When two comedians have their first really long conversation—usually after hours, in the back room of a comedy club—there’s this kind of pleasant squaring-off. The pair sort of kick their frames of references into alignment, marking out likes and dislikes, talking shop. You circle, and size each other up. It’s like wrestling but very gentle.
Hari Kondabolu is a comedian and former organizer genuinely interested in the stuff he talks about onstage: baseball, music, family, social justice. Which was why I decided I wanted to sit down with him and my Windows phone and his iPhone in Brooklyn last May. Our afternoon begins with our getting lost in Park Slope on the way to a meal—Were you following me? never follow me—and continues over omelettes. We skip some things: Kondabolu’s time spent as writer and correspondent on both seasons of the recently cancelled FXX show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, for instance, and we spend as little time as possible talking about race, a subject that has come up in “literally every interview [he’s] done” about his new album, Waiting for 2042. We don’t talk much about the album either.
I. DIFFERENT KINDS OF SILENCES
HARI KONDABOLU: It should be noted that I’m Hari Kondabolu and I’m using my iPhone to record the interview.
ALEX EDELMAN:It should be noted that I’m Alex Edelman. I’m using my Windows Phone to record this interview. We have competing recordings.
HK: Is this print?
AE: This is print. Some unlucky intern will have to sift through this recording and bang it out. 
HK: Is it a paid intern?
AE: I hope it’s a paid intern. I would never do unpaid internships. That’s tantamount to slavery.
HK: It’s not tantamount to slavery.
AE: Well, “slavery” is a broad word.
HK: It’s not a broad word. It’s very narrowly defined. Internships are some kind of upper-middle class slavery. Which isn’t slavery at all.
AE: Well, then this is the end of the interview, I guess. Me offending you.
AE: I’ve run into you in auspicious places.
HK: Where did we meet?
AE: We did Morgan Venticinque’s show together.He had this show in a basement and there was a beam directly in front of your face and every performer mentioned it.There was a loud group in the corner—
HK: Did I yell at them?
AE: You did yell, but you were in the right. I remember thinking This is a guy who knows what his comedy is worth.
HK: I hope I finished that set and then stormed out.
AE: Ugh, why? There’s no glory in that.
HK: Every now and then you find a little bit of magic when you’re forced to adjust your material to the room, and some gold comes out of it. There’s a difference between offense and defense, to use a sports analogy. That’s defense, to get something out of a tough room. When a crowd loves you, that’s offense. When you have a good crowd, you can push further a little bit because they’re with you for the easiest parts. When you’re on defense, you might not get to any part of the joke, but being pushed against makes you force yourself to push back. And pushing back makes you come up with stuff.
AE: There are different kinds of silences. There’s the not-laughing-because-I’m-listening, which I find a lot in England. And then there’s the growing, stagnant silence where they’re—
HK: Like, What is this? I don’t understand how this can be comedy.
AE: Is the punchline now?
HK: In the UK, this is referred to as the Stewart Lee.
AE: I love Stewart Lee!
HK: He’s my favorite comedian. On the album, his influence is definitely there. To me, the two comedians, the comics that shape me the most are Paul Mooney and Stewart Lee.
AE: I can see that. Stewart Lee says in his book that when he was interviewing Paul Provenza, Provenza said that there are two aspects to stand-up, “Content” and “aesthetic,” and it was a mini-revelation for him. You have this joke on your new album, your Weezer joke, that sort of blends the two together. You make the form of the joke echo its content.
HK [quoting his joke]: It started really strong, it ended really weak. It echoes the arc of Weezer’s career.
I mention that one of my own jokes, a Neil Armstrong joke, attempts something similar.
HK: I wonder if Neil Armstrong finds people and earth disappointing. All this human stuff. All this awkward interaction. I didn’t have to deal with any of this shit in space.
AE: It was just me and Buzz—
HK: In our suits. He wasn’t just protected from other people—he was protected from the atmosphere.
AE: He was literally in a suit, the perfect place for an introvert.
HK: You know how people say you were in your own bubble? He was literally in his own bubble. I envy him, and I feel bad that I envy him. I feel like I’m trapped in my head and then I imagine what it would be like to be trapped in your head in space.
AE:He’s the only explorer where you know for sure he was the first. It wasn’t like Vasco de Gama where there’s a group of indigenous people he’s ignoring. Sometimes, when I’m wandering through a forest or something, I wonder if I’m the first guy to set foot in that certain place.
HK: Probably not.
AE:But I think, In a place so vast, maybe someone has missed this.
David Foster Wallace enters the conversation.
HK: Someone quoted something he wrote on irony to me once.
AE:About snark? He didn’t like snark.
HK: Well, he talks about irony, too. And that it’s okay to believe in something and tell it to people; you’re allowed to believe in and love something and share it without some kind of front. I always get annoyed when I do shows in Williamsburg and I’m earnest. I’m up there and I sogive a shit that it just turns some people off. But you can’t pretend, I’m better than this. He’s trying and I hate that he’s trying. You’re facing me. There’s a ton of you facing me and I have a voice amplification system. This is clearly a thing. Let’s not pretend it’s not a thing. Snarky people pretend that they don’t know what they’re talking about or that they’re not invested in what they’re hearing, but clearly they are because they’re talking about it. Or paying for it.
AE: Some of the performers that we mentioned—Stewart Lee is nothing if not snarky. Like he’s such a great puncher that sometimes I don’t think he realizes that he’s not punching up? He’ll say something deliberately tough. Like he said something great about Breaking Bad. About how he doesn’t feel the need to watch a television show about a man who, in order to support his family, does something beneath his station.
II. WHAT ARE YOU SAYING WHEN YOU SAY WHAT YOU WANT?
AE: Do you miss living in Seattle?
AE: Seattle used to have this incredible, flourishing comedy scene. The Peoples’ Republic of Komedy tossed me on there when I was fifteen or sixteen.
HK: I was there. Oh, I was there. We were a great scene. It was a great scene.
AE: It’s almost entirely depleted now.
HK: The scene there now is nothing. Portland has the better comics at this point, and more consistency, and it’s a bummer, too, because I think Seattle is ripe for something.
AE: I visited a year and a half ago. It’s a wasteland of open-mic rape jokes. What is it with open-mikers doing rape jokes?
HK: I think it’s like teenagers wanting to test their limits. When you’re experimenting with the freedom of speech you don’t necessarily think about what you’re saying. Just the fact you can say it is exciting. But what are you saying when you say what you want? I grew up in New York, and I hear horrific, shocking things on the subway. Boring.
AE: I have a different theory. I think it’s technical. I think comedy, in some of its forms, is about generating tension and then releasing it. People who don’t know how to build tension in a skilled way just go right for the shocking thing. You say the word rape, and right away there’s a whole cloud of tension. People don’t know how to generate the cloud organically and then dissipate it, so it’s—
HK: Well, the weight of the word is so shocking to them still. It’s so incredible for them—Oh, I just broke a norm!—instead of understanding that there’s power in the word. You don’t know what that word will trigger if you don’t have anything to back it up. I understand that they’re just figuring it out, but they don’t realize that when you talk about difficult things, you have the chance to do something incredible instead. It’s like giving people the best ingredients, or the most interesting ingredients, and then they just [gestures at our omelettes]. What was the point of wasting that? You’re doing yourself a disservice as an artist.
AE: I think you kind of speak like a politically incorrect comedian who has a politically correct point of view.You’re doing that in the same way Stewart Lee does.
HK: He talks about political correctness being a good thing. He calls it “institutionalized politeness.” I believe in that idea. Political correctness came in the period of integration. You used to be able to say that stuff because “they” weren’t around—
AE: To call you out—
HK: Or have power—
AE: Or punch you in the face.
HK: Now things are more diverse.
AE: See, I’ve never known anything else. But I do sometimes hear you talk about something and I go, I remember that from when I was a child. Like on your latest album, about how it took all weekend to download a Weezer album.
HK: Yeah, society has sped up. We once had the Internet as a practical thing instead of using it to download Weezer songs.
AE: Or Ben Folds. I loved Ben Folds. Anyway, I understand your Weezer thing.
HK:They were heartfelt and silly.
AE: And that’s what I liked about Ben Folds. That exact same thing.
HK: It’s been interesting working with a record label. The record came out on an indie rock label, Kill Rock Stars. There are hard copies of things, but most everything is the Internet. And I wanted a tangible thing. The jokes connect for that reason—
AE:—that it’s also a physical experience.
HK: People will eventually put my record online and steal it. and I get that, and I’m kind of okay with it, but another part of me is going, Man, so much work put in and it just becomes a file.
AE: It’s not fun. I wonder if we’ll go back somehow.
HK: I’m curious about that. If everything comes around, will someone eventually go What’s that? and someone else reply A flip phone.
AE: Ryan Hamilton is working on a joke about how if paper came out now it’d be the biggest thing in the world. You can fold it! You can put it in your pocket. It’s like the iPad but thinner.
HK: Those comics who don’t get the love they deserve? He’s one of them.
AE: But he’s really got the respect of his peer group, as do you. The tracks I found the funniest on the album, by the way, weren’t the tracks I listened to the most. I liked the off-the-wall stuff. Not to be cynical, or self-congratulatory, but I know what will get a big laugh. I’m behind the matrix, to some extent. So you want to see some linguistic backflips, to see someone put out an idea.
HK: A big part of that, honestly, was forcing myself to make an album, with a clear goal and a structure.
III. HAVING A HIT LIST WAS OK
AE: You know, my generation of comedian really craves approval from your generation.
HK: It’s funny, because comics will come up and say, Hey, I watched your Comedy Central Presents in high school, and I think That was three years ago.
“Dramamine” by Modest Mouse plays over the café speakers.
Hey, funny; I was listening to this song yesterday. I loved Modest Mouse. I had their first three records in college. I worked on a radio station on campus, WBOR 91.1 FM, at Bowdoin.
AE: I read some funny article from the Bowdoin student newspaper about you coming back from Wesleyan to do a show at Bowdoin. You had gone away and come back.
HK: I was the one guy on campus who did stand-up. I don’t think I was good, objectively—also, I’m a thirty-one-year old looking at a nineteen-year old’s work—but I will say that I was good for what I did and I knew how to do forty-five minutes to an audience that didn’t know any better. My senior year, a hundred people would show up to see me do new jokes at a folk and poetry open mic. I had no intention of doing comedy after college. I remember coming home to open mics in New York, and they were terrible. You had to pay to get stage time. You had to bring people. It’s strange we’re in Park Slope, because when I came home on breaks, I would stay at my parents’ place, off the 179th street F train. And I would take the F all the way here. It was a good hour-fifteen, hour-twenty, plus buses, so an hour-forty-five? As a nineteen-year-old? I did this open mic at this place called the Blah Blah Lounge, which no longer exists. It was folk and poetry. It was always an older white dude playing “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. It was always that dude, just a guy wanting to get away from his family for fifteen minutes before he went home. And then this kid from Queens who would do three minutes and bomb and then head the hour-forty back and think, This sucks. I didn’t think of doing it until I moved to Seattle. The scene you saw? That’s the scene that made me love comedy again.
AE: Really? I started at a music open mic also. Roggie’s Pizzeria in Boston. I started in the Boston scene. It was great to me. They’ll all see me as fifteen forever, but I loved baseball and comedy and could indulge in both there. Do you think—I’m not saying I’m far ahead, but I have a manager now and a few tiny credits—and in the back of my head, I think I haven’t changed all that much.
HK: What do you mean by that?
AE: I’m more polished as a comic, but I didn’t radically alter something and then everything clicked. I’m still doing the same comedy.
HK: I certainly think I’m not the same human being I was when I was your age, but there’s a core of me that is still there. My voice is always going to be one that kicks upward—I can’t imagine that ever changing—but I’m always refining what that means to me. I’m talking about things that mean different things to me now. Life stuff, and family stuff.
AE: Political stuff?
HK: You can do both! Political stuff is part of who I am and comes from that same place, but I’m also a son and a boyfriend and a brother. Sometimes a shitty friend. Those are all parts of me, and I’m learning to write about that stuff.
AE: Do you remember that bit that you had about people that would die in the revolution?
HK: I can’t believe they let me get away with that on Comedy Central. I closed my half hour with this list of people who would die in the revolution. Jimmy Buffet was on the list. I couldn’t make a joke about McDonalds, because they were worried about sponsorship, but having a hit list was okay. I can’t believe I got away with that. I’ve done that joke, which is about wealth, in front of Bill Gates.
HK: At the Comedy Underground. Bill Gates used to go to the Comedy Underground. That grungy, old school, basement-of-a-sports-bar comedy club.
AE: In Pioneer Square. It’s pretty touristy.
HK: But also the seediest part of Seattle. And the richest man in the world came down to that disgusting basement. He and Melinda bought tickets ahead of time; they knew who they were seeing. I did the revolution joke in front of him, as well as an old Microsoft spell-check joke I haven’t done in years, and apparently he loved it, and when I said Jimmy Buffet, he lost his shit. I’ve always wondered—
AE: —if he hates Jimmy Buffet?
HK: If he thought I said Warren Buffet. I don’t really know why he laughed. Right after it happened, my instinct should’ve been Find him, say hello before he gets whisked away, and what I thought instead was I better get my mailing list so I don’t lose any signatures. I am that dumb. I went to the green room to get my mailing list instead of chasing down Bill Gates to say Thank you for coming to my show.
AE: I’m sure at some point you’ll run into him. Just the way the world works. You live in a city.
HK: Seattle is small.
AE: Seattle is small, yeah. Maybe he’ll come out to see you again. Have you heard Gary Gulman’s Bill Gates material? About how great a guy Bill Gates is? When people hand out Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation checks for fifty million dollars, Bill Gates never leans in and goes But most of that’s from me. What do you think actually matters, comedy-wise? You say you’ve grown as a person and you’re addressing family. Josie Long says her favorite thing is social justice. Is there something that’s important to you in that way? Something you think about day-to-day?
HK: I don’t know. Some people put themselves out there as activist comedians or social justice comedians. I think that’s the corniest thing in the world. Social justice isn’t a niche idea or a niche group of people. It’s supposed to be mainstream. Everybody wants better pay. Everybody wants their families to be safe. Everybody wants a society where people have opportunities. Those are shared values. Even the term political comedian is weird. I think, I don’t know why this isn’t considered observational. I talk about things that annoy me, like racism or sexism, and big things, like the way my immigrant parents were treated. It’s not like I’m thinking, What did Romney say about immigrants? What I see and what I read and how I feel and what my friends experience—that’s what I write about.
I get niches for marketing purposes, or purposes of casual description. At the same time, it’s like, I don’t know, it’s comedy. Just have a good time. I’m having a good time saying the stuff. I work the same rooms every other comic works. It’s not like I’m doing anarchist bookstores only.
AE: I see some comedians who I won’t name, but love, and I think, That’s a comedian dedicated to being a political comedian.
HK: That’s fine! And if that’s who you are, then be who you are, but I’m not that dude. Politics bores me. It’s like with people who don’t like sports. I love sports.
AE: I love that you’re a baseball person. It makes me trust you.
HK: Huge. Baseball is my thing. When I’m down and out, I love knowing I can go to Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary and that’ll lift me up. Have you seen The 10th Inning? They ended the documentary with the Red Sox not winning, and then they win it; The 10th Inning is all about that, and it covers the steroid scandal and Barry Bonds. And the year that got released, the Giants won the World Series.
AE:For a sport that gets a lot of flak for being slow, baseball moves really quickly. The storylines move quickly. Anything can happen, and shit does just happen.
HK: For people who know the game, I think every pitch has meaning. There’s a reason that particular pitch is thrown, to that location. To that person. There might be someone on base. What the score is, what the count is. Everything has value.
AE: What do you think of the historical narrative of baseball? Because that’s one of my favorite things about it.
HK: It’s strange. Well, I love the Ken Burns documentary, of course. Although it seemed like they had the rights to four songs and kept playing them over and over. “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
AE: I don’t like that song, actually.
HK: I don’t like “God Bless America” in the seventh inning stretch.
I ask Hari about the song “Sweet Caroline,” which is played in the eighth-inning stretch at Fenway.
HK: I’m not a Red Sox fan. I’m a Mets fan—and a Yankees fan, which I get a lot of shit for, but they’re in different leagues! I realize there is interleague play now, but they’re New York teams. I’m more of a Mets fan. Which is hard. They’re to me what the Dodgers were to another generation. They’re such an awful team, but they have so much money. The Mets are a bad business. I’m supporting a bad business.
AE: Maybe I’m a little more cynical now, but I used to think of baseball as a vehicle for social change. Jackie Robinson did move the needle.
HK: Yes. He had such an impact on the day-to-day. Which is why I wonder why football and basketball have been the sports that have really had the impact on gay rights stuff.
AE: Baseball is played in communities where it’s been tough to be “out.”
HK: I don’t know. I really don’t. It’s confusing. Especially because baseball prides itself on Jackie Robinson, like, they talk about Jackie Robinson whenever they can, and it seems like they’re resting on old laurels.
AE: Before I let you go, I have to ask you about your brother. I don’t know one iota about his musical career, but—
HK: Ashok wouldn’t call it a career. He was a hype man for Das Racist. What he calls a “glorified back-up dancer.” The funniest stuff he did was in interviews. He’s much funnier than I am. He’s much smarter than I am.
AE: I’ve seen him perform a few times—with you, obviously. You must like performing with your brother.
HK: Easiest thing in the world, in some ways. In other ways, it’s hard because we’re very different people. The older brother/younger brother dynamic is great onstage. Offstage it’s frustrating, when you’re trying to prepare a show. But when we’re up there, there’s nothing freer than that. There’s nothing better than performing with someone who knows you.
AE: I’m glad we didn’t talk about the album too much, but I think it’s great.Have you listened to Joe Mande’s Bitchface? I feel like now we’re at a moment where comedians are experimenting with the form.
HK: I think we kind of have to. Every time I told people I was making an album, they’d say, A comedy album? They don’t even know what it is. Comedy fans know, but people don’t even really buy albums to begin with.
AE: I like albums a lot. Even more than Comedy Central Presents, because with an album you have a real body of work. Bodies of work last. You know who Vaughn Meader is? He had a short, brilliant career—no wait, a horrible career, I guess—as an impressionist of John F. Kennedy. And when Kennedy was shot, Lenny Bruce was doing a show that night, and he came out onstage and he didn’t talk for the longest time and when he finally did he went, Poor Vaughn Meader.
AE: All of his appearances after the shooting were canceled.
HK: What was the reaction Lenny Bruce got when he said that?
AE: I don’t know. I wonder if it got a laugh. It was always a Vaughn Meader story as opposed to a Lenny Bruce story. Vaughn Meader’s career was over. He changed his name, but he was known as the JFK impersonator and people weren’t ready to laugh at it, yet. But you can still listen to his album, The First Family. One of the best.
HK:There wouldn’t be another famous Vaughn until Von Hayes.
AE:That’s a different spelling. And we have to end.
Photograph of Hari Kondabolu by Luke Fontana.
- Actually, because of time constraints and an intern shortage, it’s me, Alex Edelman, transcribing this interview. And this is the Internet, not print, obviously. ↩
- When you make fun of something it’s always worthwhile to keep in mind your station in society. If you’re mocking someone worse off than you, that’s “punching down.” If you’re criticizing the establishment or the government, that’s “punching up.” When Hari says later on in the interview that he “kicks upwards,” that’s what he means. Comedians who are remembered and respected rarely punch down. ↩
- This didn’t get the laugh from Hari that I expected. The bit is from a BBC Two show where Stewart Lee does about twenty minutes of new, bespoke stand-up on every episode—actually a tremendous feat. For top-tier US comics, I’d say the average rate of production is a newhour for public distribution every two or so years. Last year, Lee churned out two new live stand-up shows (one for him, and one for a character he did called Baconface) and found time to write a new series of his BBC Two project. The pace of an hour a year—which is what Louis CK has just now started to do in the US—is considered fast. The pace of what Lee is doing, if he was doing it on this side of the Atlantic, would be considered breakneck. ↩