I was once told that in activism, you have to be prepared to never see the fruits of your labor. It’s for that very reason that being politically engaged and active is exhausting. Even just being politically aware — which I’m defining as reading articles, following current events, having sincere opinions and arguing on Reddit/Twitter/Tumblr — will eventually sap you of your energy, no matter what side of an issue you fall on.
Comedian Hari Kondabolu, whom you might recognize from FX’s short-lived-but-excellent Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman and Conan, performed an hour-long set of stand-up comedy at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. Not normally a comedy venue, the room was filled practically to the rafters. If you’re not familiar with Hari’s work, it’s fair to call him today’s torch bearer of mainstream political stand-up comedy. Others work some politics into their bit, but politics is part of Hari’s personality. Even when he’s talking about relationship arguments or food, there’s a twinge of political implication because it’s who he is.
When explaining his use of the term “sex worker” in a joke instead of “prostitute,” he starts arguing with himself to pre-empt any PC criticisms: “Does everything have to be political with you, Hari?!” he asks. “Yes! Yes it does! I can’t help it! That’s how I’m wired!” He calls himself something along the lines of a comedic killjoy.
Which is, itself, joyous. The real value in Hari Kondabolu’s work is that he brings joy back in to something that can sometimes feel utterly joyless. If you’re plugged in to the national conversation lately, you’ve been barraged with the lack of justice in Ferguson, with the never-ending drone war, with beheadings, with anti-social justice sentiments taking the place of anti-intellectualism of the Bush years. It is tiresome and difficult to breathe this air, and Hari’s stand-up comedy provides us a form of much needed relief.
It is tiresome and difficult to breathe this air, and Hari’s stand-up comedy provides us a form of much needed relief.
It’s not that I need to be in an echo chamber at all times, or that opposing opinions even create friction. Hari explicitly prevents this kind of smug validation with self-deprecation, cutting at things wrong with liberalism, and staging “imaginary Tumblr conversations” where someone nitpicks the politics behind his bits. Wanting to leave his show feeling like everything you believe is correct is not the point. It’s just that the climate out there can often feel like a high stakes endless treadmill, and acutely political and self-aware comedy like Hari’s gives you a second wind.
So it was before a uniquely diverse, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that Hari, in his first headlining Los Angeles show, worked out material both new and old on feminism, racism, classism, his college years and his parents. As a fan of his for some years, I’ve slowly noticed how much more active and animated he is on stage, utilizing everything from printed out articles to facial reactions. He doesn’t do voices, but he plays roles a lot, and jumps into and out of characters in meticulously crafted stories. One of these characters is his father, who lies to his friends about who Hari works for in order to impress them.
“If you’re wondering why I didn’t use an accent, fuck you,” he says at the end of the bit to uproarious applause. He wanted the laughs to be judged on the absurd actions of his parents, not their culture or how they sound. For more on this, see his amazing short film Manoj.
After some jokes about the government, Hari once again goes after himself by accusing himself of hypocrisy because he gladly took up an invitation to meet Joe Biden at a White House event. “I’m a hypocrite,” he says. “But I’m self-aware, so it’s okay. That’s how liberalism works, right?”
We all applaud because it’s one of those uncomfortable but unchangeable truths that applies to everyone. The “modern world is a mine-field for morality.” There are things in us that we know are wrong, but we have different levels of what we can tolerate, and it’s impossible to scrub everything clean. If you think about it too much, it makes you feel crazy. If you can laugh about it, if someone can make you laugh about it, you can keep doing your best and, maybe, incrementally, make a change.
Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter @wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.