Comedian Hari Kondabolu once joked — after turning down an acting job as an Indian bodega clerk — that his ideal Hollywood film role would be "a young sociology professor at a small liberal arts school in Vermont who is desperately trying to stay hip."
"Hey, you don't have to cite your sources in this class," he said, in character. "I trust you."
Sorry, Middlebury College. This first-generation Indian American comic sensation has already landed a gig on another college campus — as the 2014-15 artist-in-residence at New York University's Asian/Pacific/American Institute. But he will be performing at Burlington's ArtsRiot next week as part of the Will Miller Social Justice Lecture Series.
Not bad for a former immigration-rights organizer with a master's degree in human rights from the London School of Economics, for whom standup was just "a hobby that got away from me."
The 31-year-old Queens, N.Y., native (whose first name is pronounced "HUH-ree") was discovered in 2006 by the HBO Comedy Festival. Since then, Kondabolu has appeared on "The Late Show With David Letterman," "Conan," "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and "John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show," among others. In April, National Public Radio's Terry Gross interviewed him for more than 45 minutes on "Fresh Air."
Kondabolu often trains his smart, aggressive wit on issues of race, gender and colonialism, as evidenced by his debut album, Waiting for 2042 — a reference to the year when the U.S. Census Bureau projects that white people will be a minority group in this country. He riffs on everything from the absurdity of white chocolate ("from the same people who brought you white Jesus!") to the daily indignity of his computer's spell-check changing his first name to "Hair."
"My parents weren't hippies!" he says. "Over a billion Indian people in the world, at least 5 million Haris — and I'm sure at least half of them work for Microsoft. That mistake is unacceptable!"
Given the mission of the Will Miller Social Justice Lecture Series, Kondabolu expects a sympathetic crowd at ArtsRiot even if he's one of few brown people in the room. He does, however, make one request of audience members: If you like his act, don't snap your fingers, as slam-poetry audiences do.
"It's an awful feeling for me, because comedians are very simple creatures," he explains. "We have a very specific goal, which is to make you laugh, not snap. Clapping is fine, as long as I hear laughter with it."
Seven Days reached Kondabolu by phone last week at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
SEVEN DAYS: You're aware that Vermont is the second whitest state in the country, right?
HARI KONDABOLU: What's No. 1 — Maine? I went to college in Maine, so this is sort of a homecoming ... I [performed] at the University of Vermont a while ago. It was in this weird cafeteria space that wasn't ideal for standup. It's always weird when you have to compete with food, because food will always win. There were some kids who were like, "This is so exciting! I can't believe he's saying that!" And others were like, "I'm 18 and what he's saying frightens me!"
SD: Do you like it that your humor makes some people uneasy?
HK: Yeah, I get that. Even with the folks who like me and share my values, they're uncomfortable with me talking about race for too long. "Thank God he's talking about the environment now!" And then there are shows where people don't like anything that I'm saying, and it's clear that not only do they not like me as a comedian, but they don't like me as a being.
SD: You've joked about a heckler in Denmark who yelled, "Go back to America!" because usually the racists tell you to go back to some other country.
HK: I've gotten India, Iraq, Pakistan. The truth is, wherever there's a war, [hecklers say] I should go back there. Some people are just being assholes and like to see my reaction. There's also people who mean it. It's weird when that happens in New York. It doesn't happen all the time, but when it does, it's like, how do you live here? And part of me is like, I'm glad you live here, because every day must be hellish for you.
SD: You once said that 9/11 was a turning point for you. How so?
HK: I was a college student at the time, and as an artist and young person, you're figuring out who you are, what your voice is and what you want to share with the world. My early stuff was kind of hacky, which I think is true of a lot of comics. But you do what it takes to get people to laugh. And, as a brown person, it became very clear that that was something I had to talk about. I wasn't playing with stereotypes. I was being stereotypes. But as I started to think more about the world, especially post-9/11 and the government's targeting of Muslims and south Asians and all brown people, and also seeing hate violence in Queens, where I grew up, all of a sudden I'm hearing my act, and hearing myself say things that I didn't believe. It didn't make sense anymore. And so I started writing things more from the heart.
SD: I understand you performed in India as part of a State Department cultural event with two other comedians.
HK: Yeah, [Sen.] Rand Paul has brought it up several times ... whenever he talks about Obama, Benghazi and Hillary Clinton. "This is somebody who let three comedians go to India." It's very strange. I have not been mentioned by name, but that [tour] has been mentioned in Senate hearings several times.
SD: What's his gripe?
HK: That it was a waste of money and a misuse of resources. First of all, the American taxpayer has been paying for artists to go to other countries for years. This is not new. It's been done by many presidents. Secondly, the word "comedian" is a dirty word when Rand Paul says it. "Can you believe it? They sent three clowns to India!" If it were jazz musicians, he wouldn't have mentioned it. But because it's comedians, it's horrifying. But they do these things for good will. And comedy is actually perfect, because it features one of the great things we talk about [in this country], which is free speech and the right to say what you want, to question government and do it publicly.
SD: Do you see your comedy as a form of activism?
HK: I hate when people call me a "social justice comedian" or an "activist comedian." I understand this is a social justice lecture series, which I'm really happy to be a part of, because the audience will get a lot of the points of view. But at the same time, I'm trying to be a mainstream American comedian. That's my goal. I want to reach as many people as possible. The goal of social justice is also to reach as many people as possible. But I don't come with an agenda and say, "This is how we change the world 101."
The original print version of this article was headlined "Social Justice Standup: The Will Miller Lecture Series Goes for Laughs"
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.