Hari Kondabolu ’04 nearly incited a race riot in Jack Magee’s Pub during his senior spring at Bowdoin.
At least, that is what the Orient wrote at the time, according to the comedian.
“I think there was a shitty Orient article on the event that implicates me,” said Kondabolu, who is currently touring behind his debut standup album, “Waiting for 2042.” “I did a set that night where I decided to be more abrasive and a lot harsher about race than I ever had been.”
The event in question was a Black History Month gathering on a Thursday night in Jack Magee’s Pub and Grill. Slam poets, singers and other artists performed in honor of African American heritage. Late in the evening, a group of students with a weekly tradition of bowling and later drinking at the Pub arrived to find the Black History Month even taking place.
“Instead of joining the Black History Month open mic that was happening, they were pissed off that they couldn’t just drink and listen to shitty music,” said Kondabolu in a phone interview with the Orient. “They disputed the thing and the n-word was said at some point. It was this huge thing.”
The Black History Month event organizers put up posters the next day with images of black slaves covered in whip marks. Administrators took the posters down, and the campus dealt with the incident by hosting a series of open forums at which students could discuss their feelings.
“[The posters were] the organizers saying ‘You took our history from us and now we bring it to you,’” Kondabolu said. “I loved it.”
“Sometimes there’s unpleasantness,” he added. “Sometimes you do something abrasive and unpleasant to jolt the campus into thinking. And instead of doing that we just ended up having a bunch of forums...They were aggressive and trying to do something important, and instead we did just the same old fucking thing we always do.”
That incident and its aftermath, along with many other experiences at Bowdoin, shaped Kondabolu’s worldview and directly influence his comedy to this day, he said.
"I was a middle-class kid from Queens, New York, and I went to college in Brunswick, Maine with a lot of kids who had money that I never knew existed and used the word ‘summer’ as a verb," he said. "It was a bit of a shock."
“There are Bowdoin marks on [the album]. When I mention lacrosse, for example. Bowdoin will know ‘Okay, that was clearly from whatever bitterness he had 10 years ago,'" Kondabolu said, laughing. "All that stuff, in different ways, shows up in my act. I’m old enough now that it’s not something that I carry every single day, but it’s shaped how I see justice and unfairness and inequality."
After graduating from Bowdoin in 2004, Kondabolu moved to Seattle to work as an immigrant rights organizer. At night, Kondabolu would work his standup at local open mics and showcases, but comedy was strictly a hobby for him.
The HBO Comedy Festival had other ideas, however. While scouting for talent in Seattle in 2007, the festival organizers approached Kondabolu and asked him to participate. Little did he know that the opportunity would lead to him appearing on late-night television much sooner in his career than anyone could have expected.
"They wanted to promote the festival and the [Jimmy Kimmel Live] people saw my tape and said, ‘Let’s put this kid on,'" he recalled. "I never even imagined myself on TV. I never thought of that as a possibility. So all of a sudden, I have to be on TV, and the next play I get on a plane, fly back to Seattle and go to work. I was scared to death and I was doing material that I wasn’t doing regularly at the time in Seattle.”
A year later, Kondabolu received a Masters in Human Rights at the London School of Economics. It was then that he decided to pursue comedy full-time in Seattle. After making a name for himself by touring colleges and clubs and appearing on Comedy Central a handful of times, he found himself on a late-night show once again, this time with Conan O'Brien in 2012.
“The Conan set I felt like I was ready for, unfortunately I got sick the week of," he says. "If you see the tape, I’m giving it the best I got. I’m performing my heart out but I was clearly congested and my voice wasn’t as strong as it needed to be. But it was fine for what it was.”
The same year, Kondabolu moved to New York—a rite of passage for comedians ready to take on bigger stages. He took a writing job for the FX show “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell,” a late-night comedy show with a stand up-heavy focus. The now-cancelled “Totally Biased,” like much of Kondabolu's own comedy, framed discussions of race and class in terms not recognized by a wider audience. SFGate wrote that the show "makes 'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart' look like something your dad watches."
On July 16 of last year, Kondabolu recorded “Waiting for 2042” in Oakland. The album's title is a reference to the year that demographers predict will be the first in which white people will no longer be the majority in America. True to form, Kondabolu riffs on race, feminism and health care while also setting his sights on Matthew McConaughey and "American liberal cowards" who threaten to flee to Canada every time a Republican wins and election.
For Kondabolu, the decision to craft a stand up set for an album format instead of doing a TV special was a deliberate one.
“I had wanted to make a record for a while, but my confidence would waver," he said. "It was weird because I knew I wanted to make it—it was a dream. But this pressure when you decide to put something in an album format, you’re saying this represents an era, and that was a hard thing."
“With my own album, I could tell my jokes the way I wanted to tell them. That brought life into the idea of making something with old material. I wanted it to have a through line--pieces that connected with callbacks. I wanted it to make internal sense, not just be a group of mp3s in a folder.”
Since the album’s release on March 11, Kondabolu has been touring, stopping in places like San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and St. Louis. Last week, he made his first-ever stand up performance on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
“The Letterman set was good," he said. "I felt like I was in control, I knew what I was doing and I was confident. I do what I do. I’m at a certain point now where of course I want people to laugh, but I also know that everyone’s not going to laugh at everything I say."
After the set aired, Kondabolu tweeted, "I might be the 1st comic to say 'race is a social construct' on late night TV," referring to the joke with which he closed the set.
"When I submitted that [bit] I considered it a long-shot," he said. "I thought ‘Oh, they’re not gonna let me do that. I can already rule it out.’ But they let me do it, and that bit to me is the most important bit in that set, because that bit questions things that we take for granted. I use the phrase ‘social construct,’ which is not something everyone’s going to understand, but for people who got it, it was the wink to them."
Much of Kondabolu's material similarly appeals to societally marginalized groups. In a “Totally Biased” segment in which he discussed the growing number of Indian-Americans with public platforms, he joked "There's, like, 14 of us now." Being in a position of representing others has made him reconsider his approach at times.
“Who wants to be the representative of a thing? Who wants to speak for a ton of people? I don’t want to do that. I speak for myself," he said. "But I’ve been in the position of ‘The only voice we have is Apu?’ or ‘I love Chris Rock because he’s speaking the truth. Nobody else is saying this.’ I know what it’s like to really love a performer because they’re doing something that means a lot to me."
Kondabolu said the academic experiences he had at Bowdoin shape his humor as much as the social ones.
“Just the format of how I talk, you can tell that we have the same education," he said, laughing. "My jokes are often little essays, right? I have a thesis and supporting information. I enumerate!"
Kondabolu felt lucky to have plenty of opportunities to form and sharpen his style while at Bowdoin.
“When I got to Seattle at 23, I was more polished than a lot of people in the scene because I had been doing long sets in college—and had an audience—for four years," he said. "Those were really important, formative years and obviously contributed to me being who I am.”
The incident at the Pub was an extreme example of the complex and often displeasing racial and social dynamics at Bowdoin that affected Kondabolu. However, his college experience was quite positive, overall.
“I got to do 45 minutes as a senior in front of 300 people," he said. “I would do open mics and 100 people would show up just to see me work new material, even though they knew it would be terrible. When I went to Wesleyan [for his junior year abroad], Bowdoin paid for me to come back twice, once each semester, to do standup on campus.
“So as much as I say that I was frustrated by certain parts of my experience, which ultimately has shaped me in a positive way, I was nurtured and loved on that campus. It was a really close community.”