For Hari Kondabolu, politics is personal in Netflix special

By Ben Hooper Contact the Author   |  Updated May 17, 2018 at 7:09 AM
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May 17 (UPI) -- Comedy veteran Hari Kondabolu, whose stand-up special, Warn Your Relatives, is streaming on Netflix, said he's embarrassed it took him so long to do a one-hour special.

Kondabolu, 35, has been performing stand-up since high school and recently received a major boost to his national profile with The Problem with Apu, a documentary about racial representation and The Simpsons. The comedian -- who put out the comedy album Waiting for 2042 in 2014 and Mainstream American Comic two years later -- told UPI he hadn't previously done an hour-long stand-up special largely because he prefers audio.

"Audio, you can do anything," he said. "That was my first love with stand-up, was listening to it ... If the joke was funny enough on audio then the visual is just bonus."

Kondabolu made his first TV appearance in 2007, delivering a short set on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Several other late-night appearances followed, as well as a half-hour Comedy Central Presents episode in 2011, but he kept putting off the idea of recording an hour-long special.

He was worried about the need to perfect the "visual aspects" of his stand-up act.

"Finally, it got to the point where all my peers had Netflix specials, or other stand-up specials, and were moving on to their second or third," he said. "And everyone's like, 'What the hell are you waiting for?' And I really didn't have a good excuse, to be perfectly honest. So, you know, I finally said 'alright, I just gotta do it' and it's actually been pretty amazing. I'm embarrassed it took me so long."

The style and tone of Kondabolu's act has evolved over the past decade. Warn Your Relatives filters complex issues, including President Donald Trump, post-Sept. 11 biases against South Asians and the immigrant experience through anecdotes about his life and that of his parents.

"My mom is the funniest person I know," he says in the special. "My dad is the reason I have anxiety, but my mom is the reason I'm funny."

He said his older material didn't offer the same personal touch.

"I did a lot of things that were politicized back then and I still do now, but there's more of a human element," he said. "I talk about my family, I make a broader range of jokes even when I'm talking about bigger things."

The hard-edged political bits are easier in some ways, he said. "There's a mask that comes with talking through your views versus actually sharing upfront.

The the more confessional style of his current comedy comes partially from "just being older and having a broader range of experiences," but also from watching other comics he admires, including his friend and Politically Re-Active podcast co-host W. Kamau Bell.

"Kamau is able to talk about big issues, but he's always kept himself in it, which I've always admired," Kondabolu said.

Kondabolu said he is also drawn to the unique challenges of the stand-up comedy format, especially when dealing with weightier topics.

"There's that thrill of digging yourself into a bit of a hole and making people uncomfortable because you're saying something that's very real and that they don't want to hear," he said. "But if I can get them out of that hole and then get them to laugh, oh man! That magic trick never gets old. I'm still in love with that."

Kondabolu said that despite the success of The Problem with Apu and his podcasting projects, which also include The Kondabolu Brothers with his real-life brother Ashok, he plans to keep his primary focus on stand-up comedy.

"Stand-up to me is not a means to an end. Stand-up is the end," he said.

Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives is streaming on Netflix.

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