Hari Kondabulu’s new special on Netflix, titled “Warn Your Relatives,” doesn’t let up for a minute. It’s a terrific piece of comedy, engrossing viewers right from the start. It shouldn’t come as a surprise because that’s become Kondabolu’s trademark by now. He blends personal experiences and political humor effortlessly, delivering most of his jokes with dripping irony.
The comedian got his big break when he began appearing on “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell” on FX, earning appearances on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “The Late Show with David Letterman,” and “Conan” among others. His 2017 truTV documentary “The Problem with Apu,” in which he tackles the highly stereotyped “The Simpsons” character Apu Nahasapeemapetillon, began an important conversation about South Asian representation in the media. A conversation that hopefully will not die down anytime soon.
We spoke to Kondabolu about his Netflix special and some truly great bits he covered in it, working on The Kondabolu Brothers podcast with his brother Ashok, and why he’s putting to rest the prospect of any more Apu-related projects.
The Teal Mango: How much time did you spend on writing your material for this special, knowing it was going to be up on Netflix. Did that influence your process?
Hari Kondabolu: The only thing to really consider was how to do the visual bits, knowing it was for camera. There was also a degree of, if it’s just audio and just for my core fan base, I can do what I want, I can be as aggressive as I want. I think I tried to leave the most aggressive pieces for the end. I also tried to make it more personal for people who don’t know who I am to try to get to know me. It’s not to say I started soft, but I did start relatively softer and left the hardest bits for the end. I was trying to get people on my side before I push it a little further. Those things I was aware of because of a new and larger audience. In terms of what I do, it’s still what I do. That didn’t change.
TTM: I wanted to talk to you about some of my favorite bits from the special. One of the best parts was about how Tracy Morgan heckled you. What does that even feel like, being heckled by and getting advice from Tracy Morgan?
Kondabolu: The truth of it is that he didn’t actually heckle, he just speaks really loud. We were in a small room. It’s essentially the same as being heckled. He was talking about me in a small room with no one laughing. He doesn’t’t even realize that ‘oh, I talk that loud?’ It’s surreal. When things like that happen, you know you’re supposed to be a comedian. Like, there’s no other reason this is happening to me right now other than the fact that I’m supposed to be a comedian.
TTM: How long ago was it?
Kondabolu: It was at least four years ago. I was going to do that bit earlier but I don’t know, with his car accident and everything it didn’t feel right making that joke. Now that he’s doing so much better, I felt like I can try this again.
TTM: I love how you talked about your mom and how she influenced your comedy. You say in the special that you think you’re funny because of her. Growing up, how much did she influence your comedic style?
Kondabolu: It’s not something I noticed till I was older. She was always quick, funny and always noticed things and called things out. You don’t think about it when you’re a kid, because she’s, you know, your mom. Me and my brother were both very funny in school and I didn’t realize that wasn’t a trait everyone had and everyone’s parents weren’t that way. My mom is just really funny. Some of it is to cope with how hard life can be. Whatever sadness is in her life, she always is able to use humor to deflect it.
TTM: I feel like Indian moms are just inherently funny. They’re not even trying to be that way, it’s just natural to them. How did she respond to what you say about her? In my mind she said something smart and sarcastic.
Kondabolu: She thought it was funny. She is very smart and sarcastic, yes, but she is very aware. My mom, in her group of friends, is always at the center of everyone. She held court. She has always been a figure that didn’t shy away from people. She liked how I did it. My mom is very critical and never just says “oh it’s good.” She is blunt and honest. She was proud of it and thought I did it well.
TTM: As you know, we’re called The Teal Mango, so naturally I enjoyed your take on the Indian stereotype of loving mangoes. You dug deep talking about it, which was amazing. We would totally be up to sponsor your mango podcast. But how did all of it strike you, talking about this unique topic?
Kondabolu: I was thinking about things that make me who I am. In the past, I haven’t talked about personal things and things I care about. People try to understand who I am through these ideas. I wanted to be more blunt, to tell people a little bit about who I am and how I grew up. Everything doesn’t need to be heavy. Stuff can be heavy and you find lightness in it or things can be light and you find the interesting, heavier stuff in it. The mango stuff is genuine. It’s something we grew up with and something I can speak about. I shouldn’t shy away from sharing our experiences and at the same time, it has an interesting history with it. It’s the willingness to be able to give some of myself to the audience, that maybe I held back from in the past.
TTM: As a South Asian comedian, and maybe this applies to other South Asian actors and artists, but do you think there is a burden of sorts to make sure your work is obviously relatable to the South Asian community but also outside of that. You pulled that off really well in your special, where the desi audience could connect with you, and so could the non-desi audience.
Kondabolu: For me, I want to speak genuinely and tell an honest story. If I’m going to be honest and share a full truth; I’m a South Asian-American, I grew up here, and I’ve had different experiences that other people in the U.S. might not have had. At the same time, I have also had experiences that other desis might not have. I can’t relate to my cousins in certain ways because there are certain things that aren’t shared. There’s a whole range of things that make me and it’s not necessarily what everyone else can relate to but that’s also what makes me a whole person. I wanted to share my full story and that meant I had to talk about all those different pieces.
TTM: I know you’ve answered a lot of Apu questions by now and I don’t want to burden you with more. I think your documentary did the talking for you. But do you want to do anything else related to the subject?
Kondabolu: No. The documentary does the job and I don’t know what else I can say. To me, the topic itself was an older thing. I had to draw from old feelings to make it because so many years had passed. But for so many of us, it had never been addressed, for most Americans it had never been discussed. It was relevant. It’s both, a past and current example because “The Simpsons” has lasted all this time. For me, I want something a little more challenging and not about the same topic. That’s what growth as an artist is. I’ve done as much as I can do with it. I’m ready to put it to bed when everyone else is.
TTM: I feel like you’ve made a big contribution to this larger conversation surrounding South Asian representation. So were you happily surprised by Hank Azaria’s response to it?
Kondabolu: Yeah, it was nice. At the end of the day, you just want to feel respected and that you’re being acknowledged. We weren’t acknowledged or seen as existing. For the first time, someone from that show said ‘you exist.’ Is it the biggest deal in the world? No. Some dude said we should think about other people. It’s a minimal thing. But at the end of the day, it’s what you’d hope for. It took a while to get there.
TTM: It took a really long while.
Kondabolu: It’s funny because things we know and are obvious to us, for others it takes much longer to get.
TTM: You’re also doing The Kondabolu Brother podcast with your brother Ashok. What is it about and what are you envisioning for it?
Kondabolu: That’s always the hardest question for me with this particular podcast because it’s about so many things. It’s really a running conversation between two brothers. It’s what unites all the episodes. You have an older brother and a younger brother, we have the same roots, we grew up in the same household, we are loyal to each other, we’re very protective of each other but we are leading very different adult lives. As a result, you see these parts where there are disagreements and different world views based on our experiences and you see how we’re products of different environments at a certain point. It’s two people trying to negotiate where they came from, what they went through, who they are in that moment. It’s special because it’s like we’re brothers but we’re discovering things about each other. It almost feels therapeutic. The audience is seeing two people who have incredible chemistry, who know each other so well, who clearly love each other, argue and agree and disagree and fight and share intense things with each other. It’s done very freely because who else can you talk freely with other than someone who knows you that well. There will be discussions of race, family, violence, gentrification in New York City, and just a broad range of the human experienced but discussed informally between two brothers.
TTM: What it’s been like traveling across the country with your brother to record this podcast?
Kondabolu: It’s been fun just hanging out with my brother. He toured for a while when he was with his band, I certainly still tour. This keeps us in the same room and experience life together in ways we haven’t before. I love being on stage. I’ve been on stage for more than half my life at this point and I will say definitively more fun to be on the stage with Ashok. There is something special about going back and forth and that natural feedback versus preparing material. It’s such a fun show.
TTM: What’s next for you after this podcast? What are you working on next?
Kondabolu: I have another hour of material I’d like to start working on. If one thing is finished, you move to the next. I have some TV projects and other things I’d like to start working on. You finish a bunch of things and you move on to the development stage. That’s where I’m at right now.
TTM: I kind of want to see the sketch you mentioned in the special, the one about Jesus being waterboarded but he keeps turning the water into wine.
Kondabolu: That sketch is so funny. If I can get that sketch off, I would be so happy.
“Warn Your Relatives” is now streaming on Netflix worldwide.