What I Learned From Hari Kondabolu by It's All True's Tim Barnes

It's All True is an excellent podcast hosted by Chicago-based writer and comedian Tim Barnes. The show is produced by local comedy news site The Whiskey Journal and is now an officially sanctioned WBEZ podcast. Tim's going to start checking in with his thoughts on each week's show. Upcoming guests include James Adomian, Eddie Izzard, Richard Steele, and many more. This week's guest was the amazing Hari Kondabolu. Here's what Tim learned from his talk with Hari!

A few things stick out to me from my interview with Hari Kondabolu, who you may remember from his recent performance on The Late Show and his segments on Totally Biased with W. Kamu Bell. His first album, Waiting for 2042, was released earlier this year, and tackles some of my favorite issues; race, culture and politics.

Before I talked to him, I had heard that Paul Mooney was a major influence on his style but I never really understood it until I heard him explain it: “Seeing Mooney do stand up in Washington D.C. when I was 20 changed my life. It changed the way I talk about race in general, with other humans, and not being afraid to say what I am feeling. And also to be on stage and be fearless.”

That’s such a compelling quote coming from a comedian wearing a flannel shirt and glasses. Yet it makes so much sense when you look at a moment from Hari like this:

You can hear the fearlessness in his voice. He isn’t casually suggesting a perspective, but forcing a “truth” to be heard.

When I started doing comedy, I avoided the topic of race except for a few introductory jokes to tackle what I felt to be the elephant in the room. Every comic does this. If you’re fat, black, asian, male, white, skinny, female, or somehow a combination of all these things you have to address what you feel is the major issue at hand when you walk on stage.

The first joke I ever wrote was this: “I didn’t realize I was black until the fourth grade. All of the kids started playing a game called Taxi during recess and no one picked me up.” I’d say this and then move on to absurd observations about working at a movie theatre or something.

When I asked Hari if race is still the elephant in the room, he noted that it’s gotten better because of the variety of comedic voices being heard. He also mentioned that when he started he used his ethnicity as a “crutch.”

 “I will always have it to make fun of,” he says. “I certainly don’t think it’s wrong to talk about your experience, but I think I was using it in a fake way… I know they’re gonna laugh because if I… simplify my experience they’ll laugh.”

What I learned from Hari is that the purpose of comedy isn’t necessarily to acknowledge the elephant in the room, but to reveal the elephant in your room. In my own comedy I’ve found that the jokes I’ve created about race are the funniest because for some reason it is the one topic that consumes my everyday way of thinking. The way race affects this millennial-post racial-Obama era is so awkward and complex I can’t help but talk about it. The fact that these jokes have become my prominent in my act still makes me feel weird at times. But why? That’s the elephant in my room.

-Tim Barnes