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Hari Kondabolu: New in town

INTERVIEW: Brooklyn-based comedian Hari Kondabolu comes to Berlin for the first time, performing at the Comedy Café on Dec 18. We discussed performing in unfamiliar places, as well as the enduring relationship between comedy and politics.

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Photo by Elizabeth Griffin

2015 has been a banner year for Indian-American representation in the media (see: Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari). Rounding it off here in Berlin is a performance by firebrand stand-up comedian Hari Kondabolu. A fan of fellow button-pusher Margaret Cho, he utilizes a brand of political and aggressive humour that shines not only on stage but in his 2007 short film “Manoj”, and his debut full-length comedy album, Waiting for 2042, released last year on beloved indie label Kill Rock Stars. He’s set to test that edge on European audiences this Friday, December 18 at Comedy Café Berlin.

How’s the tour going? Is it different explaining Roots references to, say, a bunch of Dutch people?

The tour has been fun so far! London was absolutely fantastic and I’ll perform in Amsterdam after Berlin. This is all very exciting, but a little nerve-wracking because I never know what references will make sense and get people to laugh. Also, sometimes the rhythms of the jokes feel off because people will laugh at one part more or less than I’m used to. I probably wouldn’t do my Roots joke, since I often take fewer risks than usual material-wise when I perform internationally. When I do take a risk, I make sure there’s lots of stuff I’m more confident with to buffer it with.

Any thoughts on performing in Berlin? Have you been here before? 

I’ve been to Berlin once before, but very much as a tourist. Saw the Brandenburg Gate… stuff like that. I have no idea what Berlin is as a real city. I hear it’s very young and vibrant and I’m excited to see how my act will go over. Also, I’m generally someone who likes to figure out where the boundaries are and play with that and it’s tricky when I don’t know what a place is and what the major issues and sensitivities are.

You’ve worked in human rights and immigration before your career in standup comedy. Does it still inform your work? What do you think of Germany’s Willkommenskultur?

I’m unfamiliar with the specifics of “welcoming culture”, but if this is one that welcomes immigrants and refugees, I’m for it. I think it’s strange that we live in a globalising world where capital, ideas, culture and products can move more freely than ever, but not the people who often help create and shape these things. I suppose comedy, just like any form of pop culture, allows people to share points of view and ideas in a more accessible form. People are more willing to listen to complicated and uncomfortable topics, like immigration, when presented through the lens of comedy because there’s the promise of a laugh. Also, standup has been historically used by the oppressed to share their experiences and fight back. I know I use comedy as a defense mechanism and a way to stand up for what I believe in.

Your work often gets called political. If you did write a comedy manifesto, what would it say?

I will never tell another person what to say and how they should create their art. For me, I believe in justice and the idea of kicking upwards to where the power is (and never downwards at the oppressed) and so my art will reflect that. I don’t try to write things I see as ‘political’. I am sharing my point of view and ideas of the world and since I am a politicised being, again this will be reflected in my choices of topics and language. My intent isn’t to change people’s minds or educate people. When people learn something, I certainly appreciate it… but that’s not why I do comedy. I like making people laugh and expressing myself and standup comedy is my favorite art form.

How do you know when a joke is done?

I don’t think I ever really know when a joke is ‘done’. Jokes are living things that can always be adjusted and updated. However, if I’m sick of telling the joke or story, that’s a good indicator that I should move on from it. The audience knows when you’re not invested in something anymore. 

Everyone’s talking about Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, in particular the episode “Indians on TV”. You made a film about these same questions this years ago. Has your view changed since?

I think there are definitely more representations on American television of South Asians than ever before. It’s not just the number of South Asian actors, but the fact the roles are improving. I’m definitely excited about this.

What is your favorite thing on TV? 

Louie and ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. Also, Law and Order: SVU…and I’m embarrassed to admit that.

HARI KONDABOLU Dec 18, 20:30 | Comedy Café Berlin, Roseggerstr. 17, Neukölln, U-Bhf Karl-Marx-Str.