Hari Kondabolu has had a busy year. On top of being a working comic and amassing an impressive collection of podcast-hosting gigs, the ripples from his 2017 documentary “The Problem with Apu” helped spark a national conversation about representation in the entertainment industry.
But his standup special “Warn Your Relatives,” recorded in Seattle at the end of last year and newly available on Netflix, shows that there are plenty more stories to tell about how American culture is changing. Kondabolu told IndieWire that part of that process for prepping the special was taking a deeper look inward.
“It’s more personal and that’s something I’ve shied away from in the past. I tell you this is the way I feel, but how did I develop that and who is my family and how did I get here and what is my journey? That stuff I think I protected more, but in this special, I feel like it comes across a lot clearer,” Kondabolu told IndieWire. “I guess on a broader way that’s important, right? In order for other people to understand why we feel the way we feel, they need to know what led us to that. We have to hear each other’s stories. I’m not just addressing the audience in front of me. I’m addressing the audience at home.”
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There’s a divide between having a specific viewpoint and having a specific audience, something that Kondabolu not only recognizes but confronts. In “Warn Your Relatives,” he stresses his desire for anyone who might be listening to examine the kinds of sacrifices that they make to help make opportunities for others. As a result, that message isn’t catered to anyone in particular (something he winks at in the special when he says, “Thank you, choir” after the audience responds to a joke).
“I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, this special is for liberals and anyone who is on the left.’ This special is for everybody and I try to find ways to make people understand my experience,” Kondabolu said. “I want people to be able to question themselves, and to be able to laugh at it. Certainly, some people got a little confused or turned off, like, ‘I thought he was our friend! What happened?’ I want to make sure people know that I’m on the side of what I think is true, not on your side.”
Courtesy of Netflix
That commitment to action has been a part of Kondabolu’s career since well before last year. It’s a kind of comedy that isn’t interested in giving people a pat on the back for doing the bare minimum.
“On my first record, I have a joke about liberal cowards moving to Canada. Everyone talking about, ‘If this person wins the election, I’m moving to Canada,’ as opposed to staying and fighting. I want you to know that I’m going to be critical and that doesn’t stop with just the people that you dislike. It might be you as well,” Kondabolu said.
For as much as he wants to catch audiences off-guard, there’s something relatable about the way Kondabolu uses the industry-centered stories in his standup. In his story about accidentally getting punched by David Oyelowo while filming the 2015 film “Five Nights in Maine,” he reacts the way you would expect someone to in his situation. Kondabolu also shares a backstage experience in “Warn Your Relatives” about getting standup advice from Tracy Morgan.
“People think, ‘Oh, it’s so cool you’re getting into more surreal stuff.’ I don’t think I’m getting into it. I think I’m being forced into it. Comedians have that really rare perspective of being amongst the people while being in front of them,” Kondabolu said. “There are little moments that you don’t think about until later and then all of a sudden it makes sense in a larger context, right? The Tracy Morgan one, it was just like, ‘Oh, come on, this is why I’m supposed to be a comedian because something like this just happened. My destiny was to share this story.’ I’m thrilled that he’s talking to me and I’m thrilled that it’s him.”
Perhaps the biggest ongoing surreal experience is what’s happened in the wake of last fall’s airing of “The Problem with Apu.” Despite the contentious response from the show to calls for reevaluating the Apu Nahasapeemapetilon character, there’s been a slight bit of resolution in Hank Azaria expressing a willingness to step away from the character. It’s certainly not the end of the story, but Kondabolu reiterated what he said publicly the night that Azaria discussed the issue.
“I really appreciate Hank’s thoughts. That’s almost a victory. For a lot of us, it was, ‘Yes, we’re people. You acknowledged that we’re people and that our feelings and our experiences are valid.’ Even if ‘The Simpsons’ the show doesn’t, and clearly doesn’t give a shit, as they’ve made very public in the show and in their statements. But for Hank to acknowledge it is huge,” Kondabolu said.
Courtesy of Netflix
But Kondabolu doesn’t reference Apu in “Warn Your Relatives,” and it’s clear that stems from a recognition that this conversation is about far more than one creative decision on a network animated sitcom. It comes from the desire to see a country where he doesn’t have to be asked where he’s “from,” a story he describes in the special. Kondabolu’s driving force is that there’s always more to be done.
“What old white dudes that ran a 29-year-old show have to do from here, it doesn’t mean anything to me. That doesn’t change anything. I haven’t seen the show in years. It doesn’t matter to me. ‘Do you want to put to be voiced by a brown actor?’ I don’t give a crap. It’s not interesting to me. I don’t care if they have one voice actor has a job playing a minstrel character. How does that change everything else around me?” Kondabolu said. “I want this greater change that’s not just for myself, but for all these incredible voices that need to be heard. It’s great that South Asian men have gotten a platform, but what about women and trans folks and the other members of the LGBTQ community? Where are those voices, not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera and executives and making the decisions on how a story about them is being told? That, to me, those are the actions.”
“Warn Your Relatives,” as with the work he’s done on shows like the “Politically Re-Active” podcast, boils down to an idea that comedy as a means to making people think differently about the world only works if the audience is a willing participant. Kondabolu’s comedy comes from a distinct place, but the onus is on the listener to take those ideas and reevaluate how they relate to them.
“I would never say like ‘Comedy should be this,’ because that’s like saying ‘People should be this.’ There are too many variables in a person’s life. I won’t tell you how to be. I’ll tell you what I think and I’ll tell you what I think would make for a better world,” Kondabolu said. “I feel like the job of the creator is to create and I believe in a sense of responsibility when creating. I don’t want to do things that make people’s lives worse and I don’t want to punch downward. I only want to go after who has power, you know? That’s my personal ethos.”
The material in “Warn Your Relatives” on the current administration is focused less on time-specific headlines and more on how literal state of political discourse affects President Trump’s support. That’s not just by design due to a rapidly changing news cycle, but the product of wanting to make something that will last beyond the current moment. And that’s a lot easier to do when you’re convinced that change is inevitable.
“It’s about this idea that things are going to change. Are you gonna help me change it, or are you gonna watch it happen? Because it’s going to happen. So warn your relatives, they better figure it out. It’s not just having a conversation to challenge them. You better help them figure it out because it’s happening,” Kondabolu said. “Those kids in Parkland are a great example of that. That was inevitable. Things are changing. As cynical as I am, I still feel that there’s this inevitable direction towards progress.”
“Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives” is now available to stream on Netflix.