Comedian Hari Kondabolu On Diversity, Race And Burger King
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Hari Kondabolu is not known for tiptoeing, that is around sensitive subject matter. The brainy young comedian cuts through any polite talk about race or gender. And his incisive anecdotes are making a whole lot of people laugh. Kondabolu is a full-time writer on the FX show "Totally Biased" and he's working on his first comedy album. Let's meet him.
NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this profile.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Hari Kondabolu recently did a piece on "Totally Biased" about the national spelling bee.
HARI KONDABOLU: Or as I like to call it, the Indian Super Bowl.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLAIR: For six years in a row, the winner has been Indian-American.
KONDABOLU: So it gives me great pleasure to finally say hey, white people, learn the language.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)
BLAIR: Hari Kondabolu says at first he was reluctant to write a bit about South Asians winning the spelling bee, because it's kind of a cliche.
KONDABOLU: At the same time, I'm like: Let's own it. There's nothing embarrassing about kids doing well at school and dominating that happen to be South Asian, which is very exciting for me. And there aren't any South Asian athletes. I mean Jeremy Lin was Taiwanese-American. I took ownership of that, it's as close as we've gotten. But this is something we dominate at. This isn't the Indian cricket team. These are South Asian Americans, Indian-Americans dominating. And I loved it.
BLAIR: Thirteen-year-old Arvind Mahankali won this year's spelling bee.
KONDABOLU: And after it was all over, he was asked how he was going to spend the rest of his summer.
ARVIND MAHANKLI: Studying, like, physics.
KONDABOLU: Holy (Bleep).
KONDABOLU: He's a two-sport athlete.
BLAIR: Hari Kondabolu was born and raised in a diverse neighborhood in Queens, New York.
KONDABOLU: Different immigration status, different income levels, different languages, different parts of the world - it was incredible.
BLAIR: Kondabolu's parents were born in India. They moved to the U.S. when they were in their 20s. When Hari was a little boy, he says his mother wanted him and his brother to assimilate into American society. So she took them to Burger King.
KONDABOLU: We never saw something strange about that. As I got older, it was kind of bizarre, like, wait a second, why are you - why? Like, why did you take us to Burger King and, if we're Hindu, how come you let us eat beef? Like how does this make...
BLAIR: What did she say?
KONDABOLU: She said that she wanted us to get used to what it was like to be an American. And apparently Burger King - it's like, well, fast food. What's more American than fast food?
UMA KONDABOLU: (Laughing) Yes, I did.
BLAIR: Uma Kondabolu, Hari's mother, says yes, she took her sons to Burger King because it is very American. But it's also where they found people of all backgrounds.
KONDABOLU: That's when they played with other kids of all colors. And then I used to meet other parents of all colors.
BLAIR: She says she wanted her kids to see that interacting with people of all colors was not bad or scary. Hari Kondabolu says, growing up, he felt safe in his Queens neighborhood and didn't think racism was a serious problem, until the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He was 18.
KONDABOLU: You hear about the hate violence all around the country. And even in New York, and I think that's what struck me the most, it's like it was happening in New York. And it was confusing because I grew up in Queens, I grew up in New York, like and we just dealt with this terrorism. We dealt with 9/11. And you're telling me, after this, you know, everyone is claiming we're all coming together. We're getting closer. This is a time where we unite. It's like, really? Because, in my community, I see people getting hurt and, you know, being put in detention centers.
BLAIR: Kondabolu became politically active. He worked in the Queens District Attorney's Office Bureau of Hate Crimes. He went to Seattle to work for an immigrant rights group. He got his Masters in Human Rights at the London School of Economics.
All the while his stand-up comedy was just a hobby. The idea of doing it full-time came when, in the early 1990s, Kondabolu saw Margaret Cho on Comedy Central.
MARGARET CHO: So, as you know by now, I'm Korean. I don't have a store or anything.
KONDABOLU: To see someone who wasn't black or Latino or white do stand-up was huge. And she was talking about immigrant parents, and I have immigrant parents. My parents are different than her parents, but she was talking about it. And that was OK and it was funny. And I was so amazed by that. I wanted to do that after watching her perform.
BLAIR: Today Kondabolu's material is not so much about his own family, but about being an outsider in general - or at least being treated like one. And he's not afraid of challenging some longstanding beliefs.
KONDABOLU: How do people justify homophobia in this country? You know, it's not Adam and Steve. It's Adam and Eve.
BLAIR: This is from a recent show at the Black Cat in Washington, D.C.
KONDABOLU: Look, technically that is true, right? It was Adam and Eve. But if you remember the story, it was Adam and Eve and a talking serpent.
KONDABOLU: I feel like the talking serpent throws the whole account into question.
KONDABOLU: I don't know how true this is. There's a talking snake involved. Maybe you shouldn't base your values on a "Jungle Book" type scenario. What would Baloo do? What about Shere Khan? What about Winnie the Pooh? Oh, is that a different world? Does it matter at this point?
KONDABOLU: That's a "Jungle Book" type scenario. Look, I'm an Indian Hindu, all right? I know all about "Jungle Book" type scenarios. That is a "Jungle Book" type scenario.
BLAIR: Hari Kondabolu says he knows some people won't like his point of view.
KONDABOLU: I've been approached after shows from people who said, I don't agree with anything you said but I laughed the whole way through. That's still a little strange to me. Like, nothing, really? But at the same time, that's what happens in a conversation. You might not agree with everything the other person is saying, but you can still have a good laugh over a drink, right?
BLAIR: At his show in Washington, D.C., the audience was very diverse and didn't seem to have a problem with him at all.
KONDABOLU: People keep bringing up the year 2042 on the news, when Census figures indicate that whites will be the minority. In 2042, apparently white people will be 49 percent. First of all, why do we give a (bleep)? Why do we keep mentioning this? Why is this even an issue? Are there white people here that are concerned that they'll be the minority in 2042? Don't worry, white people, you were the minority when you came to this country.
KONDABOLU: Things seem to have worked out for you.
BLAIR: Hari Kondabolu recently recorded material for his first live comedy album. It's being released on the record label Kill Rock Stars, which is best known for punk rock. Kondabolu thinks it's a perfect fit.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.