Hari Kondabolu is pretty clearly one of the smartest people in any room he enters. He’s an alumnus of Wesleyan University, and received a Master’s Degree in Human Rights from the London School of Economics. More recently, he spent 2014-2015 as an Artist-in-Residence at New York University. As a young adult, he clearly had his options open; it would be interesting to know what compelled him to choose stand-up comedy over academia. I like to think that he looked at the employment forecasts for both, saw that they were equally dim, and chose the career that would allow him to put his face on a T-shirt.
Still, Kondabolu’s book smarts were on display during his performance at JFL NorthWest last Thursday. For one thing, he’s a comedian that does his research. He clearly Googled ‘Canada’ a few hours before arriving, and made some light jokes about Stephen Harper’s tenure as prime minister being analogous to a long-term relationship you’re not quite sure how to get out of. It was good stuff, very relatable, and well received by the audience at the Biltmore Cabaret.
However, Kondabolu’s stand up has more going for it than gentle riffs on political fluctuations. Often, humour is about identifying the daily absurdities that most of us are aware of, but haven’t yet been able to articulate for ourselves. Hari Kondabolu is very good at this exact thing. In one of his best jokes, he deconstructed the weird rhetorical strategy of ‘playing the devil’s advocate’. First of all, he explained, Satan does not need anyone’s help. Furthermore, if you know you’re saying something offensive, you do not improve your case by aligning yourself with the Prince of Darkness.
For someone who’s so strong at observational comedy, Kondabolu is also improbably skilled at conjuring very specific hypothetical scenarios. In one such vignette he imagined Pittsburgh-born pop artist Andy Warhol opening an exhibition in New York and fending off the Steely Dan-loving hometown friends who’d come to support him. He later admitted that Steely Dan was not actually from Pittsburgh, but no matter. Somehow, the scene was both specific and universal.
If we can tempt Kondabolu into returning to Vancouver at some point, I highly recommend seeing his show. If not, his debut album, Waiting for 2042, is currently available on iTunes. It would be worth your while to brush up on his work while you can. I’m not much of a gambling woman, but I’d be willing to bet that he’s destined for a Netflix special, and it’s always satisfying to say that everyone’s new idol is your long-term favourite.
Hari Kondabolu performed at JFL NorthWest, Vancouver's own comedy festival, on February 25, 2016. For more information about the festival, visit jflnorthwest.com.