Hari Kondabolu, beyond "The Problem with Apu": His comedy special cuts, but kindly

In his Netflix debut "Warn Your Relatives," Kondabolu walks the line between broad humor and bloodletting

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 10, 2018 6:00PM (EDT)

"Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives" (Netflix)
"Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives" (Netflix)

Currently there are more scripted comedies in Nielsen’s top 10 most popular series than scripted dramas. Twice as many in fact: CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” “Young Sheldon” and ABC’s “Roseanne” are in first, third and fourth place respectively, with CBS’ “Mom” ranking ninth.

Among network dramas, only “NCIS” (second place) and “Bull” (fifth) attract enough viewers to be this company; the remaining slots are occupied by reality competition series and “60 Minutes.”

Rarely has a week passed in which at least one or two CBS shows don’t pop up at the top of the TV ratings, but I don’t believe this recent popularity of broadcast half-hours is a coincidence.  We’re living in times where existence feels particularly precarious, when political decisions impacting millions appear to be made with less of a concern for global stability than to serve the vainglory of a thin-skinned celebrity.

Levity feels like a desperately needed commodity these days, and the variety plied by broadcast television serves as a gentle palliative, a half-hour great escape seized by millions every week. This is a more commonly sought-out medicine than the specific pressure-valve release afforded by stand-up, relief typified by ruthless incisions and bloodletting with little to no consideration given to whether the audience might be offended.

Somewhere on the scale between the take-no-prisoners school of Michelle Wolf and the crowd-pleasing humor slung by sitcom producers like Chuck Lorre sits “Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives,” currently streaming on Netflix.

In the same way that Kondabolu stated his case in his truTV documentary “The Problem with Apu” with a poise only slightly tinged with frustration, the conversational approach Kondabolu employs in “Warn Your Relatives” has an equable ease that reaches out to everyone in the room.

Granted, this is a lot easier when the room in question holds about 800 people, the size of the audience at Seattle’s Neptune Theater, where the special was filmed.

“As you can imagine, Seattle, my stand-up isn’t for everybody,” he declares, quickly adding, “which is why it’s good!”

This comes after a 9/11 joke, which shouldn’t work as well as it does 17 years later except for the point that all of us have been stuck in the shadow of that horror ever since. Especially Muslims and anyone Americans confuse with Muslims, mainly people of South Asians descent and Sikhs, for whom a walk through a TSA maze is rarely easy.

This gag lands because like much of “Warn Your Relatives,” it whittles universal annoyances down to the specific anxieties Kondabolu and other people of color have to deal with. A situational tale about a woman holding up the line at the airport eventually swings back to the irritation of being profiled due to, say, the simple laziness of choosing to travel unshaven.

Kondabolu’s “Warn Your Relatives” set is strongest when he digs into his personal foibles, his family stories, insecurities about his career and opportunities that have gone awry. Being not quite famous is the pupal stage for many almost-famous comedians, so in that respect this performance follows a pattern set by many that have gone before it.

By no means is that a crime, although the extent to which a person may find a story about his failure to launch via a film starring David Oyelowo depends on one’s patience for edge-case Hollywood stories. Passages leaning on the comedy of comedy itself seem similarly insiderish, constructed mainly to appease comedy nerds. One risky sequence replays the same set-up several times with different punchlines and fades out midway through. And just as it appears as if Kondabolu could charm his way out of the tailspin he takes the cheap way out, resorting to simulated masturbation.

Kondabolu’s much stronger when he weaves together material from the wreckage created by the current administration, including a takedown of alt-right sensitivities and the wearying habit of his fans fact checking him over meaningless trivia.

“Remember the good old days when we thought Joe Biden was a loose cannon? Ugh,” he says. “Things are so bad . . . everything feels like the end of a Kurt Vonnegut novel!”

We shouldn’t be as comfortable with these topics as Kondabalu makes them seem, but then again, that’s the point of “Warn Your Relatives.” The new normal is not at all normal. If politics plays heavily within its 67-minute run time, that’s excusable. Besides, we also get a few amazing bits about his mother that illustrates how much funnier she is than her son.

But even when mixing memorable accounts of absurd interactions with potshots at the right wing and strange facts about, say, mangoes, Kondabolu doesn’t attack so much as commiserate. His imitation of Middle America’s bland palate is especially entertaining, peppered by quips like, “If you use the phrase ‘ethnic food,’ you probably don’t know too many ethnics.”

Plainly Kondabolu is unafraid of coldcocking a few spit-takes out of his audience, though he proceeds and follows each hit with an intellectually astute caress, disarming you even as he winds up.

Patient may be the best way to describe up his comedy style; he wears the calm of a man who has been forced to process a lot of idiocy in his life with Herculean forbearance because he has no alternative. Brown skin doesn’t allow for angry displays lest a person be confused for a terrorist.

This isn’t necessarily a unique claim to fame, though to paraphrase one of his bits (which in turn cribs a line from A Tribe Called Quest) Kondabolu has mastered the art of being vexed and fuming while remaining entirely approachable. You can’t undersell that level of skill when it comes to humor not merely about race in America, but humor that cuts into the insidious of brand racism, sexism, homophobia and the dangerous tribalism darkening the current climate.

“I know what you’re thinking right now,” he says at one point. “Hari Kondabolu, why are you not more famous?’”

Maybe one day soon that question won’t be a punchline, and Kondabolu will join the ranks of other Asian stars in popular series. Hopefully he doesn’t have to sacrifice his sharpening edge in doing so; times like these beg for kindness even as it cuts.

Salon Talks: Kamau Bell

W. Kamau Bell, who featured Hari Kondabolu on FXX's "Totally Biased," discusses his CNN series "United Shades of America."

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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