Coming off the high of winning GQ India’s Comedian of the Year award and looking forward to a tour doing stand-up across the nation, including a performance in Chicago on Oct. 11, comedian Hari Kondabolu is only gaining momentum in his comedy career. The Indian-American comic inspires laughs on end through his unique blend of political and personal humor, displayed on every platform from podcasts, to documentaries, to his first love, stand-up.
Kondabolu got his start in stand-up in high school and continued to hone his craft throughout college. Though he gained a following of friends, he never expected to be able to continue doing stand-up as a career.
“There weren't really any examples of South Asian people doing stand-up,” Kondabolu said. “There's diversity and representation now, but then there was like nothing. So I didn't see it as realistic.”
Yet, he continued to do stand-up as a nighttime hobby when he moved to Seattle after college, and suddenly found himself “discovered.” In the following years, his career blossomed as he explored a variety of platforms, from stand-up to documentary film to podcasts to just about whatever he could get his hands on.
Last May, Kondabolu released a Netflix special titled Warn Your Relatives, of which he continues to be very proud. He also currently produces a podcast called Kondabolu Brothers with his brother, Ashok, in which the two discuss culture and how their upbringing as second-generation Indian-Americans influences their cultural perceptions.
Perhaps his best-known work thus far, Kondabolu’s 2017 critically-acclaimed TruTV documentary The Problem with Apu opened widespread debate concerning representation and political correctness in the media. In the film, Kondabolu and other successful South Asian people discussed and criticized the ways The Simpsons' stereotyped Indian cashier, Apu, led to their own subsequent stereotyping due to the lack of representation in entertainment at the time.
“I think your goal when you choose an art form is to do it to the best of your ability, and for me the things I say on stage are my opinions,” Kondabolu said. His work is generally a mix of charged, heavier content and lighter, more personal jokes. The result is a balanced string of setups and punchlines that generate laughs from beginning to end.
“If you start trying to think about changing the world with every single thing that you're doing, sometimes you lose focus of your job as an entertainer, which is just to entertain,” Kondabolu said. “If you say something controversial at the same time I'm all for that, but I don't think that's a prerequisite.”
Reflecting on his own experience chasing his many interests on multiple stages, Kondabolu encouraged pursuing various artforms. “I don't think this is a time when we should restrict ourselves,” he said “We should do as much as we can, and if you have multiple interests there’s nothing that stops you.”
Considering his own start in comedy, Kondabolu offered advice for students attempting to step into the stand-up scene. Aside from simply getting stage time and practice in front of an audience, Kondabolu also suggested aspiring comics “listen to stand-up, listen to audio, because when you’re laughing and you don’t have a visual, that means the writing is really good… if you’re able to write something that makes people laugh without the visual, imagine getting to see this performer who’s so funny already.”
Last week, Kondabolu traveled to India to receive GQ India’s award for Comedian of the Year. Though the experience was rewarding and extremely flattering, Kondabolu says he is excited to be back in the United States doing stand-up tours once more. His favorite places to perform are his home cities – Seattle and New York City – but he is very much looking forward to his upcoming Chicago show at Thalia Hall this Thursday.
“Chicago is one of my favorite places to perform because it’s a comedy-savvy crowd,” Kondabolu remarked. “[Thalia Hall] is a beautiful stage – I'm really excited about performing there – and if the crowds I’ve gotten at all these other venues have been as killer as they have, I can only imagine what it’s going to be like on that beautiful stage.”