Your laughter isn't enough for Hari Kondabolu. He wants you to engage with the socially-minded jokes he's telling. He wants you think think. The former Seattleite has seen his career blossom in recent years, performing standup on The Late Show, Conan, and Jimmy Kimmel Live, writing for the acclaimed (but defunct) Totally Biased with W. Kumau Bell, and releasing his debut album Waiting for 2042 on Kill Rock Stars. This weekend Kondabolu returns to his old stomping grounds for four scheduled performance at Bumbershoot.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Kondabolu about Bumbershoot, activism through humor, and what he sees as the shortcomings of the current Seattle comedy scene.
In terms of comedy presentation, how do you think Bumbershoot compares to other festivals?
I think Bumbershoot has probably one of the best comedy setups in terms of venues. They’re always really nice theaters. Even for the local comics they have done stuff at the Vera Project and other spaces, and those venues are great too. So you’re already in a space that’s set up for standup, properly. I’ve performed in other festivals where you’re in tents or other kinds of setups that are not primarily for comedy. People are wandering in and out, and you can hear the music from outside, so it’s interrupting the comedy show. There’s something about being seated and almost being a theatrical performance; it allows people to really be invested in it. At Bumbershoot, we’re not seen as things on the side. We’re seen as part of the main aspect of the festival.
And also you have audiences that are really excited about comedy because it’s such a tradition at Bumbershoot. So even when I was a local comic performing at Bumbershoot, it was packed just as much as it was for the national headliners. You have a thoughtful audience who’s very excited about comedy going to venues that are appropriate. So Bumbershoot I think is probably my favorite festival to do comedy in of all the festivals I’ve done.
Since your comedy is based in societal issues, are you looking forward to or dreading doing comedy in a presidential election year?
A bit of both. I’m happy because things are gonna be on people’s minds. When politicians talk about social issues, that puts them in the forefront because they’re connected to the elections. You have a starting point for discussions, sometimes, comedically. And politicians can be fun targets. It’s one of the few times where more people know about politicians. Like how many people knew about Bernie Sanders two years ago? Right? Like outside of people who were a little wonky or socialists or from Vermont? And now he’s this incredible figure that you can talk about. Or the Republican race, which looks like a bunch of Superman villains—you have all these funny, absurd characters.
But I mean, presidential elections are just basically Super Bowls to me. They’re just big events. And so they’re almost distracting from the things I really want to talk about. I think I’m more of a social commentator than a political commentator, you know what I mean? It’s more thinking about bigger issues than it is about politics.
I truly want to talk about the problems which are the heart of American society. What is it that hurts us? What are the things that we’re trying to improve? I sometimes find that lens of politics restrictive. I can certainly talk the game. I can talk about the sport, but that gets so boring after a while, ‘cause it’s like…
It’s the sport of it as opposed to the actual meat and bones of it.
On Waiting for 2042, there’s the track called “A Feminist Dick Joke” where you talk address trying to being inclusive when telling jokes, and the bit has a tag about still not being inclusive enough to trans people. When you’re writing, how do you balance trying to be inclusive as possible while still telling jokes that are in your voice?
It’s hard. It’s something that I’ve struggled with, certainly. I think about it a lot, and I also know that you have to speak honestly from your experience, that’s a key part of standup. I want to include everyone, but it gets tricky because sometimes it’s like, but do I have the experience to talk about certain things? How honest can I be when it’s not a personal experience? And when it’s friends’ experiences, is it right to use their experiences? I mean, the ideal scenario really is to have trans performers do standup and succeed. You want people to be able to speak for themselves.
When I was writing on the TV show Totally Biased, that’s one thing Kamau did. We’d pitch something that was kind of specific to our identities, and he wanted us to do it instead of him, because he said it would be more authentic and genuine and would connect more with people if it came from the heart as opposed to talking about it as an outsider. And I always appreciated that, because it’s true.
So that’s a big part of it. The hope is really to create space where people can talk about their journey safely, and they can be appreciated. And if me mentioning gay rights and trans rights, allows a trans person to hear it and be inspired by it and think like, he can say it and he’s not even trans, I certainly have the ability to do this and I want to go on stage and try, then I’m hoping that just that little contribution helps a bit. It’s certainly not as powerful as a trans performer breaking through. I mean, seeing Margaret Cho perform when I was 12 made me want to do standup, because it was an Asian-American person. And even though we have so many differences, it’s still somebody who you know, wasn’t black, white, or Latino. That opened enough room for me to think about it.
How did Seattle influence your approach to comedy?
Certainly it’s still a big influence, because I still come back to Seattle often to work on new material or just to write. You have a very well-read city; people who are politically-minded with values that really match my values, so sometimes when I do standup I can get right to the point without having to explain as much as I would in other places. And then when I go other places I know, okay these are the parts I need to explain, but I also know that the jokes are funny. I have confidence because I did them in Seattle with a crowd that is patient.
I started as a human rights organizer in Seattle. At a lot of those early shows, a lot of the folks in the audience were other organizers and activists and social work people. That allowed me to never really have to sugarcoat too much and speak bluntly. Which, you know, will divide audiences, but at least early on I had this kind of encouragement, and I had this base that very much has to do with what I was doing.
And also, I think Seattle buys into local. I don’t know how it is now with how quick the gentrification is, but at least from friends who grew up in Seattle and the culture I’ve seen, it’s very much the case that if you started here, if you’re from here, if you love this city and are clear about it, people buy in. Even though I haven’t lived in Seattle in 7 or 8 years, I still get treated as local in the best ways. I’m seen as somebody who started here and is influenced by the city, and I get a lot of support as a result. I mean, you can see that with Macklemore, you can see that with anybody who made it out of Seattle, there’s still such a loyalty to people who started in Seattle. Which means a lot.
Do you keep tabs on the Seattle comedy scene or do you kind of just get a little taste of it whenever you’re around?
That’s basically it. Like I hear things or I get a little taste of it. I think the scene, from what I see, which is quite obvious, isn’t what it used to be a decade ago. Which is true with anything, but when I was here we had this wave that was pretty amazing. We had comics went on to write or appear on TV, whether it’s Andy Haynes or all the People’s Republic of Komedy guys who helped build the scene early on: Daniel Carroll, Emmett Montgomery, Kevin Hyder, Scott Moran, David Cope. Reggie Watts came out of here. I mean, this was a scene that was loaded.
I’m sure there are a bunch of really young talented and hungry comics right now, I just feel like they don’t have the same mentorship that we had when we started. We had a thing that we were all invested in, building a community and creating venues all over the city in addition to the clubs. There was ambition and drive. We felt really connected to each other: we worked with each other, we wrote sketches together, we tried to get as many people to see us as possible, we hustled. We had mentors, and we learned how to be professional by watching them do an hour.
Now it just feels like the number of rooms are fewer, there isn’t a big popular alternative show in the way that it used to be, and the clubs seem like they’re not doing as well as they used to do. It’s a city that has all the potential to boom, because it did briefly, and it feels like for some reason it’s just not there anymore. There isn’t leadership in the scene, there isn’t the same drive.
I don’t know what’s really going on to be honest. I only see it from a distance, but it always kind of bums me out that Portland is so ahead of us now. Portland comics used to come up to Seattle just to go to open mics because there was nothing there. And now, they have this A-list club, they have this great comedy festival in Bridgetown—which has changed everything for that scene in terms of building confidence and people coming out of that scene with immediate success. The industry knows about Portland comics, they know about the Portland scene’s strengths. Comedy is a thing to do that people go to regularly. There’s a show every night. There’s a culture there that we should have, because it’s Seattle, and it’s a bigger city, and it does have a history with comedy too.
So it’s just kind of a bummer that based on what was happening here ten years ago that it just died. No one really picked up the slack. How many shows do you do where comedians are doing the same material or don’t have their best stuff? The talent has gotten thinner and all of a sudden you’re having crowds go to see things where they’ve seen all the jokes, or they don’t know who anybody is, and they don’t like what they’re seeing. You can’t keep doing that, because eventually it turns into what we have now which is… not a lot. And it’s not to say people don’t have talent, it’s just that scenes require more than talent.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I just hope more people go to standup outside of Bumbershoot. It just feels like often it’s just Bumbershoot or people from other cities performing in Seattle, and it would be good for people to actually go to support local live comedy, or create more venues, or perform.
Sept 5–7, Seattle Center, $85–$109; Festival pass $190–$750