Monday, March 10, 2008

Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu

Talk about blowing in and out of town — Hurricane Hari, we should call this guy.

In less than two years, Hari Kondabolu has gone from an unknown open miker to the hottest comic in the city. After an electrifying performance at Bumbershoot last year, he was invited to perform at the prestigious U.S. Comedy Arts Festival sponsored by HBO and in February 2007 made his TV debut on "Jimmy Kimmel Live."

But this isn't just the story of a rising young comic — there are plenty of those. This is the story of a young man reaching for the hand-scalding torch of confrontational comics like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.

Comically skewering on stereotypers and discriminators, Hari (pronounced "Huhree") Kondabolu has shaken up the local comedy scene like nothing calm, detached Seattle has seen before.

On Kimmel's ABC show, he made a joke that left the audience laughing and gasping: "My name is Hari. It's pronounced a few different ways in this country. Hurry, Ha-ree, Harry. As often, there's another layer to Kondabolu's comedy, as the epithet is meant for Arabs, not Indians.
Wednesday night, five months after his national TV debut, Kondabolu did the same joke here at


"That word is what I've been called," said Kondabolu, a New York-raised son of Indian immigrants. "Many times." (Though they did not call him that particular word, hecklers in Seattle on a few occasions have used racial slurs.)

Kondabolu recently made another excruciating decision: To leave, or not to leave.
He ultimately decided he needed the challenge of enrolling in the master's degree in Human Rights program at the London School of Economics.

After talking for a bit about how excited he is about the program and moving to London, Kondabolu's face suddenly fell.

"I'm sad, though," he said, smiling even as he slumped forward. "This city has been so good to me."


Now 25, he came to Seattle fresh out of college and went to work at an immigrant-rights organization called Hate Free Zone.

Kondabolu started doing comedy while attending college in Maine. After staying away from it for a time, he felt the need to perform again, unveiling his stand-up routine in Seattle. At first, he had the modest goal of making a few extra dollars — hardly dreaming he would be the opening act for Zach Galifianakis in Portland (Crystal Ballroom) and Seattle (Moore Theatre, March 10).
He'll continue to do comedy in London, and one can only wonder how far he will push his provocative comedy. Still young, he's a little on the all-over-the-place side, mixing in jokes about being a virgin with the experience of being a brown-skinned American.

Sometimes he pokes light-hearted fun at his culture:
"I'm not a Republican, but I was one, once — when I was 7 years old. Not my fault. The symbol of the Republican Party is an elephant, I'm a Hindu, I was confused."

As a teenage comedian, he started out with mild material based on his family, then had a realization:
Apparently, his heart was full of rage and satire.
A performance clip on his Web site (
www.harithecomic.com) shows him taking off his jacket to reveal an American flag shirt. He explains: "This is my Homeland Security-slash-angry white man security blanket."

Elsewhere, Kondabolu rants about the English robbing India of diamonds. "I know it sounds ridiculous to be bitter, but the Queen of England — that's just some old wearing my grandmother's jewelry."

Wish him luck: He plans to tell that one in England.
A farewell-to-Kondabolu comedy show takes place Wednesday night at Chop Suey. During the show, there will be a screening of the short film "Manoj," a mock-documentary Kondabolu wrote and starred in, about an Indian-American comic so desperate to please, he exploits every stereotype he can. (Manoj is played by Kondabolu, and many of his jokes are from his early years of comedy.)

Kondabolu says he is appreciative of the Seattle comedy scene, and leaves here with good memories, mainly. Asked via e-mail how Seattle treats immigrants and other minorities, he writes back, sounding far more like an activist than a comic:
"Seattle may be one of the U.S.'s most liberal cities, but it is not free of the problems that plague this nation. There is segregation, gentrification, and racism in Seattle, just like every other major city in America ...

"So many people seem so satisfied with being 'liberal,' that it becomes easy to ignore problems in this city that go against these values," he added.

Wearing his comedian hat again, he says he is excited about challenging audiences in England, the one-time empire that for so long controlled India. Though a big tongue-in-cheek, he calls on the American Revolution and Indian struggles for independence:
"I want to continue creating meaningful work that is able to bring my truth to power and provide thought-provoking comedy to as many people as will listen," he said.

He's looking forward to seeing how his comedy translates to British audiences.
"Will they find the fact that my identity as an Indian American means 'my people' have beaten their once mighty empire twice — once standing up, and once sitting down — as hilarious as I do?
"Does anyone, in general, find this as hilarious as I do?"

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