Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The rise of the Indian-American comedian: Hari Kondabolu

“Rice, laughs and curry sauce.” That was the description one student at Skidmore College, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, used to describe Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu’s routine.

But to pigeonhole Hari Kondabolu as a comedian who jokes about his ethnicity misses the valuable contribution that he and other Indian-American comedians represent in today’s political landscape. 

During his comedic performances at the Goodnights Comedy Club Thursday through Saturday evening, Kondabolu used his comedic arsenal to tackle a host of sociopolitical topics, using jokes to talk about race relations, women’s rights and immigration, among other topics. 

It’s nothing new that comedians use their medium to tackle sociopolitical topics, especially in an era that has produced Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore and John Oliver.

But Kondabolu is just one of the members of the group he refers to as the “Indian Illuminati” of comedians, which also includes actor and comedian Kalpen Modi, known by his stage name Kal Penn; “Daily Show” correspondents Aasif Mandvi and Hasan Minhaj; Aziz Ansari, who played a significant role on “Parks and Recreation” and had a successful comedy solo career; and stand-up comedian Russell Peters, who is actually Indo-Canadian, but probably can be credited with raising the profile of comedians with Indian and South Asian heritage in comedy. 

All of these comedians have embraced political and social justice in their material, and often times it is that which drives the rest of their comedy. 

The most tangible example of the embrace of political engagement certainly comes from Kal Penn, who worked in President Barack Obama’s administration as an associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement from 2009-2011, with a special emphasis of outreach to members of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities. Penn also went on to become a National Campaign Co-Chair for Obama’s reelection effort in 2012.

The dramatic rise of the Indian-American comedian has been naturally attributed to the rise of Indians and Indian-Americans now living in the United States, but I believe their rise as a group can be tied to a more powerful reason than that: the willingness of many of these comedians to align themselves with those least advantaged in society. Through their humor, they have found a place to defend Muslims, women, the LGBT community and immigrants of all colors and ethnicities, among others. 

Kondabolu, for one, has spoken at some length about his “obsession with race.”

“I don’t think I’m obsessed with race,” Kondabolu told NPR in a 2014 interview. “It’s part of my lived experience and my day-to-day and the history of this country. Certainly when I look at things, I see things in terms of a racial angle [and] I spot things maybe faster than other people maybe because I pay close attention to it.”

The title of Kondabolu’s album,“Waiting for 2042,” also pokes fun at the fears of Americans of the impending 2042, the year in which the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that Americans who identify themselves as Hispanic, black, Asian, American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander will cumulatively outnumber non-Hispanic whites.

In today’s political atmosphere where the leading Republican candidate for presidency has fed off the racism and fears of white Americans and has only grown more popular after calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “killers” while one of the other front runners has said he believes that a Muslim shouldn’t be president of the United States, it is perhaps comedians who may be the best foot soldiers in the war against intolerance.
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