Hari Kondabolu Brings The Mainstream To Berlin
New York-based comic Hari Kondabolu riffed on racism, politics, and social justice at the Comedy Café Berlin at his December 18th show. He represents a growing movement to bring internationally prominent comedians to the German capital.
Kondabolu is not a do-gooder, but in his comedy, he explores what happens when people propagate misconceptions. Typical of his incisive style, he asks why Rachel Dolezal, a former NAACP President in Spokane, Washington, could choose to be black, but not all people can choose to be white. “I wonder what happened the first time Rachel Dolezal experienced racism? Was it like, ‘Go back to Africa!’ ‘Oh. My. God. It worked! Dear diary, today’s the best day of my life…’” He then takes aim at the continued use of "blackface" on U.S. college campuses and in Europe. From colonialism to meeting Joe Biden, his jokes make you face the realities of oppressed groups and minorities.
This comedy draws strongly on the American ideal of being a diverse yet unified, open, and just society. “It should be part of an integration and a redefinition of Americanness. We’re all American at the end of the day,” he said in an interview with The Guardian. “It’s not like everything we’re talking about is cultural. It’s just observations that anybody else would make about their life.”
Since the show was in Berlin, Kondabolu also gave a nod to cultural appropriation in Germany, critiquing the death of Winnetou, the Native American protagonist in Karl May’s "Wild West" novels and 1960s films, who before dying from a gunshot wound, converts to Christianity. Largely due to the Winnetou phenomenon, many Germans claim to identify with the “native peoples” rather than the cowboys, and “Indian Hobbyism” still manifests itself in costumes, clubs, and festivals around Germany. A "Winnetou" remake will also be released this year.
Kondabolu’s rational approach makes “progressive” viewpoints seem clear and self-evident. Talking about the sexism that pervades everyday life, he criticizes the saying boys will be boys, “because when has that ever come after something good?” Practical solutions included a morning after sympathy pill for men ("someone will want to wear a condom.")
But social norms influence his material too - something he isn’t afraid to point out. His “feminist d--- joke” highlights how absurd it is to say that a woman president would be biologically impaired every month. “As a man who happens to have a penis, I can say that my logic is impaired every 5 to 7 minutes.” Then he starts talking with an imaginary Tumblr commenter: “But Hari Kondabolu, can you write a joke that doesn’t reinforce gender binaries?” “Look, I’m doing the best I can. I did say ‘happens to have a penis and testicles,' which implies that not all men have a penis and testicles. Perhaps I can write a post-script at the end of the joke that includes the transgender community in some small way, and perhaps I can write a joke in the future that truly is more inclusive.”
Some of the subjects were less nuanced. Talking about contemporary art, he said, “I once saw an exhibition which was a room with four canvases all painted red, and they were all entitled Untitled. Put some effort in!” And a little further on, “Let’s face it: art is what rich people decide it is. A guy cast his s--- in bronze - and people paid to see it. That’s not a joke – it’s abstract art, but if a person carves some beautiful, intricate sculpture of an elephant than that’s not ‘art.’” For a comic who is pushing the envelope, his definition of art sounds deliberately simplified but also uninformed.
In German comedy, discussions of cultural appropriation, sexism, and gender norms are scarce, often simplified or superficial, but this might be changing. In 2015, more than 1 million refugees arrived in Germany, forcing Germans to confront migration, integration, and inclusion on an unprecedented scale. Even politicians on the left are pushing back against an open refugee policy, while far-right parties like Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) and AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) continue with a radical agenda. The attacks in Cologne have further intensified the national discussion.
Kondabolu departs from predictable pro and con arguments surrounding immigration and identity. This is not lazy political entertainment. It is a tendentious and mainstream comedy. In a long line of comedians who bring important issues to the stage, Kondabolu isn’t revolutionary. Rather, his straightforward approach elevates the public discourse by making disregarded realities visible, whether you want to see them or not.
Hari Kondabolu’s album is titled Waiting for 2042.