The stated theme of Hari Kondabolu’s stand-up special Vacation Baby is his experiences with his son, who was born during the pandemic. But that’s just an excuse for Kondabolu to unleash his trademark broadsides against systematic racism in the United States.
Sample this: taking a dig at the Donald Trump fanbase’s “release the kraken” movement following Joe Biden’s presidential win in 2020, Kondabolu quips that “kraken” is possibly the plural for “cracker”.
Six years ago, Kondabolu wrote and starred in the documentary, The Problem with Apu, which highlighted the absurd South Asian stereotype The Simpsons character Apu had become, largely because of American actor Hank Azaria’s voice. The documentary eventually got Azaria to announce that he wouldn’t be voicing Apu anymore. The Simpsons producers too said that white actors will no longer voice non-white roles. Azaria recently helped promote Vacation Baby for Kondabolu’s YouTube channel.
In an interview with Scroll, the 40-year-old New Yorker discussed Vacation Baby – which is out on YouTube – the creative life, and movies, including RRR. Here are edited excerpts.
How important was Russell Peters’s success for comics of South Asian origin in the United States, given that his comedy reinforced South Asian stereotypes that you have been so vocally against?
It’s always difficult for the first person who does something. For him, it was a bread-and-butter thing. His audience was initially South Asian and East Asian only, and he wasn’t as famous in America except within our community. My frustration was less with him and more with other comics whom I saw were exploiting their ethnicity on a daily level to appeal to White audiences. The Apu character, for example. We had so few images to correctly represent us, and this, in turn, would make it harder for us to be ourselves.
Russell didn’t affect us really because American people were not watching him in the mainstream. It makes sense that he is the first South Asian comic who broke through because he showed the industry that South Asian comics could bring in the numbers financially and put asses on seats. At the same time, the market was changing with streaming, tons of cable coming in, YouTube. The industry was looking for new ways of making money. They suddenly see, oh, this community has money to spend.
More than Russell, Aziz Ansari’s stand-up, Mindy Kaling on The Office, and Kal Penn’s early films did a lot for us in terms of representation. Harold and Kumar is a weed movie, sure, but it’s still progress. And then the frustration was that that’s considered progress.
In Vacation Baby, when you say “nine hours after my child was born, he started twitching”, I misheard it as your nine-hour-old tweeting. What is your relationship with social media?
My baby is two now and can already operate my phone so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a nine-hour-old will tweet soon.
I used Twitter for a long time and now I use it, sometimes, to promote my shows. Earlier, I would tweet a thought worth sharing but then I kind of hurt myself putting these thoughts on Twitter because they were incomplete. It’s not the whole bit. It’s just opening up a concept. Before Twitter, I would write those thoughts in my notebook, and connect those with other thoughts, and come up with something. But Twitter ruined that because I would put a thought out there and forget it. Staying away from Twitter improved my writing for sure.
I see social media as a necessary evil. When I started stand-up, I didn’t have to bother about film editing or transcribing video or thinking about my presence online. These things didn’t factor in the need to make art. But also, they give you a lot of power.
Stand-up comedy initially doesn’t have a lot of money and you need to travel around the country. A social media presence helps in keeping and having an audience. I am grateful to it but also resentful.
You make a hilarious joke about the US government meddling with ranch dressing and not vaccines if they really wanted to hurt white people and imply that you wouldn’t make the joke in Richmond, Virgina. Do you really have to retool your material like that?
I did actually do those jokes in Richmond. But I thought it was funnier to say I didn’t. The idea is that I’m going to try to localise it as much as possible. But then I am going to do what I want to do. And if it seems like it’s not working, I start thinking about backup plans: how can I engage the audience? What material can I shift to?
But I don’t start with the mindset of compromising. And I’m never going to do that because I want to talk about certain things I find interesting. And I’m going to talk about those things, perhaps it’s not going to be as much of those things, and perhaps it’s not going to be in the order I planned. But at the end of the day, I’m not going to craft a completely new act for an audience.
The thing I love about Vacation Baby is it starts kind of soft, it’s more family stuff. And then, as it goes along, you notice the Tucker Carlson stuff, the genocide bit, that doesn’t come until like the end, and the thinking is: how do I get them on my side? Because if somebody tells you how to think or what they believe, you might ignore them, like, who are you to tell me anything?
But if you like the person, if that person is your friend, and they’re like, hey, man, I have to talk to you about something, you’re willing to listen, you might not agree, or you might agree, but at least the door is open for conversation because you like them. So when I feel like I didn’t win them over yet, I work at how can I win them over to get back on track? And that’s kind of how I view shows that might be in parts of the country that are a little bit harder.
Then, you go on to that bit where you imagine a world in the future where whites are minorities. Would you make such jokes within the US where you don’t have a progressive base?
It varies. Sometimes I’ll do shows in cities where I’m like, this is going to bomb terribly, let’s see what happens. And it goes really well. And sometimes I perform in cities that I think are home runs, easy gigs, and they end up being challenges, like you never really know, but ultimately, I’m not going to not do something out of fear. If something scares me, it probably means I should do it, because it has the greatest potential of leading to something interesting.
But I also don’t want to kill the show. It’s a delicate balance. You want to challenge the audience, but at the same time, I don’t want to make it brutal for everybody. So it’s really about trying to get a sense of is the audience intimate enough to be willing to play along? How much more do I have to give them until they trust me?
When I was a younger comic, I was so strict and like, this is the way to go about it, this is what I want to talk about. Now, I have enough material. I’ve done this enough where I don’t live and die by every gig.
Let’s talk about movies. You bring up Moneyball in a segment. Like Billy Beane, you too could be called a disruptor in the way you have called out structural racism in the United States. Is going against the grain necessary for success?
I liked Moneyball very much. Part of me always found it funny. The idea of baseball being an athletic venture and all of a sudden nerds have come in with their math and found ways to make the game a little bit more predictable and give you the best trends. What Billy Beane did on those teams is now copied by everybody.
I don’t think you have to go against the grain to be successful, because there’s a lot of people that go with the crowd, they go with the flow, and they do quite well. I think you can’t have it in terms of whether this way or that way will make me successful. If you think about it that way, you’re already thinking in a way that’s not productive for art.
I find it more interesting to do things that haven’t been done before, or challenge myself and challenge an audience. I like creating discomfort and creating a hole for myself to find a way to dig out of during a show. That’s part of the fun for me. And a challenge.
What do you think of ‘RRR’?
Well, this is going to be a loaded answer. They can deny my visa, you know? Like, I still have family in India, right?
So I had gone in and I told myself, watch the film, try to shut your brain off and enjoy it as an action film or whatever, right? I did that and it was enjoyable. And as soon as the film stopped, my brain started working.
And I think really, they dressed him up as Rama? It wasn’t even subtle. It was so loaded. And how they depicted the Gond character; that man’s a brilliant man, but you portray him as a dumb tribal, which is an old stereotype. And it’s familiar because we do that in this country with different ethnic communities too.
Seeing that was frustrating and I knew that there’s a part of the audience this is pandering to. And I also knew that it’s an anti-colonial movie. But that’s almost safe. An anti-colonial movie, in 2023. Who’s going to disagree? The parts they were able to slip in though, that was more subtle. Viewing this solely as an anticolonial movie is like missing a lot of the stuff that’s in it. So, yeah, songs are good, fun to watch. But if you’re really critically thinking, as with most things, if you’re really using your brain, it will ruin it.