Hari Kondabolu is not afraid to talk about the topics that make people uncomfortable. Sexism, racism, colonialism — all the “isms” you can think of — are fair game at his shows.
To that he says, why wouldn’t I?
The Brooklyn-based comedian is in St. Louis performing at the Helium Comedy Club at 1151 St. Louis Galleria St. through Saturday. His comedy special, “Warn Your Relatives,” premieres on Netflix Tuesday. He talked with St. Louis Public Radio’s Ashley Lisenby about how comedy is influencing culture.
Ashley Lisenby: I saw your first night at the Helium. You talk about some tough topics. All the things you’re not supposed to talk about in public with strangers: sex, colonialism, racism. Heavy hitters. Why do that? Why not go for the cheap shots?
Hari Kondabolu: It’s not interesting to me. When you’re on stage, as a comic and you have this forum and you want to make people laugh, like, you want to be you. These are the things that I find interesting. These are the things that I find frustrating and hilarious. These are the things that can break my heart and then it’s up to me to try to get myself out the funk, right? It’s my job to find the sad thing and find a way to be happy about still being alive while dealing with it. I think, why wouldn’t I talk about those things, right? Injustice to me is heartbreaking every single day and my coping mechanism is laughter.
Lisenby: You’re a part of a group of comics who are socially aware people who bring in historical context to their jokes and are making sharp commentary and observations. So will comedy help people understand themselves better or are people just digging into what they believe?
Kondabolu: The thing about comedy … comedy has always been that thing that’s been able to show people another side; show injustice; show hypocrisy. Whose able to criticize power? The jester. The person who has this position … like, they’re funny, so it's OK. So you know, I think it’s always done that and it will continue to do that as long as it’s funny; as long as people laugh. I do think that people are digging in deeper and are stubborn and all that, but it doesn’t mean that’s everybody. That doesn’t mean there aren’t, especially younger people, who are influenced by culture. I strongly believe that the culture we create, we put out, that we market, impacts how people think about the world.
Lisenby: You talk a lot about the culture that The Simpsons created, but you talk about the lack of representation there. What do you think is the next evolution of people integrating the shows we watch or the characters we have and making those more of a reflection of real life?
Kondabolu: I think it’s actually about who controls the scripts and the writing and the casting. That’s really the next big thing. You know The Simpsons thing to me, you know, is a great example. I love The Simpsons and it’s an incredible show, but you can also see its blind spots. How did those blind spots appear? Well, how diverse was the room? Who was going to question them? Who were they playing to? How come they didn’t change? What issues are at play? How come they aren’t changing now? Like, all those things have to do with power and money and who’s in the room at the time.
Lisenby: Can you talk a little about your Netflix special?
Kondabolu: My special is called “Warn Your Relatives.” And I call it “Warn Your Relatives” based on a joke I have at the end of the special and it basically talks about that we’re going to create change in this country, and it’s not just going to be a bunch of tweets and smiley faces. It requires aggression and movement, which doesn’t necessarily mean violence by the way, but you have to be willing to speak out and be public. We keep talking about those conversations that people have to have with their relatives over Thanksgiving if we’re going to change. And I’m like, cool, but I’m not going to wait. I might have these conversations with your relatives well before that. I might be having that conversation with your relatives through this Netflix special.
Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon.
Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby