If ripping off “Saturday Night Live” skits to entertain his fellow high schoolers was an inauspicious beginning, comedian Hari Kondabolu’s career made an upswing. In addition to getting his original, socially and politically charged material in front of larger crowds and late-night television viewers, the Brooklyn-based comic brings creative input to multiple extracurriculars: a humorous-yet-pointed TruTV documentary on unvarying Indian character Apu from “The Simpsons”; a comedy series pilot for the same network; and multiple podcasts, including “The Bugle” and “Politically Re-Active.” On Saturday, Feb. 18, attendees at Diana Wortham Theatre will hear Kondabolu’s latest world observations though his favorite medium: stand-up.
“I don’t see it as activism,” Kondabolu says of his sets, which confront racism, sexism, oppression and other us-vs.-them mentalities, in addition to lighter interludes. “I’ve done real activism. I was an immigrants’ rights organizer, so I know what the real work is, and I know what this is. … I view it as a real, honest take on my point of view, and everything is written from my heart. My goal is to entertain. … And if you start thinking about this as activism, at least to me, you lose focus. I’ve seen enough art that I thought was righteous and on-point — and not good.”
Multiple tactics help Kondabolu avoid that fate, including his knack for adding a conversational feel to monologues. We’ve all imagined confrontations with our detractors, for instance, but Kondabolu verbalizes these heated discussions, essentially heckling himself on behalf of nonexistent people. “But, can you write a joke that doesn’t reinforce gender binaries, Hari?” he taunts after landing a “feminist dick joke.”
Partway through sophomore album Mainstream American Comic, Kondabolu also begins referencing his own previous jokes, which serves the dual function of reiterating particularly funny moments and establishing the shared context needed for inside jokes with the audience.
In one particularly animated bit, Kondabolu likens All Lives Matter proponents to a fictional character Melissa, who, on a friend’s birthday, pipes up to point out that she also has a birthday. Feigning rage, Kondabolu harangues Melissa for the ill-timed comment before wishing out loud (and out of the blue) that an audience member would chime in to say she’s also named Melissa. It’s an elaborate hypothetical crafted solely to set up the ludicrous retort: “Shut the f*ck up, Melissa! It’s not about you, Melissa. It’s about Melissa right now — the metaphorical Melissa who’s destroying this country.” When Kondabolu’s hyper-analytical mind finds laughs beyond a joke’s ostensible conclusion, energy peaks in him and the crowd, and mini-encores are peppered throughout the set.
The Queens-raised comic’s personal history may shed some light on his passion and perspective surrounding certain societal maladies. The son of Indian immigrants, he studied comparative politics as an undergraduate and earned a master’s degree in human rights from the London School of Economics. His high school global studies teacher Chris Hackney (the one who provided a “safe space” and class time for Kondabolu to refine his Dana Carvey impersonations as well as his own performer’s voice) was also a formative figure, having left South Africa as a conscientious objector. “I remember the first time he told us that story,” Kondabolu says. “That was a teacher who changed my life.”
Since unearthing humor in sensitive topics like America’s recent immigration ban is his ongoing challenge, Kondabolu proceeds carefully and considers two criteria while brainstorming: First, his writings must convey something unique and genuine. Then, he asks: “Is the work punching upwards? Am I going after the people with power?”
Though tough, this kind of subject matter isn’t unfamiliar, he explains. “That’s what we do. Comedy isn’t always an active thing. … It’s a defense mechanism. It’s a way to resist, and I think it’s kind of ingrained in us. We want to laugh, we want that relief and we want to create that relief in others. I think that’s natural. It’s not just performers’ instinct.”
Hopefully, Kondabolu’s in-the-works joke about the Statue of Liberty being deported will be ready in time for his Asheville show. Either way, he plans to re-create several highlights from Mainstream American Comic amid a majority of freshly written words. “I’ve had a lot to write about,” he says.
WHAT: Hari Kondabolu
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, 2 S. Pack Square, dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Saturday, Feb. 18, 8 p.m. $22