Hari Kondabulo’s Race-Conscious Comedy

When comedy writer and stand-up comedian Hari Kondabolu took the stage at the LPAC Cinema on Saturday, November 16, he opened with a joke about the relatively recent Intercultural Center controversy. He said that his act was filled with a lot of commentary on race relations and he hoped that we would like it because, he had heard, if Swarthmore students didn’t like something, they peed on it.

This risky joke set up the tone of the rest of his act, a hilarious set of jokes touching on sensitive topics from race relations and homophobia to capitalism and politics.

Kondabolu is a well-known Indian-American stand-up comic from Queens, New York City. He’s made appearances on shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live and Conan, and has had his own half-hour special on Comedy Central. He most recently worked as a writer for the show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell; however, the show was canceled a week prior to his performance at Swarthmore, a fact which, he repeatedly joked, left him unemployed and likely to tour the country doing stand-up.

The Swarthmore Deshi Club brought Kondabolu to campus with the help of Brianna Serrano, program administrator of the Intercultural Center. Deshi club co-president, Samiul Haque, said he found out about Kondabolu over the summer through an interview he read. “The point Hari conveyed really resonated with me and my own experience growing up as a South Asian-American,” Haque said.

He thought that Kondabolu would have a large, receptive audience at Swarthmore and saw the opportunity to bring issues for discussion in a humourous setting. “As students here, we are already saturated with academia with all the classes, lectures, and assignments we take part in…” he said, “One of the audience members said it quite eloquently during the Q&A session — when you can’t reach someone by lecturing and debating, comedy becomes the ideal medium. We wanted to provide this oft-ignored medium, and saw Hari Kondabolu as one of the best candidates to do so.”

Kondabolu delivered wonderfully on these intentions. His stand-up routine was peppered with criticisms and commentary on a range of sensitive issues. There is the obvious risk with this approach, however. While some jokes struck a positive note with the audience, others caused the audience to groan.

He referred to one of his jokes as a successful “feminist dick joke.” He then engaged in a fictional conversation with a critic on stage in which he acknowledged that despite his best efforts, he may have been neglectful in his acknowledgment of the trans community. In the question and answer portion after his set, Kondabolu acknowledged that, as a comedian, it is difficult and perhaps impossible to create the perfect joke. “When I make a joke,” he said, “I’m always trying to alter [it] and do something different. If something happens and I just say something awful I feel bad but then I try to adjust and rewrite to say something that represents more of who I actually am.”

Kondabolu’s humor is simultaneously fearless and cautious. While he handled controversial issues through his comedic lens, he balanced his commentary with a certain sensitivity.  While he could easily fall into dangerous territory, he managed to find a balance by acknowledging and commenting on race, class, and political issues without being horribly offensive.

As a Bowdoin College graduate, he is familiar with the culture of a small liberal arts college. He goodnaturedly poked fun at the liberal arts bubble and at himself — he said he was the only student of color at his time in the snowy white Bowdoin population. In the question and answer portion he admitted that he often tests the audience with certain jokes and that when he received an extremely positive response to his joke that the theme of his set would be colonialism, he said, “I knew it was going to be a good show.” Kondabolu was startlingly honest and interactive with the audience.

Kondabolu will be releasing his first CD recording in the spring of 2014.