Kondabolu in 2016
October 21, 1982|
Queens, New York, U.S.
|Medium||Stand-up, film, podcasts|
|Relative(s)||Ashok Kondabolu (brother)|
Hari Karthikeya Kondabolu (Telugu: హరి కొండబోలు; born 1982) is an American stand-up comic, actor, filmmaker, and podcast host. He is best known for his comedy on subjects such as race, identity, inequality, and the LGBT community. He has appeared on television on many occasions, and was a writer for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.
Early life and family
Kondabolu was born in the Flushing neighborhood of the New York City borough of Queens in 1982, to Ravi and Uma Kondabolu, who had immigrated from Tenali in Andhra Pradesh, India. Soon after Ravi had immigrated to the United States in 1978, while in a small town in Louisiana, he says he was approached by a person who asked, "Excuse me, sir, are you Chinese?" Both parents were physicians in India, and became the heads of New York area medical labs; Ravi is chief technologist at a cardiology lab and Uma never practiced as a physician in the US. Ravi has worked at the Flushing Hospital Medical Center since 1981. Ravi's father, Venkaiah Choudhury, had been an Indian freedom fighter, a member of the Communist movement and a member of the Andhra Pradesh state assembly. In 1994, after years of work, Ravi was able to fulfill his dream by opening a college in Wyra in the Khammam district in India. Half the seats at the memorial college (now a polytechnic) are reserved for women.
Kondabolu credits his mother with having and expressing unusually progressive views on gay rights during his childhood, and says she is both "the reason I'm funny" and "the funniest person I know".
Kondabolu is the older brother of Ashok, who is a former member of the group Das Racist. As Indian-Americans of Telugu origin they are unusual: "Growing up I’d tell people, even other Indians, that I was Telugu and they would have no idea what that meant."
Kondabolu attended public schools in Queens: PS 69 in Jackson Heights, PS 115 in Floral Park, MS 172 in Floral Park, and Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, where he graduated in 2000. While a high school student, Kondabolu repeatedly watched a Margaret Cho special on the then-new Comedy Central cable network "in awe, because up until then I had never seen an Asian-American comedian. There she was up there—strong and funny and talking about her parents. That was the first time I thought maybe I could try this." He began writing and performing in comic skits in his global studies class at Townsend Harris, and produced and performed in a comedy night during his senior year.
Education and early activist career
Kondabolu continued performing standup when he attended Bowdoin College; he called his years at Bowdoin "incredibly formative" and continues to spend part of every year in Maine. He studied at Wesleyan University during his third year, focusing on identity and race, globalization, and "the impact of popular culture on society". The Bowdoin Orient reported: "While spending his junior year at Wesleyan University developed Kondabolu as a 'scholar and an artist' because of the campus's politics and a thriving art scene, Bowdoin provided Kondabolu with the audience to hear that art. Kondabolu left for Wesleyan as a sophomore, but word of mouth made his audience even larger when he returned to Bowdoin as a senior." Kondabolu served as the music director for campus radio station WBOR.
In the summer of 2002, motivated by seeing the rise in hate crimes in the US after 9/11, Kondabolu interned with the Queens district attorney's office in its Hate Crimes/Anti-Bias/Youth Gangs Bureau, an experience that motivated him to pursue a career in which he would "improve the lives of minorities." In 2003, he was accepted into the Indian American Center for Political Awareness's Washington Leadership Program, which placed him in an internship with the Washington, DC office of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Immediately following the internship in Clinton's office, Kondabolu wrote:
this summer was the most fulfilling experience of my life.... Indian-American politicians like Swati Dandekar (Democrat Iowa State Representative) and (Maryland House Majority Leader) Kumar Barve (Democrat) were inspirations to me, as they proved that skin color would not hold me back if I did not let it.
Kondabolu also served internships with South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow and South Asian Youth Action. After graduating from Bowdoin with a B.A. in Government and a minor in Asian Studies in 2004, Kondabolu had no intention of pursuing a stand-up comedy career. He moved to Seattle and took the LSAT preparatory to applying to law school, and worked as an immigrant rights organizer in Seattle for the organization Hate Free Zone (later renamed as OneAmerica) from 2005 to 2007. As part of Hate Free Zone's "Liberty and Justice for All", he led a monthly conversation project focusing on immigration and human rights, saying, "Grassroots organizers know; intimate meetings and real dialogue can cut through the cacophony like nothing else." He found his organizing work fulfilling:
I loved organizing, and, you know, I was working with victims of hate crimes, I was doing some work in detention centers and meeting families whose - you know, who had family members who were going to be deported, and, you know, it was really powerful, workplace discrimination cases...
Although his stand-up comedy career was gaining traction in 2007, he was accepted to the Masters in Human Rights program at the London School of Economics in 2007, and thus took a hiatus year from stand-up to earn his MSc.
While in Seattle, Kondabolu began participating in its alternative comedy scene. His act included "a bit where I used to read the U.S. citizenship application onstage". In 2006, Kondabolu performed at the Bumbershoot Music and Arts Festival in Seattle, which he credits as his "big break", as a booker for HBO's Comedy Festival saw his name on the Bumbershoot website. Kondabolu also filmed "Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives" in Seattle and released the special on Netflix in 2018.
Kondabolu has since made several television appearances as a stand-up comic. He made his first notable television appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2007, when he also began to appear in a variety of national comedy festivals, including the 2007 HBO US Comedy Arts Festival. In October 2012, he performed stand-up on an episode of Conan and, in March 2014, he performed stand-up on The Late Show with David Letterman. He has made several appearances on Comedy Central, including a 2008 episode of Live at Gotham, three episodes of John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show in 2010 and 2012, and most prominently, his own episode of Comedy Central Presents which aired on February 11, 2011. He has also appeared a number of times on British television, including on Russell Howard's Good News in 2011 and 8 out of 10 Cats in 2012. In 2012, he had a recurring sketch as part of BBC Three's Live at the Electric hosted by Russell Kane. He has also performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and was a featured comedian for the US State Department-sponsored "Make Chai Not War" comedy showcase in India in 2012.
From 2012 to 2013, he was on the writing staff for the FX comedy series Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, produced by Chris Rock and hosted by W. Kamau Bell, on which he often appeared as a correspondent. During that period, Rand Paul criticized the "Make Chai Not War" initiative during Congressional hearings on the Benghazi controversy. Kondabolu responded in a Totally Biased segment, observing that the approximately $800 million USD that the State Department spends yearly sending artists to perform worldwide is far less than the US spends on war: "apparently after you spend trillions starting wars, people get angry at you."
His second comedy album, Mainstream American Comic, was released on July 22, 2016 on Kill Rock Stars. It debuted at #1 on the iTunes US comedy charts and at #2 on the Billboard comedy charts.
Artistic philosophy, focus, and development
Kondabolu's humor often centers on social issues such as poverty, racism, and a rejection of Indian stereotypes seen in media. He describes writing a July 2003 joke, which focused on the British Raj taking the Koh-i-Noor diamond from India, as "the first time I thought, 'Okay, this is who I actually am. This is what I actually believe.'"
He takes issue with the label "political" being applied to his work, instead framing his comedy as addressing everyday issues that affect his and the audience's lives. Kondabolu said: "I called the record 'Mainstream American Comic' because I believe the ideas I'm talking about should be part of the mainstream discussion." He compares his work to that of The Clash, contrasting his approach to that of the Sex Pistols: instead of engaging in contrariness for contrariness's sake, he focuses on issues of justice and fairness.
Early in Kondabolu's stand-up comedy career, he was willing to use stereotypes of Indians, including Indian accents, to get laughs. He characterizes his immediately post-9/11 work as self-important political argument at the expense of humor; he credits his time in the Seattle stand-up scene with teaching him that "you need the joke. I learned to value the joke again."
As of late 2017, Kondabolu is taking his mother's advice and diversifying the topics he discusses in his comedy, working on new material that puts more of his personal vulnerability onstage.
He and his younger brother Ashok performed in a monthly mostly improvised talk show together in New York City called Untitled Kondabolu Brothers Project. Past guests have included Ajay Naidu, Aasif Mandvi, Bell, Leo Allen, Victor Vazquez (Kool AD of Das Racist), Charles Mudede and Blue Scholars. In January 2013, they started Untitled Kondabolu Brothers Podcast. After a hiatus from 2015 onwards, the podcast debuted again as the Kondabolu Brothers Podcast in 2018 on the Earwolf label.
He is a co-host of the podcast Politically Re-Active with Bell, which debuted in June 2016. He also debuted as a rotating host on The Bugle alongside Andy Zaltzman in the fall of 2016 after the departure of John Oliver.
In 2014, Kondabolu started an online campaign joining activists asking the Washington Redskins to change their name or logo, suggesting viewers use the Twitter hashtag #NewRedskinsLogo to share their proposed changes. Kondabolu argued that if Redskins owners and fans were unwilling to change their name away from one "stereotyping Native Americans", then the Redskins logo should change to one portraying "a severely sunburned white person".
In 2015, Kondabolu, criticizing Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal as "disingenuous", started the #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite Twitter hashtag. He said: "You can say that about all politicians, but there's something about how he uses his story about being the son of Indian immigrants and then at the same time talks about how we're all Americans and should get rid of hyphenated identities [that bothers me]."
Acting and film
Kondabolu wrote and starred in Zia Mohajerjasbi's 2007 short film Manoj, which has played in comedy and film festivals around the world, including the Just for Laughs Festivals in Montreal and Chicago, and which mocks comedians who broadly exploit their ethnic backgrounds for their material. In Manoj , Kondabolu portrays both Manoj, a fictional Indian immigrant comic who plays to white audiences by repeating their stereotypes of South Asians, and an Indian-American who is critical of Manoj's approach. He made Manoj to speak to and about artists of color; as Shruti Swamy summarized, "for Kondabolu, the film is about minstrelsy-the idea of making a caricature of your background, or playing into stereotypes, not to challenge them, but to reinforce them".
Kondabolu portrayed "Crossword Businessman" in the 2009 film All About Steve, a movie he mocks in Mainstream American Comic. He also played a supporting role in the 2016 film Five Nights in Maine, although none of his scenes were included in the final 75-minute cut of the film. Also in 2016, he appeared as a fictionalized version of himself in the Comedy Central web series White Flight.
Kondabolu is the star, creator, and executive director of The Problem with Apu, a documentary about Apu from The Simpsons that premiered in November 2017 on TruTV. The film contextualizes Apu within minstrelsy and other tropes in American pop culture history that have historically stereotyped minorities.
Critical reception and honors
The New York Times called Kondabolu in mid-2016 "one of the most necessary political comedians working today", saying that "his material addresses culture and current events through a sharp lens of progressive politics and his clever, very funny perspective". Similarly, the Portland Mercury said that Kondabolu "stays clear of being overly preachy" and compared his comedy to the work of hip-hop group Public Enemy: "As a comedian Kondabolu is vicious, uncompromised and without taste for fools."
New York University's Asian/Pacific/American Institute chose Kondabolu as its Artist in Residence for the 2014-2015 academic year, the first time that a comedian had been selected for that honor.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking at a Diwali celebration, declared October 22, 2017 "Hari Kondabolu Day". The proclamation stated: "Through his bold and clever brand of humor, Hari has united people of all backgrounds and beliefs in laughter while raising awareness about important matters of justice and equality, and as a proud Indian American artist, he has helped to foster diversity in media and entertainment.... a gifted and incredibly funny New Yorker who exemplifies the boundless creativity and progressive values that define the five boroughs."
Scholar Rebecca Krefting devoted a chapter to Kondabolu's work in All Joking Aside: American Humor and Its Discontents, contrasting his "early reliance on modern-day minstrelsy with a subsequent self-imposed dictum to create humor that does not harm, that is, his current repertoire of charged humor.... in a sea of comics deploying modern-day minstrelsy or hacky stereotype jokes, Kondabolu stands out among his colleagues for his commitment to conscientious charged humor".
In 2012, Kondabolu's alma mater, Townsend Harris High School, honored Kondabolu by having him give the keynote address at the school's graduation ceremony.
Kondabolu is a practicing Hindu and a fan of baseball and indie rock. As a dark-skinned Indian and a non-Brahmin, he faced casteism and colourism in his twenties while dating an Indian-American woman. He lives in Brooklyn.
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Then came word in 1992 that the Indian government planned to use the Wyra acreage for other purposes. "My brother and I rushed back to India and offered our own money to start the college," he said. In 1994, Kondabolu Venkaiaah Choudary Memorial began in rented quarters with only 28 students.... Ravi, who lives in Jamaica Estates, said he works long hours as chief technologist in the cardiology department of New York Flushing Hospital in an effort to send at least $15,000 annually back to India to support the college.
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In 1991, when politicians threatened to take over 31 of the 15 acres of land [Ravi Kondabolu]'s father had bought in 1963 to built a college in Wyra township, Khammam district in Andhra Pradesh, friends informed Ravi who lived in the United States. Within months the Kondabolu Venkaiah Chaudhary Memorial College (KVCM) opened its doors to 29 students more than 30 years after his father envisioned it.
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I had a teacher - my favorite teacher, Chris Hackney, he used to have little breaks in class where I was able to do stand-up....He was global studies....We would have these press conferences where people would present articles and things that happened that week. And then each group would have to do little commercials and skits. And after a while, it was, like, kind of obvious that I was the one who was going to be doing them every single week. That was a huge confidence boost and feel that rush, you know, was incredibly.
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Hari Karthikeya Kondabolu: Government; Minor: Asian Studies .... Holliswood, New York
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MSc in Human Rights: ... Merit ... Hari Karthikeya Kondabolu
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