotten behind him. There's hope in that.
Contact Jay Cridlin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.