Hari Kondabolu: Accidental activist

JASON ZABEL | Updated 4/28/2014

Comedian Hari Kondabolu doesn’t want to be pigeonholed.

Hari Kondabolu: “The truth is, a lot of art that has the word ‘activist’ or ‘social justice’ in it really sucks.”

Hari Kondabolu has some great stories, not all of them pleasant. One tale he occasionally recounts onstage is about the time his father picked him up at the airport in New York. As Kondabolu, a Southeast Asian, was getting into the car, another traveler asked if he could split the fare, assuming the man behind the wheel was a cabdriver. The payoff to the joke is that Kondabolu says yes to the offer, even though the driver is obviously his father. But hey, a fare’s a fare.

Chances are that if you are aware of the comedian, who headlines his first Minneapolis show at the Cedar Cultural Center on Tuesday, you know that he’s someone who expounds on matters of race. In fact, it’s sort of become a point of contention for him. The contentious part being that he likes to be known as a comedian first and a “Southeast Asian comedian” who talks a lot about human rights second. A very distant second. He even created a short 2007 film on the subject called “Manoj,” which excoriates comedians who use their ethnic makeup as leveraging material.

“The truth is, a lot of art that has the word ‘activist or ‘social justice’ in it really sucks,” says Kondabolu. But a quick peek into Kondabolu’s personal history exposes why his audience might jump to those labels. He has a master’s degree in human rights from the London School of Economics and has been everything from an immigrant advocate to an aspiring lawyer. But to Kondabolu, to label him would be a disservice, even though “there could have been a Ph.D. here,” he jokes.

“What a lot of activist artists are forgetting is the art part,” says Kondabolu. “The message is there, but you don’t play the guitar well, and you don’t sing well and that joke is flat. [Many have] done the message a service by being clear, but the actual art part is bad.”

And that’s a great part of the live show for Kondabolu, because it’s onstage and in person, where he feels most free. There’s no one dictating structure, no network or producer demanding he make every joke funnier or punchier, and no reason not to play with the natural arc of the evening.

His most recent album, “Waiting for 2042,” references the year when census analysts say white people will make up less than 50 percent of the U.S. population. Kondabolu says he’s particularly proud that the album is structured exactly the way he wants. For him, there’s purpose in construction, something he doesn’t fully control on a Comedy Central special or a segment for David Letterman. On TV, he notes, you work in a world of flashy edits, commercial breaks and swearwords that get bleeped out.

“Don’t get me wrong — it’s great to be on TV,” says Kondabolu. “But you’re definitely not the only one dictating the end product.”

And if you’re a serious artist, a person who believes that what you have to say matters, you have to take all of that into account.

“I’m not a person who wants to spread a message or have the audience leave having learned something,” he says, adding that he aims to deliver an interesting experience.

And that goes down to the details.

“I like to choose my words carefully. If I’m saying the word ‘sex worker,’ there’s a reason I chose that over ‘prostitute.’ There’s a purposeful decision there,” says Kondabolu.

For Kondabolu, comedy doesn’t need to be constructed as a kind of rapid-fire giggle fest. “It’s about the hour, not the minute, and for some fans that’s a turnoff.”

Hari Kondabolu

With: Brandi Brown and Raghav Mehta.

When: 7 p.m. Tue.

Where: Cedar Cultural Center, 416 Cedar Av. S., Mpls.

Tickets: $15-$18. www.thecedar.org.