Hari Kondabolu doesn’t usually play high school auditoriums. Watching the acclaimed comedian work the audience in Concord Academy’s Performing Arts Center on January 31 offered insight into his creative process. Within a 30-minute standup routine, Kondabolu gave CA students a taste of his unique blend of personal storytelling and political humor. Some of the material was familiar from his 2018 Netflix special, Warn Your Relatives. But Kondabolu’s approach to his teenage audience was enlightening in terms of craftsmanship as well as content.
The comedian, writer, filmmaker, and podcaster has made a career of using humor to call attention to issues of inequality surrounding race and other social identities. In his introduction, English teacher Andrew Stevens characterized Kondabolu’s career as “speaking up and out for justice” and called his work on the stage, the screen, and the radio “vital to the sense of who we are, and who we could be.”
This was, in fact, not the first time that Kondabolu had come to CA. The senior class recalled his visit four years ago. While Kondabolu chose to repeat some of the same jokes, knowing they had played well before, his take on them was fresh.
In the middle of his performance, Kondabolu began deconstructing his own routine, reviewing his setlist and the reactions his jokes received, adding another layer of probing humor in doing so. Processing onstage what interested him about the dynamic with this particular audience, Kondabolu introduced a joke he called “Hari performs for younger people as he’s getting close to 40,” adroitly addressing some of the awkwardness of communicating with adolescents. “I’m trying to avoid cursing,” he said, “even though you’re 14, 15, 16, and you all curse all the time, and we have to pretend you don’t, because we’re in school.”
That line got a lot of snaps — the CA student body’s considerately quiet signal of agreement. Kondabolu paused.
“This is fascinating!” he said. “I love it for several reasons. First of all, snapping is so weird. I feel like a poet in the ‘60s. Secondly, what I find humorous is, a lot of seniors are here, right? And you all are snapping and then this side of the room” — he gestured to the sophomores — “is like, ‘We’re supposed to snap? The older kids snapped, so I’m going to snap.’”
“Standup is anything you want it to be. You’re reflecting society, but you’re also hopefully shaping society.”Kondabolu got serious about his work in the Q&A session following his formal program. Asked if he changes his act depending on where he is performing in such as polarized country, he said no. “I do this because I’m me,” he said. “I’m not playing a part.” While he might shift gears if some jokes are not working for an audience, that’s “not because I’m going to change who I am or my act for them,” he said. “I’m doing that so I can win them over again, get their trust back, and then go back to what I wanted to do anyway. Because at the end of the day, the idea of accepting difference is not changing yourself so I’ll accept you. Accepting difference of opinion is saying the thing, listening, and eventually hopefully enjoying it, or at least relating to why someone else would feel that way.”
– Hari Kondabolu
When a student asked him how he makes comedy about being part of a marginalized group without objectifying himself or trivializing his experience, Kondabolu asked incredulously, “How old are all of you?! I do Q&As at colleges sometimes, and it’s never questions like that.” He was game to answer, though, and explained how he takes ownership of telling his own experience.
“When I write, I think about what would make my friends laugh, what would make people of color who have been through similar experiences laugh,” he said. “And then the next layer after that is, do I to explain it to a white audience member who understands it but is afraid to laugh, or is confused, but they want to — how do I get them to understand it? I always have to have control. You’re not laughing at me; you’re laughing with me, or we’re not doing this.”
Kondabolu talked about how his comedy writing has changed in recent years, how he’s gotten more personal, taking risks in talking about depression, relationships, and family. Previously, he had limited himself to the issues he cares about politically. “When I started to reveal myself a little bit, it got a little scarier,” he said, “because it’s easier for them not to like a joke that’s about an idea than one that’s about me personally.”
He described the constant adjustments he makes as part of doing standup — a live editing that’s unique to the artform. Sometimes, he reviews the jokes he told earlier, as he did at CA, so that if nothing else, the audience and he have that shared experience in common. “That snapping was a godsend!” he said. “You look for those moments.”
“That’s part of what makes standup so incredible,” Kondabolu said. “There is no form. This is anything you want it to be. You’re reflecting society, but you’re also hopefully shaping society.”
As the bell rang to close the assembly, he wrapped up with a smile. “I answered questions you didn’t ask me,” he said, “but I felt like I wanted to do some extra credit.”