Hari Kondabolu to return to Free State Festival with socio-political commentary, new dad jokes

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People face heavy issues these days, but comic Hari Kondabolu doesn’t think we should shy away from them — even while taking in a comedy show. After all, the best stand-up routines bring about some kind of healing, he says.

“Being confronted with the reality is not necessarily different from escape,” Kondabolu says during a phone interview about his upcoming show at the Lawrence Arts Center. “Like when you’re in a room, dealing with hard things, but you’re still laughing. It doesn’t solve the issues outside.”

Take racism, for example.

“Talking about the absurdity of it, in a way, it’s kind of an escape. It’s a laugh,” he says. “It’s too big a topic or too big an issue to solve altogether. It’s going to be a lot, but at least in this moment, I can share a sense of shared values. I can feel seen. I can actually deal with it for the moment.”

Whether it’s his stand-up, a TV show, a podcast or a documentary, Kondabolu’s work merges political commentary with social justice and ties it all together with humor. In his Netflix special “Warn Your Relatives,” he talks about feeling surprised when a stranger mistakes him for rapper/rocker Kid Rock.

“And the second reason I found it amazing was that this was the first white person I’d ever met who actually couldn’t see race,” he says, pausing for laughs. “Or talent, apparently.”

In the documentary “The Problem with Apu,” Kondabolu, a longtime fan of “The Simpsons,” calls out the show’s creatives for cultural stereotypes that harmed him and fellow Indian Americans as children, then followed them into adulthood.

“‘The Simpsons’ stereotypes all races,” Utkarsh Ambudkar, aka UTK the INC, tells Kondabolu in the film. “The problem is, we didn’t have any other representation.”

Since his return to live shows after the pandemic hiatus, Kondabolu’s work has explored new fatherhood, life in the COVID-19 era, and the realities of capitalism.

“A lot of it is about how everything that we do and whatever our values are, are always second to capitalism,” he says. “I’m trying to find ways to make that funny and to make the statement clear. It’s incredibly hard.”

Kondabolu doesn’t believe every comedian has to take on heavy topics like the inequalities of power and wealth among us.

“And I’m not saying every comedian has to use a philosophy,” he says. “That’s what I have. But I’ll say, I don’t know how else to deal with it.”

Were he not a comic, Kondabolu imagines he’d probably still be fighting for justice as an immigrant rights organizer, savoring “the few wins” that come with the work.

Sixteen years ago, he was organizing in Seattle under the leadership of Pramila Jayapal, now a U.S. Congresswoman representing most of Seattle and other parts of suburban Washington. As he began making a name for himself on the comedy scene, Kondabolu shifted his focus to earn a master’s degree in human rights from the London School of Economics.

“Whenever people call me an activist, I’m like, ‘I know activists. This is not the same thing,’” Kondabolu says. “I used to work with people who are still doing the work, are still grinding, who are still some of the most inspiring people I’ve met in my life. I’m very lucky I get to tell jokes for a living on stage and make people laugh. It’s an absolute privilege, but what they do is incredible.”

Kondabolu grew up in Queens, New York. He’s the son of South Indian immigrants and credits his mom with showing him and his brother the value of humor and ultimately how to use it as a defense mechanism.

Kondabolu’s mom left a career as a doctor in her home country. Like many immigrants, she arrived in the United States and made a new beginning.

“All of a sudden, she’s starting from scratch. And she’s watching two kids. And, you know, it’s painful,” Kondabolu says.

Looking back, he can now see how his mom used laughter as a salve for the hurt.

“I don’t think I understood it when I was a kid, but I always knew Mom was funny,” Kondabolu says. “And I always knew that we could joke around, and that’s a really special gift.”

Kondabolu feels fortunate to have grown up in New York, a major stand-up comedy hub, where he could watch mentors work out their material on stage. From that vantage point, he could see the realities of work as a stand-up comic and study how to hone his skills.

“I’m still in awe that this is my life,” the 40-year-old says.

Growing up, others might have been funnier, but Kondabolu knew his strengths.

“The only difference is I was not shy,” he says. “I could go on stage. I could deliver. I knew the craft. And that’s the funny thing about stand ups. Most times, at least from what I’ve seen, a really funny stand up isn’t always necessarily the funniest person in their family, or in their circle, or in their group of friends.”

Contributed/Will Devito Hari Kondabolu

Since his son’s birth during the pandemic, being away from home has become more difficult for Kondabolu; however, he still really enjoys performing and the excitement he feels when he witnesses an audience loosen up and “have things that felt like before” the pandemic.

The homecomings bring big bonuses, too.

“Oh, the kid running to you and saying ‘Daddy!’ is the best feeling in the world,” Kondabolu says. “I mean, it doesn’t make up for being away. He reacts the same way when I pick him up at daycare. Whether it’s a week or a few hours, he has such joy when he sees me.”

“An Evening with Hari Kondabolu” kicks off at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18, on the main stage at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St. The show is part of the center’s Microcinema Series for the Free State Festival.

Buy tickets at this link for $20 each. Free State Film Society subscribers can purchase tickets in advance for half price using the promo code they received via email.

Kondabolu previously performed at the Free State Festival in April 2018. He described it as magical.

“I remember it being absolutely lovely,” he says. “It was what I had heard Lawrence was gonna be like.”

Follow Kondabolu on socials @harikondabolu. And if you run into him while he’s in LFK, please pronounce his name correctly — it’s “HUH-ree.”

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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