Comedian Hari Kondabolu, who spent a formative chunk of his career in Seattle, recently made the comic documentary “The Problem with Apu” — to the chagrin of grumpy “Simpsons” fans on Twitter. He returns to film an hourlong comedy special at the Neptune Theatre.
Reader alert: If you’re planning to attend Hari Kondabolu’s stand-up comedy special at the Neptune Theatre this weekend, there’s something you should know.
According to his Twitter trolls — excuse me, critics — Kondabolu is “not funny, dude.”
True, the comedian from Queens (who spent a formative chunk of his career in Seattle, working as an immigrant-rights organizer by day and testing jokes onstage at night) once wrote a master’s thesis for the London School of Economics with a 22-word title that begins “Mexican Returnees as Internally Displaced People.”
An Evening with Hari Kondabolu
7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Friday, Dec. 15, Neptune Theatre, 1303 N.E. 45th St., Seattle; $23.50 plus fees (800-745-3000 or stgpresents.org).
That was, he admits, the least funny thing he’s ever written.
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But after returning to New York from Seattle in 2007, his cleverly built jokes and surgically precise social commentary got noticed by big shots: Chris Rock, Conan O’Brien, John Oliver, the record label Kill Rock Stars.
The Twitter trolls started noticing, too.
In November, Kondabolu gave them a new reason to foment: “The Problem with Apu,” his documentary-critique of “Simpsons” character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the servile and scheming Kwik-E-Mart clerk voiced by Hank Azaria. Or, as Kondabolu puts it, “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”
For “Apu,” Kondabolu interviewed comedians (Aziz Ansari, Aparna Nancherla, Whoopi Goldberg), his parents (who emigrated from India) and former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
But whatever, dudes.
A new cloud of Twitter darts flew in Kondabolu’s direction: “boring,” “fragile,” “a trembling baby,” “the thought police,” “propagandist,” “pathetic,” plus multiple accusations that he was trying to “kill comedy.”
Kondabolu isn’t having it. His old Seattle friend Lindy West caught similar flak — and worse — for questioning male comedians’ casual relationship with rape jokes.
“Oh, yeah, anything that questions the dominant paradigm is killing comedy,” Kondabolu said over the phone, sighing exasperatedly. “I’m Brutus stabbing comedy in the back. That’s ridiculous. There is no comedy ‘thought police.’ If there were, there’d be bodies strewn all over the internet. And comedy cannot ‘die.’ It’s just old points of view that are dying out. It’s not like, ‘ooh, transphobia, it’s a new thing!’ No. It’s an old thing, just with new terms to be heard in the mainstream.”
“The Apu thing,” Kondabolu said, was old to him before the movie was even made — South Asians have been living in the long shadow of Kwik-E-Mart stereotypes for decades. But it got people’s attention: The New York Times, the Guardian, a guest appearance on “The View.”
“I wanted to call the movie, ‘Wait, I Have to Explain This to You?’ ” Kondabolu said. Still, the coverage — and Twitter backlash — proved that for some people, “the Apu thing” is, in fact, a new idea.
Kondabolu’s special at the Neptune will be filmed, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait and eventually released “on one of the channels,” to be announced.
He chose Seattle because the city — and especially the Central District, his old neighborhood — helped shape him.
In the early 2000s, Kondabolu was kicking around Seattle with other 20-somethings trying to figure out what they wanted to do. At the time, he struggled between two paths — his roots in social-justice work and his increasingly popular comedy “hobby” — but found a way to thread the two together.
“I got lucky,” Kondabolu said. “This couldn’t have happened without Seattle. I was in the right place in the right time with the right people.” Friends were sharpening their skills and politics: Macklemore opening for Blue Scholars, housemate Toby Crittenden working with youth-politics nonprofit The Washington Bus. Kondabolu’s mentor as an organizer is now U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal.
Kondabolu’s earlier stand-up played to Indian stereotypes (including “the accent”), but something shifted after 9/11 — and, more importantly, the country’s response. “It made me challenge myself. Deportations, hate crimes, the PATRIOT Act. And all of a sudden, I’m onstage with my values.”
He started experimenting with bits about race, gender and class, including his “list of people who will die in the revolution” joke. (“Number one: Anyone who has called their car ‘ghetto’ because their built-in GPS didn’t work will die in the revolution.”)
(Video courtesy of Comedy Central)
Lately, he’s been seeing his own lines — “saying I’m obsessed with racism in America is like saying I’m obsessed with swimming when I’m drowning” — on protest signs after police shootings.
Kondabolu proved he could shine a bright, critical light on others. But who has been his most cutting, effective critic? (Feeble Twitter insults don’t count.)
“Oh, yeesh,” he said and paused. “My mom. She always said I need to mix it up more: ‘You talk about race so much; you need to diversify.’ It’s not like race is one subject. It’s a million-hundred things: a construct, colonialism, pop culture. But other big topics I didn’t touch for a while, maybe out of fear, maybe out of stubbornness.”
Now he’s ready. Kondabolu said he’s working on new material that inches into more personally vulnerable territory — partly inspired by fellow comedian W. Kamau Bell, who puts his personal life (as a parent, as a person) onstage alongside his principles.
“You don’t just see his politics, you see him,” Kondabolu said. “I would like to talk about admitting faults, times when I was clearly wrong. I’m not an ideologue. Are there times I’ve been sexist? Yes! I didn’t come prepackaged with these ideas at birth. I’ve learned, but we all learn from making mistakes.”
His new comedy challenge: “Remembering you’re a full human being — a kid who hates racism, yes, but also has issues with Weezer and his mom constantly making fun of him.”
It’s time, he said, “to put more of myself on the line.”