IF YOU GO
What: Hari Kondabolu
When: Aug. 24 at 8 p.m.; Aug. 25 at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.; and Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.
Where: Helium Comedy Club, 2031 Sansom St., Philadelphia.
You might say Hari Kondabolu has been ahead of the curve. For more than a decade, the left-leaning, unapologetically political comedian — who is, in his own words, “a killjoy who does comedy” — has been tackling the sort of hot-button issues that only recently entered mainstream American discourse.
In comedy clubs throughout the country, as well as in his two chart-topping albums, Kondabolu has offered his insightful, if scathing, commentary on an array of complex topics — the kinds of topics you might otherwise see covered on CNN or MSNBC. Police brutality. Systemic racism. Class struggles. Transphobia. Sexism.
He’s the sort of comedian who, in his second album, “Mainstream American Comic,” shaped a two-minute bit around the premise “All Lives Don’t Matter,” and then chased that joke with one about racist police officers. His act is edgy and hilarious, a tight-rope walk of challenging subject matter and witty musings.
“I’ve always talked about racism, and sexism, and class, and all these big issues,” the Brooklyn-based comedian, who is of Indian descent, says during a phone interview with me recently. But, for a while, “not everybody knew what the hell I was talking about.”
These days, people are a bit more tuned into what he’s saying — and he credits much of this to President Donald Trump.
When Trump entered the presidential race back in 2015, he brought with him a host of seemingly endless controversies. From calling Mexicans rapists, to the infamous “Access Hollywood” video, to his recent defense of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., the president’s words and actions continue to stoke fiery debates on a near-daily basis. And this has made Kondabolu’s brand of trenchant, political humor all the more accessible to audiences.
“With Trump saying what he says, it’s like: ‘The president said this racist thing, let’s talk about racism.’ Or: ‘The president said this sexist thing, let’s talk about sexism.’ Or: ‘The president thinks white people are being discriminated against in higher education, let’s talk about affirmative action,’” Kondabolu said.
“Sadly,” he added, “I talked about these things before. But now, all of a sudden, people know what I’m talking about. It’s like, ‘Oh! What the president said!’”
Naturally, at this point in the interview, talk turned to the country’s current grim mood — the heightened, almost palpable, climate of fear and prejudice and political divisiveness — and what it means for a comic, and person of color, who addresses weighty issues onstage, in both blue states and red.
When asked if he’s ever concerned about how his more politically charged jokes might be received by various crowds — like, whether or not people will laugh — Kondabolu said he worries less about silence than about violence.
“I’m less concerned about that part of it,” he said. “I’m less concerned about, ‘Oh no, what’s going to happen to my comedy.’ The part I’m concerned about is after. Like, are these people going to hurt me?”
“This is a different America,” he continued. “Or, it’s the same America, but there’s a certain ugliness that comes to the surface where people are being intimidated and being made to fear other Americans. And there’s a group that has been empowered by this. And it’s scary. So that, to me, is the bigger worry. Whether they laugh or not, that’s an everyday struggle, regardless of whether Trump’s president or not.”
He added, “Comedy is comedy. I’m more worried about my life afterwards. Am I going to be OK? And I think that’s true for any figure that’s a person of color, or a woman, or a member of the LGBT community, who has a strong voice, who doesn’t back down. You’re already at risk when you don’t say anything, but when you are actually willing to speak out, what happens?”
These are high-stress, emotional times for any American, even the people we pay to make us laugh. The upside here is that Kondabolu channels his anxiety into his act, finding the humor buried within distress. He said comedy helps him cope with the ugliness of the world.
“It’s definitely a coping mechanism,” he said. “Comedy has always been my coping mechanism for both personal and political things, both big and small. Like, that’s how I deal with any kind of pain. I just try to find a way to almost justify it with comedy. Like, this is worth it because I made myself or someone else happy. I don’t know how else to lessen this other than to find some way to laugh at it.”
Hari Kondabolu will be performing five shows at Helium Comedy Club Thursday, Aug. 24, through Saturday, Aug. 26.