Hari Kondabolu wanted to work in the areas of immigrant rights and civil rights, and he kind of does that now, but not in the way he thought he would.
Kondabolu has become one of the country’s most intriguing and sought-after comics, delivering a coolly thoughtful, very funny brand of incisive and withering observations about race, America and our fascination with really crummy rock bands like Weezer. Kondabolu comes to Sacramento on Jan. 15 to perform at the Crest Theatre in a benefit for the Sacramento-based nonprofit Parent Teacher Home Visit Project.
Kondabolu’s parents were born in India and moved to the United States in their 20s. He was born and raised in the Queens borough of New York City, attended the prestigious Townsend Harris High School, then both Bowdoin College and Wesleyan University, and graduated in 2004 from Bowdoin with a bachelor’s in comparative politics. He also earned a master’s in human rights from the London School of Economics. All the while Kondabolu was both politically active and working on his “hobby,” stand-up comedy.
“I would say I didn’t fall into comedy as art form – I fell into it as a career,” Kondabolu said by phone while walking around his Brooklyn neighborhood.
“Even if I wasn’t doing this professionally, I would always find an open mike somewhere,” he said. He did that throughout college, and while in London, he realized he missed performing on stage.
Kondabolu was doing his open-microphone thing at night in Seattle where he had taken an AmeriCorps position to work on immigrant rights when he was asked by HBO to audition for its Comedy Festival, and “it just happened from there.”
“You don’t expect to be discovered out of Seattle for comedy,” he said.
Especially not when his material included an esoteric observation about an initially happy relationship with an English woman that becomes more unsatisfactory as she begins dominating and controlling his life while inhabiting his home. “She was colonizing me,” Kondabolu concludes in the joke. Or when he explains why the British built such an extensive railway system in India: “It’s harder to plunder by foot.”
He takes inspiration from obvious, cautionary, intimidating and disparate sources such as Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Dave Chappelle and Margaret Cho. As his career has taken off, he’s been on “Conan,” “The Late Show With David Letterman” and Terry Gross’ NPR show, “Fresh Air,” and he was a writer for the Chris Rock-produced “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell.”
Kondabolu’s first comedy album, “Waiting for 2042,” was released in March 2014 on the Olympia, Wash.-based Kill Rock Stars label. The year 2042 is when the U.S. Census predicts whites will be a minority in the United States. On the album Kondabolu wonders why this is even an issue.
“Are there white people here that are concerned that they’ll be the minority in 2042? Don’t worry, white people, you were a minority when you came to this country. Things seemed to have worked out for you.”
Race and cultural identity make up much of Kondabolu’s smart and refreshing take on where we are as a society.
“I’m somebody who was born in America but is still somehow seen as an outsider,” Kondabolu said. At some shows, when he walks on stage, “there’s an immediate ‘Why isn’t he addressing the Indian thing?’ I remember starting out 10 years ago, and I knew that was there. They wanted to know ‘why are you not talking about it?’ There are moments where I’m like, ‘Oh yeah I forgot I’m not just a human to you. There needs to be some explanation for why I exist. And not in an existential way. You mean the color. Why?’”
The comic’s bits deconstruct an interview with Matthew McConaughey in the Advocate or examine buying vitamin water for a homeless man. He said it all comes from his point of view.
“To me they (the jokes) feel the same. I understand why the work I do gets seen as political broadly, but to me – I’m the same guy,” he said. “What is political is observational.
“I definitely have a lens that is acutely aware of injustice and inequality. It’s something I probably started having as a kid and developed as I got older and became more aggressive as I got older,” Kondabolu said.
“It’s not something I put on. There’s no button to press. It’s just how I think.”
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120.
What: Benefit for the Sacramento-based nonprofit Parent Teacher Home Visit Project; opening with spoken-word poets of SAYS (Sacramento Area Youth Speaks).
When: 6:30 p.m. Jan. 15; reception at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento
Cost: $45 in advance