In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
A comedian, podcaster, and social commentator, Hari Kondabolu has become known for his outspoken and whip-smart opinions on everything from his mom to potential president Donald Trump’s cockamamie ideas. Some of that straightforward sass is delivered as part of his podcast, Politically Re-Active With W. Kamau Bell And Hari Kondabolu, but fans will be able to dig even deeper with Kondabolu’s latest stand-up record, Mainstream American Comic, due out July 22 on Kill Rock Stars. The kind of record that finds Kondabolu both looking deep inside himself and casting aspersions on the general population, Mainstream is an apt follow-up to his album Waiting For 2042, which The A.V. Club called one of the best comedy records of 2014.
Kondabolu is touring this summer in support of Mainstream American Comic, and dates are listed on his website.
Hari Kondabolu: That’s a good question. That’s almost a wishes-type question. I could potentially say, “I wish an interview would ask me what question I would want to be asked,” and then you could do that again, and it would just go on forever. That would be terrible. That would end your site altogether. A.V. Club would be done, because that’s all that would be written ever, that question over and over again.
You know, it would be cool for someone to ask me about some of the structural choices I make with my albums.
The A.V. Club: You’re in luck, because you can ask yourself that right now.
HK: People always talk about the content, in terms of the politics of it or whatever social issues are in it, and it’s like, “Yeah, but I’m also a good comic.” You could at least talk about the form of it, and I feel like that’s always the thing that’s missed. I’d love for someone to ask me about comedic technique and choices.
AVC: Admittedly, that’s a little nerdy for your typical alt weekly or college paper.
HK: Okay, then. Then maybe my favorite John Hughes film. I guess that would be the other question.
AVC: I don’t think it’s too nerdy for us, rather it’s a little nerdy for people who don’t think about comedy in that way.
HK: No, absolutely. Then it’s what my favorite John Hughes movie is, because no one’s ever asked me that. I have an answer prepared.
AVC: What is it?
HK: Some Kind Of Wonderful, with Eric Stoltz and Mary Stuart Masterson. It’s a brilliant, brilliant film. It’s the John Hughes film that no one talks about, and it’s so good.
I love the fact that Mary Stuart Masterson is a tomboy character, and Eric Stoltz is an art student. They’re working class. I like the fact that the best friend ends up with him, and it’s not Lea Thompson, who he’s obsessing about throughout the film. I like the fact that Lea Thompson comes from a working-class background, and that’s a complication. Also, I could imagine if they remade the film and spun it where it was a queer version, where Mary Stuart Masterson’s character ended up with Lea Thompson’s character. The whole time, it’s very, “I’m a dude, and I want this girl, and this other girl likes me,” meaning it’s a very straight, dude-centric romantic comedy. It’d be cool if it flipped.
Have you seen the film?
AVC: Of course.
HK: [Mary Stuart Masterson’s] wardrobe is so unique in that film. Doesn’t she wear leather half-gloves?
AVC: Yeah, fingerless driving gloves.
HK: Yeah, and she plays the drums. Did the drum have a heart on it? Something has a heart on it. Anyway, it’s such a good movie.
AVC: To go back to your other question, what do you want to talk about choice-wise as far as your record goes? What would you like people to notice? What’s the question you want me to ask?
HK: Something like, “You do a lot of long callbacks and play with the structure of jokes, sometimes the big punch line being in the middle, and you also explain your jokes, and create additional punch lines. How did you develop that style?” That’s a good question.
The answer is that I’m a huge fan of the British comedian Stewart Lee, and after years of watching Stewart Lee, I’ve seen some techniques. I’m not nearly as capable of using these techniques the way he mastered them, but with my limited ability, I am able to apply certain things to my craft that maybe other comedians don’t, because I’m a devotee.
AVC: That’s a solid self-asked, self-answered question.
HK: Honestly, the audience really gets in the way. If I was just allowed to talk and handle the whole thing by myself without the audience interrupting with laughter, the show would be much more interesting. Think about all the time we waste by waiting for them to finish their noise, you know?
HK: My first impulse was “elephant,” and then I remembered I’m an Indian dude, and I do not want that in there. So elephant, even though that was my first impulse, is not the one I can go with.
I think it’d be hilarious to ride a dog to work. Nobody would see that coming.
AVC: Like a Clifford-style giant dog? How big are we talking?
HK: Just big enough. It doesn’t need to be Clifford-sized. It just has to have a really strong back. We had a dog when I was growing up, and every time I would sneak up behind her, I would pretend I was about to sit on her as if she was a horse. Each time she would immediately get into the sitting position and look at me like she was saying, “Please don’t do that. You’ll hurt me. Don’t do that.” And it cracked me up each time. That would be so cool if my dog could just take me around.
AVC: Do you have a specific kind of dog in mind?
HK: I didn’t think that far. I always imagine my dog. She was a Chow mixed with what we believe was a golden retriever. But that dog’s not big enough. It would have to be a bigger dog, otherwise my feet will drag.
AVC: It would have to go through a size-increasing machine. You’d take your dog, blow it up, and at the same time make it live forever.
HK: That could be one way to do it. But there are some dogs that are gigantic that look like they shouldn’t be in existence. A dog like that, I suppose.
AVC: Like a wolfhound or Great Dane?
HK: The ones where, when they’re on their hind legs and they’re standing, they’re almost the size of a tall human. Is that even real? I don’t even know. Ah, just say horse. Horse is fine. I’ll ride a horse.
AVC: A giant horse?
HK: Nah, just a regular horse. Why get so complicated, with elephants and some dog that might need a machine to enlarge it? A horse is fine.
HK: It’s between two films.
First, I would say Untamed Heart, starring Christian Slater and Marisa Tomei. Oh, my god. I was obsessed with that film. I could recite lines. It’s incredible. He had a baboon’s heart, but not really. That was just something the nuns in the orphanage told him as a sick little boy who was scared. And Marisa Tomei… to me, that’s peak Marisa Tomei. Other people would say My Cousin Vinny, but that was always my favorite Marisa Tomei.
So good, that movie. Rosie Perez is in it. I also always thought it was great how Rosie Perez is in it, like, how did that Puerto Rican family end up in Minnesota? I always thought that’d be cool if they had a sequel to that film, but they explained that part of the story. I’m sure she had a bunch of interesting experiences. But of course, they were not going to make a sequel or prequel to that film, because it was a moderate hit.
Also, “Tom’s Diner” is used very well in the beginning. “Nature Boy” by Nat King Cole is used very well in the middle and end of the film.
Also, recently, over the last couple of years, I’ve obsessively watched Grosse Pointe Blank. It might be a perfect movie for me, in so many ways. It has everything in it. It’s an action film. It’s a dark comedy. The guy is coming to realizations about what life is. The high school reunion. Great soundtrack. Minnie Driver. I’m friends with Minnie Driver on Twitter, by the way, and sometimes we write messages to each other, and she’s very sweet. So I think that’s another reason why Grosse Pointe Blank is on my mind a lot. It’s the movie, when I’m really feeling down, I just pop it in, and it seems to fill the time well.
I don’t suggest Untamed Heart when you’re feeling down.
AVC: Untamed Heart has kind of a hard plot to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it.
HK: Untamed Heart is not hard to explain! You think it’s hard to explain?
AVC: He thinks he has an ape heart.
HK: He thinks he has an ape heart, but he’s an orphan who has a dysfunctional heart and falls in love with one of the waitresses at the restaurant where he’s a busboy. She’s never able to stick with anything in her life, except that relationship. She loves him. Later on, he’s stabbed in the heart, eventually leading to his death later in the film, potentially because of the guys who attempted to rape Marisa Tomei earlier in the film. He stopped them, and they came back for revenge. I mean, come on now. Good movie.
Also, Love Story could have made the cut, but I really haven’t watched it in awhile. In high school and college it would have been Love Story: 1970, Ryan O’Neal, Ali MacGraw… That could have been on that list. But Grosse Point Blank really surged ahead in recent years.
HK: Oh, god. How would you characterize “a long time?”
AVC: A couple months, a couple of years. It depends on how old you are.
HK: The first thing that comes to mind isn’t all that ridiculous. I thought Rivers Cuomo was Brian Bell, and Brian Bell was Rivers Cuomo, because of how they’re lined up on the Blue Album. All four of them are in a line, and so I assumed the way they were listed reflected who they were. This was before the internet really happened. But that’s kind of lame.
Another stupid thing I believed for a long time was that pizza was supposed to be said peed-za.
AVC: How old were you?
HK: That got knocked out of me in college. I was 18, and people were like, “That’s not how you pronounce it.” All I could say was, “Well, I’m from New York, so I’m pretty sure I know how to say peed-za.” I was corrected.
However, I did win the debate about “in line” and “on line,” because in New York, you say you wait on line, and everyone else says in line, and that is a legitimate thing that we say here. I don’t think it’s weird: It’s an imaginary line, and you’re on it. In line I get, too: You’re in a line, you’re creating a line. But I took a lot of shit for that. But that’s a valid way of saying you’re queuing up. But yeah, peed-za, that sucked.
Ooh, shit. Here’s another thing: When I used to wash my hair with a two-for-one shampoo and conditioner, I would wash it twice, which is completely unnecessary, because that’s the point—it’s one bottle. Because I used to have the shampoo, that’s one, conditioner, one. I did the same thing, even though it was two-in-one. I was corrected in my mid-20s by my girlfriend at the time, who laughed at me and said how stupid that was. That was another thing.
Also, I don’t tie my shoes right. I tie them the way you would tie a gift, like a bow. I never learned how to tie my shoes, and I was mocked for that. I still don’t know how to.
AVC: It doesn’t really matter how you tie your shoes, as long as they stay tied.
HK: That was what I had been saying for years, but then I noticed how often my shoes get untied, and apparently the way people tie their shoes normally, that happens less often. It happens to me four, five times a day sometimes, and that’s not normal.
I don’t get why we got rid of Velcro to begin with, to be honest. I just think it has to do with social pressure. There’s nothing wrong with Velcro. It does exactly what you need it to do.
HK: There are a lot of times where people think I’m in things that I’m not in, because they think I’m Kumail Nanjiani. One of the most interesting things I’ve heard about myself was that I was in Adventureland. Is that what it’s called?
AVC: You probably mean Adventure Time.
HK: See, that’s what I’m saying, I don’t even know. Somebody said they loved me in Adventure Time, and I said “thank you.” I was trying to understand what that meant, and I figured it must be some kind of show, and then I assumed, “I bet Kumail does a thing in that.”
AVC: Indeed, he was on Adventure Time. He played Prismo.
HK: Usually whenever there’s a really interesting thing, I figure they think I’m Kumail.
AVC: From Kumail’s Twitter, it seems like he gets that a lot, too.
HK: Yeah, me and him. That happened at a show, actually. The bartender came up to me and accused me of not paying for my rum and Diet Coke. I don’t drink before shows, and I told her very clearly, “I got a water from you. I don’t drink before my set.” She paused for a second and looked to her right and then made a beeline for Kumail. Afterwards, I was like, “Kumail, did she ask you if you paid for your rum and Diet? Because she asked me first.” We then went on stage and explained to the audience that we were two different people, and the key thing that Kumail pointed out is that we had completely different faces.
HK: I opened for Aziz [Ansari] in Montreal, and Aziz is a foodie, so we all went out after, and I fucking ate horse meat. I didn’t want to eat horse meat. I had no interest in that. I didn’t even know what it was until they told me it was horse meat after I ate it. I guess Aziz wanted to try horse meat.
AVC: It’s really cheap meat. It’s supposed to be the bargain meat in Canada.
HK: What? Then how come it was at this fancy place?
AVC: They probably made it some fancy way. Like, you can eat pig’s feet, or you can eat very fancy pig’s feet.
HK: Yeah. I didn’t say anything, but I ended up getting fries after. I just felt better eating fries afterwards. Also, it wasn’t filling. Horse meat—not that filling.
HK: The Cure at the Jones Beach Amphitheater. This was in either 1999 or 2000, and they claimed it was their last U.S. tour, so they ended up doing three or four encores. They played everything. I was like, “Holy shit, my first concert is this amazing thing.” But since then they’ve toured the U.S. so many times in the last 16 years, and the whole thing was fraudulent. I wonder how many people bought really expensive tickets: “This is it! This is the last one. Never again.” Robert Smith has nothing else to do, apparently.
I would love to see Morrissey and Robert Smith fight. That’s a thing that just popped in my head.
AVC: That sounds like it would be a very sad fight.
HK: You know that Robert Smith wrote “Love Song?” I thought it was always about an unrequited love, because that’s what the song feels like, an unrequited love song. But it turns out he wrote the song for his girlfriend at the time, who is still his wife to this day. That’s not a sad song. That’s a happy song. It’s fraudulent.
That has to be weird. You’re getting older and you’re still like, “I’m sad, guys, look, I’m fucking sad. How much are you paying for the ticket—150 bucks? I’m still sad though.” I wonder if when he was really bummed early in his career, when he was at his best creative self, if one of his bandmates was like, “I think Robert’s depressed. Let’s cheer him up.” And then his other bandmate was like, “You don’t touch Robert. He’s our meal ticket. You make him smile, and I’ll fucking kill you.”
That would be a hilarious sketch on SNL 30 years ago. I missed the boat big time on that one.
HK: I met Joe Biden in Washington, D.C., a couple years ago. I tell the story on the album. He said, “If I had hair like yours, I’d be president right now.” It cracked me up. I was like, “Holy shit, that’s amazing!” But then I read an article in the New Yorker a couple of months later where they were talking about how Joe Biden has a bunch of stock lines, and one of them is, “If I had hair like yours, I’d be president right now.” It really fucking sucked.
AVC: That’s a huge bummer.
HK: That was a bummer. But it was a cool thing.
I also did a roast of James Carville at the Kennedy Center a few weeks ago. Bob Saget was hosting, and it was Jeff Ross, Jim Norton, me, Tony Kornheiser, Tucker Carlson, Paul Begala, Al Sharpton, and S.E. Cupp. It was absurd.
AVC: That’s a real motley crew.
HK: It was a great show, but it was weird as all hell.
AVC: That sounds like a very weird green room hang.
HK: Al Sharpton did not give a shit that I was there. Everybody else at least attempted to say hello. I said hello to Al Sharpton, and he shook my hand and turned the other way to his friend. I’m like, “Jesus Christ! How is he so cold?”
Paul Begala was a very nice man. He said I was funny, and that his son was a fan.
HK: Oh, brother. So many fucking things. I wrote a lot of poetry in the last two years of high school, all about the same girl I was in love with. That was pretty awful. Did you know that in poetry, every line does not need to rhyme?
AVC: I think I learned that in college.
HK: Well, I started to figure that out in high school, so maybe I was just ahead of my time. But that was a bad phase.
I had a phase where I had a mustache. There was several times where I had a mustache. I had a mustache in high school because South Asian men can potentially have a great deal of facial hair. So I had a mustache at 14, and then I grew a proper mustache a few years ago. I just thought it would be fun to just have a mustache.
My brother had a mustache, and when my brother had a mustache, it was cool. When I had a mustache, everyone just assumed I’m an immigrant and I don’t speak English, which is fascinating. It was a fascinating thing to discover how I looked versus my brother with a mustache.
I thought I’d do a TV appearance with a mustache, so I had a mustache set. It’s always fun when you see different comics at different weights or with different hair. Over the years, there are different looks. So I was like, “All right, I’ll make this my mustache show.” I was on John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show, and all of a sudden, somebody canceled, and they needed me to do a second show, so I ended up doing two shows where I had a mustache. So for years now, people have mentioned my mustache and get disappointed that when they see me live I don’t have a mustache.
AVC: Why do you think people treated your brother differently than you?
HK: My brother’s really cool. He used to be in the rap group Das Racist. He was Dapwell, the hype man. So pretty much, whatever he did, other people would follow. I, on the other hand, looked older.
I’ve always looked older. I always have a bit of a look, a bit of a frown. I’m always kind of in my head thinking. I don’t look like a lot of fun. I just don’t. When I go to a bar or a party, I feel like a student invited me to the kegger, and I actually ended up going. And everyone’s shocked: “Oh, my god, professor, I didn’t know you were actually going to come!” That’s me in any circle, really, especially when I hang out with my brother’s friends. When he has a mustache, everyone’s like, “That’s so cool! That’s amazing!”
HK: I stole something two years ago. I went into a Starbucks when I was writing for Totally Biased, so I did have some money at the time. I went into a Starbucks and decided I wanted a copy of the New York Times. It was about five at night, so it was late. Why would anyone need the New York Times right now? I went in, took the Times, put it under my arm, and got a coffee. And they were like, “Sir, the paper.” And I said, “I brought this paper in with me.” But here’s the thing: I didn’t bring it in with me! That was a good one.
AVC: That was a conscious decision?
HK: When I walked in, I saw the paper. It had been a long day, and I felt like I deserved it. There was a sense of entitlement that I rarely have, but I certainly had on that occasion. And that was that. It was mine.
Here’s another one that’s mildly amusing. I went to Seattle, and my friends and I went shopping. They had a coffee station in the supermarket. It was one of those high-end Whole Foods kind of deals. I got myself some coffee, and then my friends paid for their groceries and stuff, and then I walked out. I never paid for the coffee!
AVC: That probably happens all the time.
HK: I don’t know. The security system is pretty high-tech at this knockoff Whole Foods. That was pretty great.
HK: Well, I used to intern for Hillary Clinton. I think that’s it. Joe Biden is pretty good, though, and I used to work for Chris Rock. Hillary Clinton’s more famous than Chris Rock, I think, but it’s neck and neck.
Bonus 12th question from Mike Nelson: Which three brands of soda would you combine to create your ideal soda?
HK: Ooh, that’s so good. Let me think about it. It’s cheating if you say seltzer, by the way. You need flavor.
Let’s start easy. Sprite and… do they still have orange Slice?
HK: I’d mix that with Sprite. So already you’ve got some lemon-lime with some orange. That’s a pretty good combo. I’m staying away from Coca-Cola and Dr Pepper, even though I love them. I love root beer, but I don’t think it works with this fruit concoction.
AVC: You couldn’t really mix Coke and Dr Pepper and root beer. What would that even be?
HK: I’ve had rum and Dr Pepper, and that’s fucking fantastic. But you can’t go to a bar and be like, “Hey, let me have a rum and Dr Pepper,” because they don’t have Dr Pepper. It’s a fucking shame.
Anyway, we’ve got two in there. See, I made the rules about not being able to put club soda or soda water in there. That was my rule, and I fucked myself over with that stupid rule.
Let’s see here… I don’t like grape soda. Oh! You know what? I would mix in mango Jarritos. I’ll tell you why. First of all, it’s a specialty ingredient. I’m not saying it’s like bitters, but you’ve got the Mexican soda, and right there, it’s already getting interesting. Mango Jarritos, not the most popular type of Jarritos. Not mandarin, it’s not limón. Not everyone has mango available. You have to find it. Also, I think mango really does go well with orange and lemon. If it was a smoothie, if you got Italian ice with multiple scoops, that works.
That’s what I would do. It would be Sprite and a kind of orange soda—I think orange Slice would be best—with mango Jarritos.
AVC: What do you want to ask the next person?
HK: Let’s see, let me remember who I am. What’s a question Hari Kondabolu would ask? Chomsky or Foucault? And why?
AVC: That’s a high-brow question.
HK: Yeah, that’s what Hari Kondabolu would ask.
AVC: Do you have an answer?
HK: They had a debate, which I didn’t really understand, because it was in French and translated.
Can I ask another question? I think I stumped myself. Okay, let me do it again. Okay, okay. Oof. Oh, here we go. Australia or New Zealand, and why?
AVC: What’s your answer?
HK: New Zealand. I’ve met people from New Zealand, and I’ve met people from Australia. New Zealanders are so chill. I know they say Australians are chill, and I feel like Australians are chill, but I keep thinking, “If they get drunk, they would commit a hate crime.” Now that is an extreme position to take, but it’s just a feeling I get. New Zealand people, I don’t see that.
Also, I just met Taika Waititi, a fantastic director from New Zealand who made What We Do In The Shadows. I was doing a Q&A with him for his new film, Hunt For The Wilderpeople. During those conversations and interactions with various people from New Zealand, I felt like I could spend some time there. Perhaps in Auckland, which is a city there. A big one.