Hari Kondabolu is a comedian of color who will talk about white people. Or, to be more exact: whiteness. Openly.
If the subject makes the little hairs on your neck stand up, feel free to move along. Kondabolu expects discomfort. He even has a joke called “White People Don’t Like Being Called White People.”
If you’re still here, maybe it’s because you’ve heard of Kondabolu, whose comedy album, “Mainstream American Comic,” debuted this summer at the top of the iTunes comedy chart and at No. 2 on the Billboard equivalent.
On it, Kondabolu dives into his favorite subject at length, with jokes such as “All Lives Don’t Matter,” and another titled “#BobbyJindalIsSoWhite.” That’s also a hashtag he started about the Indian American former governor of Louisiana that pinged like a virus from his Twitter feed to India and back again.
To most comedians, material touching on race, racism, sexism or a culture of privilege — material about whiteness — is the equivalent of radioactive waste: It’s untouchable. But for Kondabolu, it’s the sweet spot. In this tumultuous period in American race relations and anti-immigrant sentiment, he’s the voice of, well, what exactly?
Maybe much-needed levity?
The comic is among the hosts tapped to take over John Oliver’s podcast, “The Bugle,” and he’ll soon make his debut as a documentarian on TruTV with a film about the lasting legacy of Apu, the (some say stereotypical) Indian shopkeeper on “The Simpsons.” With his longtime friend and frequent collaborator, W. Kamau Bell, he launched the podcast “Politically Re-Active,” bringing in a roster of progressive voices, including feminist author Lindy West and New York Daily News columnist Shaun King.
In many ways, Kondabolu sounds more like Jon Stewart than Aziz Ansari, like Oliver, or Paul Mooney, or a slightly less smug Bill Maher.
“There aren’t a lot of political comedians like us, especially of color. Political comedy is a white man’s art,” says Bell, who met Kondabolu years ago at a show in a high-school auditorium in Santa Rosa, Calif.
“I’d never seen him before, and he was, at that point, dressing like a TA from a liberal-arts college,” Bell says. “But he was spitting hot fire.”
“All lives matter? Really? Really?” Kondabolu asks wryly on “Mainstream American Comic,” in a bit poking fun at those who would shout down Black Lives Matter activists.
Snickers from the crowd as it dawns on them where this is going.
“The Kardashians?” he prods.
Peals of laughter now.
“All three of them? Really? Realllllly ?”
Ask Kondabolu, 33, how he became woke, and he doesn’t miss a beat.
“9/11. That’s the game changer,” he says. “I’m a different person.”
Most Americans have heard the narrative that the terrorist attacks of 2001 united us. But Kondabolu (pronounced cone-da-BOWL-ooh) recalls that “people were turning on brown people. I remember people saying racist things to me. I remember the fear-mongering. All those things shaped me.”
Of the fine line between lightheartedness and seriousness that has come to define his sense of humor, he says: “I believe in justice, and my jokes are coming from a place of shooting upwards.”
“He’s not taking the easiest path,” says J.P. Buck, a supervising producer for “Conan” who scouted Kondabolu a decade ago and has watched his star rise.
“If you’re going to take a sociopolitical view of things, not everybody is going to love you,” Buck says. Kondabolu is “choosing to push the envelope. To make people think.”
Speaking from New York before his sold-out performance Saturday at the District’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, Kondabolu suggests that if you’re looking for a place to begin his story, start with his parents, who married in South India in 1981 and moved to New York shortly after. Kondabolu was born in the famed South Asian enclave of Jackson Heights, Queens, and raised in some of the borough’s most multiculti neighborhoods.
For his sense of humor, he credits his mother, who helped him “recycle pain into something that’s good for you.” A doctor in India, she gave up her career to raise her two children (Kondabolu’s brother, Ashok, had a turn in the trailblazing but short-lived hip-hop group Das Racist), while his father worked long days in the medical field.
As a teenager, Kondabolu took the train into the city to see comics perform. But his own career blossomed in Seattle, where AmeriCorps dispatched him after college to work with communities on issues surrounding hate crimes and immigration. At night, onstage, “I was able to release tension,” he says. “I was making people laugh, something I couldn’t really do in the same way at work.”
But back to inspiration for a moment: He wants to talk about Margaret Cho, a pioneer among Asian American comedians.
“I’d never seen somebody who wasn’t black, white or Latino be onstage and take charge like that,” Kondabolu says of Cho. “It opened up my mind to the possibility, like, ‘Could I do this?’ ”
Buck has gauged hundreds, if not thousands, of comics. Kondabolu’s point of view, he says, “was something I hadn’t seen before.” Buck steered the comedian to his national television debut, on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” in 2007.
And then, for Kondabolu, some deep-rooted sense of pragmatism kicked in.
He went back to school. Not in Los Angeles, where he could still audition. He enrolled in a master’s program in human rights studies at the London School of Economics. It helped him sharpen his voice into something more cutting, more informed.
While he was in London, he was invited to New York to tape a Comedy Central special. When he was done, he hopped a flight and went right back to his studies.
Deep into Kondabolu’s new album, you finally get a clue about where the title came from.
“I don’t like being niched as a South Asian comic, man,” he says. He seethes over it, really. Kondabolu would prefer it if the world stopped tossing him into the growing pile of funny people of South Asian descent, including Aziz, Mindy Kaling and Kumail Nanjiani. “I’m a mainstream American comic.”
If anything, says his friend Bell, Kondabolu “disrupts the narrative” that there’s a particular kind of Indian American comedian.
Evidence: Other comedians of similar descent will mine their parents’ accents for comic effect — sage-like South Asian parents are practically a pop-cultural trope.
Kondabolu refuses to do the same.
“My parents are immigrants with accents,” he explains in one joke. “I’m sure they have it hard enough, people questioning their intelligence, making fun of them behind their backs.”
Statements like these resonate with his audiences, Bell says. Young Indian Americans and Asian Americans are behind some of the comedian’s YouTube-and-podcast-fueled fame, texting links to their friends, ponying up to $10 a ticket to see Kondabolu in the rock clubs where he has frequently performed, packing them out.
“Black people needed Richard Pryor. We needed Chris Rock. We needed Dave Chappelle,” Bell says. “When I go to Hari’s shows, you can really feel a group of millennial South Asians who are like, ‘We need this. This is critical.’ ”
The Internet, Kondabolu says, has given comedians outside the mainstream a way past club bookers and agents, a way to avoid being beholden to the masses. Owning your particular niche will do.
And Kondabolu’s niche — talking about race, and social justice, about whiteness — is what may finally bring his voice to the masses.
“Hari got there early,” Bell says. “And when you get there early, you have to be the most strident voice. He’s not going to let you, even if you’re his fan, be comfortable in the things he says onstage.”
Does he ever feel like he’ll be a mainstream American comic?
“I’m getting there,” says Kondabolu, who adds that he can talk about social issues and make cracks about the male anatomy with equal fluidity.
What he does, he says, is parse “a distinctly American experience, of being an outsider within your country because your parents are immigrants.
“The values I have, the search for justice, that’s not a niche thing,” he says. “These are mainstream issues. I want my work to be framed as part of the larger conversation, because it is. It is.”