Before Hari Kondabolu hit the mainstream with his documentary on The Simpsons’ Apu, he was known (and loved) for ‘2042’ – a stand-up show built around the fact that white people are going to be a demographic minority in the US by that year. But don’t worry white people, he’d assure his audience after dropping this fact on them, white people were a minority when they first arrived here and things worked out just fine for them.
As a college student in a small, mostly white liberal arts college in the US, it was hard not to love this guy. In hindsight, it’s easy to plug in words like ‘representation’ to understand why Kondabolu’s stand was so memorable the first time. But at the time, there was only this unique, previously unexperienced enjoyment that made his set feel so special – laughing at jokes that were making white audience members squirm with confusion and discomfort. Although I hadn’t ever missed it knowingly, it felt good to be the target audience for a performer. Kondabolu joked about colonisation, small liberal arts college campuses, identity politics, white anxiety – the bread and butter of liberal arts college conversations.
Thankfully, Kondabolu isn’t the only one evoking feelings of identification in young South Asians anymore, we’ve got a whole crew – Mindy Kaling, Riz Ahmed, Hasan Minhaj and several others – who make representation seem like a given. But I still find myself partial to Kondabolu’s particular brand of humour (nerdy and unapologetic or, more specifically, unrepentant).
I think of ‘2042’ often these days. Most recently when US President Donald Trump called migrants ‘animals’. How are people of colour so empowered culturally right now and so disenfranchised politically at the same time? How can there be a growing audience for South Asian comedians and a growing white supremacist movement at the same time? Another corollary of these questions is how do celebrities of colour navigate a world that seems to be increasingly welcoming and hostile at the same time?
Earlier this week, Kondabolu posted a clip from one of his shows on his blog. In the middle of a set in Ann Arbor, someone shouted ‘Hail Trump’ and asked Kondabolu what his ‘portfolio’ looks like. A nonplussed Kondabolu responded by thanking the man for writing his future material and then telling him “Oh son, I’ve just done a special on Netflix, I’m doing okay.”
And he really is.
Warn Your Relatives on Netflix draws on the same attitude that made me love Kondabolu in the first place. There are no colonialism jokes this time, but there’s enough in there to feel like the bits are meant for me, which refuses to lose its charm.
My favourite is a bit about a white lady who walked past Kondabolu to get into his father’s parked car, told a baffled Hari that she got there first and proceeded to issue directions at his father. Hari understood what had happened a beat before the woman caught up – “She’s so racist she sees the colour of the driver, not the car”. If not this specifically, we’ve all had a similar experience, one in which we see ourselves through a white person’s eyes and realise that some people really do just see a ‘servant class’ because of the colour of our skin.
But stand-up comedy thrives on such indignities, and Kondabolu’s open acknowledgement feels strangely cathartic. Because what else is there to do but turn that ‘Hail Trump’ into material to profit off of?
It’s not just about poking fun at racist white people though. South Asians’ own quirks are fair game too.
The most popular joke from Warn Your Relatives involves letting white people in on a pretty open secret – brown people love mangoes. So much so that we tell stories about the best mangoes we’ve ever eaten – not the exciting or unusual circumstances surrounding the consumption of said mango, but just the taste of mangoes past. The mango is the event.
It often feels frivolous to write about pop culture when there’s so much political strife to grapple with. Kondabolu, who is openly political in his sets and also on his social media accounts, clearly doesn’t shy away from expressing his frustration.
REMINDER FOR DAY 485 OF TRUMP PRESIDENCY: THIS IS NOT NORMAL (AND NORMAL WASN'T THAT GREAT EITHER)
— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) May 20, 2018
At a time when racist stereotypes are disrupting so many lives and livelihoods, it’s comforting to remember that we can still celebrate the little things – like an irrational cultural obsession with mangoes.
What’s particularly memorable and likeable about Kondabolu is his refusal to treat his art or performances as separate from the rest of his life. Since the Netflix special came out, lots of people have tagged him in pictures and stories of and about mangoes, and he has duly retweeted them. But the other day, he tweeted this along with the other stuff:
If you like my mango jokes, read this. Everything has a cost. https://t.co/sC8cPFAuN1
— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) May 21, 2018
It’s easy to imagine this going another way, one in which someone else stumbles across this article and calls on Kondabolu for a comment on how his jokes trivialised this issue or that he should have been more informed. Valid concerns, by the way. But the easy answer in such a situation is to limit the context surrounding a joke. Instead Kondabolu tweeted the article, choosing to inform the audience of the other side of his mango jokes. Actions like these, coupled with nerdy shoutouts to Edward Said, give us a new way to imagine entertainers – it is possible to maintain ideological integrity and be entertaining.
Much as I love him though, Kondabolu’s new material is not perfect. A bit about Tracy Jordan making fun of Kondabolu’s appearance doesn’t really land as funny, becoming more of a rambling anecdote about meeting a celebrity. Another bit about god and St Peter having a conversation about homosexuality stretches on too long.
But the last bit, the one the show gets its title from, is peak Kondabolu. Days after he publicly argued with an ignorant, racist old white man at a café, Kondabolu learns that the man has died. Several seconds of silence pass and you start to believe he’s going to say something profound about tolerating the ignorance of the elderly, or perhaps something about the power of empathy and regret. However, true to form, Kondabolu does not backtrack on his stance against his now deceased adversary. He just tells the audience to warn their racist old white relatives about him.
Kondabolu’s humour is not conciliatory and that’s largely why I never expected to see it go mainstream on a platform like Netflix. Maybe because I’ve followed Kondabolu since before he was ‘famous’ unlike Mindy Kaling and Hasan Minhaj, who came onto my radar because they were already famous, Warn Your Relatives feels like a triumph.