Comedian Hari Kondabolu has performed on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Conan” and “The Late Show With David Letterman.” He is also a regular contributor to NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” and he has a special on Netflix, “Warn Your Relatives.” He’s performed at Cornell University, but his show at the Hangar on March 19 is his first show for, as he puts it, “Ithaca proper.” Kondabolu’s documentary film “The Problem with Apu,” in which he examined “The Simpsons” character of Apu’s modern-day presence and East Indian representation in culture, became a national talking point in 2017 when it was released.
Hari Kondabolu talked to the Ithaca Times about making comedy personal, and how “Wait Wait” got him to book a show in Ithaca.
IT: Where are you these days with your comedy?
HK: l I feel like I dig a little deeper in this one. Historically, when I’ve talked about big issues, I feel like I don’t personalize it enough. I feel like I talk about them sometimes in the abstract. And so I wanted to make it more personal this next hour. So, whether I’m talking about depression, relationships, children or whatever, it’s definitely a lot more personal and close to the heart. I’m willing to take a risk. There’s something about failing when you have material that isn’t about you. Like, it hurts a little bit, of course, but it doesn’t hurt as much because it’s like “Yeah, they don’t agree with me. They don’t think I’m funny. I did the best I could.” And it’s something that actually has stakes in your identity and sense of self. That’s a bigger risk. It’s scarier, but it makes it more rewarding when people connect with it.
IT: As a comedy fan, it’s just been so great to see all these different voices emerge.
HK: It’s a great era. I think this is the new golden era. Just how media is right now, in terms of how many different places you can see things. It also means that there’s less gatekeeping, and there are more voices that get to be heard. I just think it makes for better comics in the long run. There’s a younger generation coming up that’s seen more comedy and seen all the little tricks and different ways of doing things. There are comics like Julio Torres, that are rewriting what comedy can be. Hannah Gadsby is incredibly personal, and kind of playing with the lines of “How serious and deep and thoughtful can comedy be?” It deconstructs comedy by talking about the very nature of what comedy is and what we’re supposed to do. She talks about it from a very personal, painful place. It kind of inspires me to push myself further and further, just because I wonder what I could do, if that’s what people are willing to do.
IT: I think all the great comedy comes from truth, and sometimes the truth can be painful.
HK: All my heroes, the people that inspire me the most, were the people that were willing to put themselves out there. I mean, [Richard] Pryor set himself on fire, and he’s onstage talking about it afterwards. That to me is the ultimate example of that.
IT: Ithaca’s big into NPR, so we have to talk about “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.” Before seeing your Netflix special, that’s where I first heard you.
HK: Yeah, it’s been pretty great, the last two years of being on “Wait Wait.” That’s one of the reasons I wanted to play Ithaca, actually: [nationally syndicated columnist] Amy Dickinson, who lives in Ithaca, has been telling me to play Ithaca for a while, how I’d have a lot of fun playing Ithaca. I’ve been increasingly getting emails from Ithaca and messages online saying I should play there. Ithaca, outside of Cornell, or maybe Ithaca College, wasn’t a place that I thought about performing in. But the constant [messages saying] “You should play Ithaca, you should play Ithaca,” the idea that I’m getting as many messages about Ithaca as I am about Buffalo, it’s like, “Okay. Let’s play Ithaca.”
IT: One minute you’re listening to “Wait Wait” and the next minute you’re on it.
HK: It’s such an institution. The first time I did it, there was that thing of, “Will they let me do it again?” And to hear Paula Poundstone’s voice all those years and then to be sitting next to her during a taping is certainly a little surreal. What people hear on the radio, it doesn’t even touch how funny the show actually is. A lot of stuff has to get edited out, the language and all that. The shows get pretty fun; they get pretty wild. [laughs] There are stories that don’t get told outside the room.