Alt comic, post-colonial theorist, prodigious tweeter, erstwhile immigrant rights advocate, and acerbic pundit Hari Kondabolu is a natural fit for San Francisco audiences, even if grew up in New York and cut his teeth in Seattle. He gained Bay Area notoriety after teaming up with W. Kamau Bell and Nato Green to head the Laughter Against the Machine comedy tour a few years ago, and he still occasionally graces the Punch Line Comedy Club, or The Chapel.
Kondabolu often says that Bay Area crowds have a unique capacity to understand and appreciate -- his politically tinged, paragraph-long bits, because we're more patient than audiences in other parts of the country. Meaning: We read whole newspaper articles instead of just skimming headlines, and we love taking a long time to digest things. We like intricate, self-referential comedians who set something up in their first five minutes, and make it funny 20 minutes later. We want our comedians to opine and insert long-winded asides -- a style that Kondabolu calls "the new sincerity."
We're not a fast-quip, instant-gratification type of crowd.
That was part of the impetus for Kondabolu opting to record his debut album at Oakland's New Parish club, which has become a go-to killing room in an area that's no longer awash in comedy infrastructure - when W. Kamau Bell left to launch his Totally Biased FX TV series in New York, he took many of San Francisco's rising alt humorists along. Kondabolu is part of that crew, and he currently divides his time between stand-up gigs and the Totally Biased writing team, occasionally serving as a correspondent on "The KondaBulletin" (His commentary on the spelling bee edition: "Hey white people - learn the language.")
But Kondabolu hasn't forgot the Bay Area, and he's all a-tizzy about next week's sort-of homecoming.
We got him on the horn a couple days ago to talk about Totally Biased, comedy as a writer's discipline, why the center of gravity shifted to New York, and why Bay Area audiences shouldn't be worried. Here's an edited transcript of that conversation:
So how much time do you spend writing for TV versus writing stage bits these days?
When the show's in season it's like the vast majority, and even when I'm not in the office, part of me is still checked into writing for that. If I see an idea my first thought is not 'How can I turn this into standup?' it's 'How can I use this on the show?'
I mean, we have this thing that broadcasts all over the world -- that's something that every comic wants.
Does the show feed into your standup, then?
Well there are times when Kamau will ask one of the writers to handle something because he thinks they can do it better, and then maybe it's clear that it's not Kamau's voice. Or maybe he doesn't love the angle. And then I'll have these gems that'll turn into bits of mine. Usually they're less about current events, and more about something that requires analysis. That's better in the standup format.
You're a pretty intellectual comic. Do you feel like you have to dumb it down, writing for TV?
I wouldn't say 'dumbing it down.' It's really the difference between an undergrad and a Master's level in that you're trying to explain things to as many people as possible. Sure that was an adjustment for me in that I didn't realize how much I wrote to my own voice. Some of my jokes nobody else can really do -- there are a lot of theoreticals and a lot of explaining.
You're not supposed to explain a joke, but I sometimes do. Like that joke I have about Alex Haley's Roots. I have to explain it to the audience, and then they get it, and that's part of the humor. That doesn't work in a television format. Luckily Kamau is one of my close friends and his comedic voice is similar to mine, so I don't feel dirty.
How did you guys meet, anyway?
We used to do Laughter Against the Machine shows. Actually Nato put us together on this 2008 tour called Laugh Out the Vote, and he told me later that the reason he put that tour together was so we could meet. And then I used to talk about writing for his show back when it was called The Bell Curve. I got really lucky.
Hari on San Francisco, Full House, and gay rights:
When you guys launched Totally Biased you moved all the Bay Area stars out to New York. Did you shift the center of gravity for alt comedy, and is there a scene left out here at all?
Yeah, our staff is very West Coast heavy, specifically Bay Area. Kamau's old roommate Kevin Avery is the head writer, and Janine Brito is on the team, and she's Kamau's comedy daughter. And then there's this guy Brandon who went to UC Berkeley and started in San Francisco. I mean, I'm talking about a bunch of people who never had writing jobs before.
It's cool because when you think of Chris Rock's writing room and all the careers that came out of it -- Wanda Sykes, Louis C.K. We daydream about who's in this room right now and what's going to happen. Kamau just gave out opportunities. I mean, who on his first show gives all his friends a chance to be on TV?
Hari on the Spelling Bee:
So then do you guys all have your own place in the comedy canon? Are you all Kamau Bell protégés?
I don't think it's that straightforward, like one comedian spawning another. We use this term "the new sincerity," that I've heard a lot. I've never really used it, but I like the idea. It's about trying to say what you mean -- as in, "yeah, it's a joke, but I also mean it." It's not a clear ethos but it's a general approach that we all share.
We adopted you as one of our own in the Bay Area, and then you moved back to New York. Did you abandon us? Is there a reason you're coming back for this album?
I used to hate performing in New York because I couldn't get good stage time. I'd escape to the Bay Area, and it was all people who didn't just read the headlines but read all the articles in the paper. I feel like it's a bastion for people with long attention spans.
There's a big reason I wanted to do an album in Oakland, at the New Parish. There's something about that room and the crowd that comes. I hope I'm not jinxing it if I say it's magical.
Why do an album, anyway? Isn't that kind of an anachronism?
I'm thinking about it now as an hour of material that I'm building, and some of these jokes, there's a reason I'll put them 25 minutes in. You'll already have this sense of, 'oh, this is who this guy is, and this is how he would react in this situation.' I feel like in short sets some of these jokes suffer without context, and they come off as more abrasive than I intended. Like I have a joke about eating rich people -- that gets strengthened with the kind of context that an hour can provide.
As an artist, I'm more confident with longer sets. Making an album, yeah, that's kind of an antiquated thing, and now most comics are putting their ideas out on Twitter and getting instant gratification. All that stuff that I might have put in a notepad before -- like that line about the Bay Area being "a bastion of long attention spans" -- I'll tweet it, and get the satisfaction of people saying, "Oh yeah, that's funny." But then you're looking at retweets and favorites as opposed to "Hey, what did I actually say?"
And the laughs in my sets don't necessarily come every five seconds. I want a thing that's loosely connected and funnier if you listen to the whole thing rather than piecemeal. I want call-backs, unique structural decisions, stuff I drop in that'll be funnier 25 minutes from now.
As an artist I've gotten more patient onstage, and I'm more willing to make people uncomfortable. I like the use of silence and long setups that still go somewhere - like, "Just trust me, I'll get you out of this."