Popaganda Episode: Political Joke

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On this show, we talk with two whip-smart political comedians. Hari Kondabolu says he's a “killjoy who happens to do comedy.” We talk with Hari about his immensely popular standup routine, which focuses on jokes about race and inequality, then catch up with Erin Gibson, the host of gays-and-ladies-focused podcast Throwing Shade.

This show features the the song “Lucky Girl” by Tetes Noires. 

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SARAH MIRK: Okay, here's a confession. I kind of dread going to see stand-up comedy. First of all, when the comedians aren't funny, I feel really bad for them, like I wish I was laughing but I also wish they were funny. And often I don't find political comedy funny, because it deals with shallow, easy targets. People are still making fun of George W. Bush for being dumb. And comparing Congress to traffic jams. Didn't see that coming! Well today on the show, I talk with two comedians who regularly mark smart, surprising political comedy that makes audiences think about important issues in new ways. First up is comedian Hari Kondabolu, who has been doing stand-up on TV and on stage around the country over the past decade, then I sit down with Erin Gibson, one of the hosts of the just filthy podcast Throwing Shade. Stay tuned. 

[clip of Hari's standup] 

That's a bit from comedian Hari Kondabolu, who is the only stand-up comedian I know who also has a masters degree in human rights. Hari, who grew up in New York and now spends a lot of his time on the road doing shows, become astoundingly popular in recent years for his incisive style. He's been on Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel's and the show Totally Biased, bringing really pretty dark and hard-hitting jokes about race, class, and inequality to wide audiences. He just put out his first comedy album, Waiting for 2042. I talked with Hari in Portland, Oregon, before his completely sold-out show at the Helium Comedy Club. 

HARI KONDABOLU: The thing about being in Portland or Seattle or San Francisco, but especially Seattle, is my brain just opens up. People are with me, so I feel comfortable taking risks that I wouldn't feel comfortable making other places. It's like, okay, you get the 101, you're with me on the premise. You agree there is racism so I can talk about what that means on a deeper level, rather than fighting off groans. 

SARAH: Can you give me an example of how a joke would change in front of a more conservative audience or of a joke you'll only tell in cities that get it? 

HARI: I have a joke about colonialism that I start the set with. It's a hard joke to begin with. It's basically how, I travel a lot, but I don't really like the long lines and bureaucracy of immigration. Australia is the worst because apparently they're so far from the rest of the planet so they're really strict about you not bringing in fruits and plants. They're worried about foreign bodies coming in to the country and destroying the native life which is a valid fear because if you ask the Aborigines, sometimes foreign bodies enter Australia, destroy the environment and kill people. Yes, this will be a set tonight about colonialism, which is why I will be speaking only in English.

SARAH: [laughs] 

HARI: It's a very long joke, it takes a while to get anywhere. It has colonialism as a punchline and is about Aborigines in Australia—it's such a pain-in-the-ass joke to tell and to hear that if it goes well, I know, okay, this is going to be a good show. 

SARAH: So you start with that joke to basically test the audience? 

HARI: I have been, yeah. If it goes really poorly, it's a sign that other things in my set might have a harder time and I might reconfigure them in my head while I'm up there. It's a way for me to test the waters. People who really like my stuff, as soon as they hear the word “colonialism,” they're psyched to even hear the word. If there's any kind of “ehhh?” or “huh?” I go, okay, I guess I'll do some lighter jokes up front to warm them up and then get into the stuff I want to talk about. 

SARAH: Do you still get into that deeper, darker stuff, though? Your jokes are always really smart and about important issues, like race and inequality, do you ever just want to throw in some dumb stuff?  

HARI: I do throw in some dumb stuff. Like I have a joke about going to an erotic bakery in Seattle—

SARAH: I've been to that erotic bakery! 

HARI: You know what I'm talking about? 

SARAH: Yeah, it's a bit of a let-down. 

HARI: Kind of, but there are actually penis and breast cakes, if it didn't have that, it would be a let-down. 

SARAH: They just weren't very tasty. 

HARI: Yeah, I don't know how much they focus on the bakery part of it. But it is weird, it's just a penis or breasts, there's no body attached to it. Where's the body?  

SARAH: [laughs] But the point is, so you can tell a joke about the erotic bakery, but then —

HARI: Well I run out of stuff like that! The thing is that most of my jokes are infused with political ideas or something I care about. It's not necessarily by design, it's just because of who I am. I'm a killjoy who just happens to do comedy. I'm connected to all these ideas and I'm constantly thinking about our impact on the world, so my writing is going to be about these issues even if I don't mean it to be. I can't help it, that's just how I think. So at a certain point, I run out of dumb stuff and family stories. And you need to have that kind of stuff, because you need to have range. Part of performing is survival. The greater goal of performing is actually presenting a version of yourself that you want to present and material that is challenging, but if you're at a comedy club and people are not expecting this on a Friday night, in all fairness because you're drunk and it's Friday and some random dude is talking about colonialism, it's a little frustrating, I'd imagine. So you have to mix in something for that.  

SARAH: How is your onstage persona different from how you are in real life? 

HARI: I'm more reasonable as a human offstage. You're doing an exaggerated version of yourself onstage. I will listen to people offstage and I'm not going to yell at you, necessarily. I'm someone who believes in communication and dialogue and I don't always succeed at that, but onstage I serve a different role, I think, I have more fire. And I like that role, but that person, offstage, wouldn't be able to function. That's just not how you can communicate with other people, by screaming at them and telling them they're wrong. 

SARAH: You've done a lot of work on social justice issues, I know you worked for an immigration rights nonprofit in Seattle—what's the obligation you feel to include that kind of content in your comedy work? 

HARI: I do this because I want to make people laugh. Who I am is a political being, I can't help but be this way, this is how I've developed as a human, I make these connections. So that's the way I am onstage. I read about something, I'm going to write about it. I have an interesting conversation with someone about an issue, I'm going to write about it. It's not like, “I need to cover this, this, and this today”—though there is some of that, I suppose, but if it doesn't make people laugh, I'm not going to talk about it. It's driven by comedy and jokes. I have people sending me messages saying, “Can you write about this?” But that's not how this works. You can't ask me to write about a thing and I can just magically write about it, I have to have an investment. And I have an investment in justice. But you can't just make something funny, I'm not sure how that happens. You have to find an in-road to an idea, a way to get to the laughs and you take it there, but that doesn't just happen with every story. I don't have an agenda onstage. My only agenda is to make people laugh on my terms. 

SARAH: That's an interesting way to say it. In riffing off telling comedy on your terms and not someone else's, I heard you got some hate mail after your show last night—

HARI: Ha! Do you want me to read the hate mail?  

SARAH: Yes.  

HARI: Okay, well I have this folder called “fan mail” and I keep the hate mail in with the fan mail, because it's a reminder that this person hates me for the right reasons and this person likes me for the right reasons and I'm the same person in both those circumstances. This letter is almost like a caricature of my hate mail. Like, this is exactly what someone who would hate me would write. It almost feels like, “Did I wake up in the middle of the night and email myself as a reminder to create this character?” No, this is real. So first of all, the person's name is Thad. So already, that's so fake! That's so phony. [Reads] “I came to your show at the Neptune last night in Seattle.” So I'm thinking, this is going to be good, that was a good show! I had a great show last night, people were lovely, it was one of those magical nights that you remember on the shitty nights and it uplifts you. [reads] “I want you to know that you have become the cliche that you are trying to avoid. You talked a lot about how you want to be a comic rather than an Indian comic.” I didn't quite say that, I said I wanted to be a comic and ethnicity is part of who I am but America is complicated and diverse and we should all be seen as part of the whole, my story is as important as any other story. But he didn't get that. [reading] “For reference, please refer to your curry sauce joke.” I have a joke about someone at a liberal arts college newspaper in New York referring to my show with the headline, “Rice, Laughs, and Curry Sauce.” I talk about how much that upset me because that's not what I do at all.

SARAH: I don't understand that headline at all. 

HARI: It goes off on this thing about, “Hari's coming to 'spice it up' with his own 'unique blend' of South Asian humor. Ready to laugh until you're spewing curry out of your nose?” 

SARAH: Ohhh.

HARI: It's the worst. [reading] “Instead, you have become just another non-white comic who makes fun of white people. There are plenty of these. Look it up. You just a non-white comic standing on the stage talking about white power.” That's accurate. I am doing that. So what he hears when he hears the word “race” and “white,” he thinks it's all the same. It's like going into a restaurant and saying, “It's always food with you people! All food is the same! More American food? I'm sick of this! It's all just food to me.” [reading] “I am a white male and I am very offended by what you said. You are using your race as a crutch to make jokes and it is not creative. You assume that white people, the 49%, what a bullshit number to use to describe me. You don't know me.” Okay, that is obviously not what I said. I said white people would be the minority according to census figures, then I go on to talk about how that's absurd because race is a construct, “white” isn't a real thing.  But he missed all that. What he heard was, “White? You just gave me a number!” And then that's it. He missed the joke. Then he closes by saying, [reading] “You seem very smart and had a nice stage presence.” 

SARAH: How sweet! 

HARI: [reading] “However, it took all my strength not to get up and walk out. Good luck. Jason.” So he goes by Jason and Thad? It's interesting because it took all his strength to hear a different person's perspective, which is a white dude thing to say, isn't it? It took all my strength to hear people enjoy themselves and to hear someone else talk! You shoulda walked out. You're weak. It wasn't strength that kept you from walking out, it was that you were comfortable in your seat, with your alcohol. You're weak, Jason/Thad. You shoulda walked out. You're a coward! 

SARAH: So do you feel bolstered by an email like that? 

HARI: I find it humorous. I find it humorous that this guy missed the whole point, but that he's still there. And I feel like it's changing and he's going to have to catch up. There's a reason my shows are as diverse as they are. Because there's a lot of people who are like, “We're being fucked over.” And this guy doesn't get it. Recently, I've been thinking about the word “teammate.” People use the word “ally” but I like the word “teammate.” It's a broad spectrum. Are we on the same team? Are we fighting for a better future? Are we in it together to get rid of some of this shit that's a relic of our past?   

[musical break]

SARAH: That was comedian Hari Kondabolu. His new album is called Waiting for 2042. I'm hoping it will be immensely popular. 

[musical break]  

SARAH: Have you ever had that situation where you run out of internet? This doesn't happen to me very often, I usually have a major guilt-tripping backlog of shows I'm supposed to watch and podcasts I'm supposed to listen to, but sometimes when I have a lot of errands and I've been doing dishes and laundry and walking places all day, I run out of all the things to I usually listen to and watch online. And then, oh the horror, I have find NEW things. It was in this desperate situation that I came across the podcast Throwing Shade last year. The show veers from discussion of reproductive rights to fart jokes to diatribes about family and listening for the first time, I thought, WHAT IS THIS SHOW? But I couldn't stop listening. Nowdays, when I ask my friends for their favorite podcasts, Throwing Shade is almost always at the top of the list. Hosts Erin Gibson and Bryan Safi host the irreverent and rambling weekly show about politics and their personal lives, all held together by their tagline tagline: “Taking a look at all the issues important to ladies and gays… and treating them with much less respect than they deserve.” The show now also has a video version on FunnyorDie.com and is doing live shows in theaters around the country. Erin Gibson took a break from the show to talk with me about feminist comedy.  

SARAH: Well, I have trouble describing your show to people. The best way I can think of to describe it is that it's filthy and sounds like it would be annoying, but it's not. 

ERIN GIBSON: Oh thanks for the compliment! 

SARAH: You're welcome! They're free. So, can you tell me what tone you and Brian Safi go for with your show? What notes are you trying to hit?  

ERIN GIBSON: I'll tell you how it came about. It was a bit of an act of rebellion. We started doing comedy on a show called Infomania on Current TV, which is now Al Jazeera, so you know, doing everything right. I was doing a  segment called Modern Lady, which was an extension of what Sarah Haskins was doing with Target Women, taking a look at how media looks at and treats women. That show was on TV, but we still had a lot of rules that we had to follow about what we could talk about and how dirty we could be. The show was run by straight dudes and it felt like there was a lot of stuff we had to not necessarily fight for, but explain. For example, I had this joke about Carlos Santana and shoes. And they were like, “That doesn't make any sense. Santana doesn't wear weird shoes.” And I was like, “He makes shoes! He has an entire line of women's shoes.” They didn't believe me. Clearly, that shouldn't be the thing that frustrated me, but if was things like that which maybe not all women in general know—and it's not always Carlos Santana's shoes, it's like abortion rights and all these dating rules. There was a thing going on where there's people who don't live that life and they don't have gay friends or many women friends, they just don't get stuff. So when that show got cancelled, we decided we were going to do whatever we wanted with no censorship. We decided we would talk about our genitals a lot. A lot of the basis of where sexism and homophobia comes from is from people not being very sex-positive. So we decided we were going to break everybody. We would make it not a big deal to talk about genitals because we're going to talk about them in a way that's  so absurd and weird and it will make it okay to talk about stuff that's actually important. 

SARAH: Can you tell me how you became an outspoken jokester on political topics? Have you always thought of yourself as a political person? 

ERIN: No way. Growing up, my goal was always to be a comedian. After college, I went to Second City in Chicago and then moved to LA and did UCB and I really never ever did political stuff. I did raunchy stuff. I grew up in Texas and there was a lot of stuff I wasn't allowed to talk about, like politics and religion, so I kind of was let free to do that at Second CIty in Chicago and at UCB. That's all I wanted to really do. My passion for women's issues came out of being in Los Angeles and auditioning for jobs. My ex-husband, who is a director, we would always have this discussion when we were reading scripts, I'd say, “Notice how many women are talking in this episode.” I would do the Bechdel test with him. He's very progressive, but he wasn't really aware of that stuff. I think it's different now, because there's so many great female-driven shows, but six, seven years ago, it wasn't like that. My frustration came out of the kind of jobs I was being offered and the kind of jobs I was auditioning for. When I got the job at Current, I branched out into politics and started getting involved in, like, oh, all the trends in how abortion laws are being reversed and what's happening with Obamacare and how people are angry that we want to cover birth control—that all stemmed from a really selfish place of I wasn't able to audition for funny roles. 

SARAH: It sounds like you really came to having politics on your radar through your participation in pop culture. Sitting there reading through scripts, you start to think, “Something's off here.”  

ERIN: Yeah. This is going to sound really childish, but I did all this work to escape Texas and in my fantasy of what that was going to be like, I was going to be able to do the kind of jokes I think are funny—silly, irreverent kind of roles in comedy. And those just weren't being written for women and I wasn't having fun. That's what made me frustrated in this place where I'd worked so hard to get to. 

SARAH: That's really interesting. You're not having fun and that makes you focus on everything that's still wrong with our country, even outside of Texas. I feel like there's a strong perception in our country that bigotry only exists in certain places. We can write off the whole state of Texas as, “Ugh. Those people are crazy.” But really, these issues are systemic and pervade our entire society, right down to the scripts you're reading all the way up to the White House. 

ERIN: For sure. At first I was really angry and I was like, “Why are these people writing crappy roles for women?!” or I'd get to an audition and say, “There are no jokes for me to say.” I was just setting up jokes for other people, for dudes. I didn't want to be someone's set-up lady, I didn't want to be just be a prop. You wouldn't get any of the glory. Even if you did set up a joke, no one would care because you're not the one delivering the punchline. So I got angry about it and then was like, “Calm down, why don't you just write your own stuff?”  So I started writing with my first writing partner a series called Roommating. I love that series, because I feel like we were doing things that weren't a normal guy-girl situation. There was no romance in the show. We were just bros. I mean that in a gender-neutral way, even though it's not really gender-neutral. We were just two people talking, rather than two people who want to have sex with each other. Other than Will and Grace, I can't really think of any show from the nineties that didn't have a romantic interest. So that made me realize that I didn't just need to be angry about it, i needed to do something about it. It made me feel a lot more confident and powerful, like I had control over the situation rather than just having to take what was given to me. 

SARAH: Now that you have your own platform, are there topics you don't like to joke about? Are there times when you feel like you don't want to push it too far?   

ERIN: I don't really like to talk about rape. I have not figured out a way to make it funny. Not that rape itself is funny, but we have cut out a couple segments during the two years of doing the podcast where I've felt like, this is coming off wrong. I don't want to do a disservice to any of these issues. My goal is always to get someone to care about it more than they did when we started. If I come off as someone doing anything other than someone whose trying to help, then I don't want to do it. Rape is just so sad to me, it's just one of the saddest things that women are in danger of, victims of. I just can't do it. I've tried and I've failed and I'm just going to not talk about it. I mean, if someone wants to have me on a show where i'm not expected to be funny or a comedian, I'll talk about it, but I just think it's so tragic and so sad. These women are affected for the rest of their lives when something like this happens. One part of “treating issues with much less respect than they deserve” is that Bryan and I take turns being the straight man and the person who takes the opposite opinion, just for the comedy of the podcast. So there's usually one person in the podcast who's treating the issue with the respect it deserves and one person who's undercutting it, so we can have this discussion about issues that affect ladies and gays. 

SARAH: Yeah, it reminds me of you two playing devil's advocate, or like a professional wrestling match where you know one person is going to take the fall and one person is going to be the funny hero in the conversation. It seems like there's maybe times when you want to make it serious, where you're talking about issues and you're like, “All these fart jokes are really funny, but this is an important issue, you guys.” Are there times when you feel like it gets too sincere and you're like, “Oh, whoops, this is supposed to be funny”?

ERIN: When one of us says something serious, the other person undercuts it with a joke. 

SARAH: Do you feel like over your years of doing political comedy, you've learned better ways to make people listen to you? Like you're saying, going on a rant doesn't work so well. Do you have tricks with your family or with audiences where you can get people to listen up to what you want to say?

ERIN: One thing we do that's really effective is taking like… I remember one episode where I was doing a Jan Brewer impersonation. It was like the worst impersonation ever, I had a heavy smoker's voice and was really homophobic. 

SARAH: Jan Brewer, if people don't know, if the governor of the state of Arizona and has signed off on a lot of controversial immigration laws and all sort of bad bills. Now I want to hear your Jan Brewer impression.  

ERIN [in strange demon voice]: “Jan Brewer talks like this.” It doesn't make any sense. But I'll talk about whatever issues she's wrong on and then I'll talk about however many cigarettes she smoked and how many hours she was in the tanning bed and her highlights. I'll just talk in her voice and make her seem as superficial and uninformed as I think she is. I think that works well, when we do impressions of people. I love it when people with Southern accents do something stupid. If something that we're doing makes us feel weird, what we say is, “If something we're doing makes us feel weird in our tummies, then take it out.” Because I don't want to be putting that out into the world. 

SARAH: You're joking about Jan Brewer in a way people find funny, but those are superficial criticisms of her—you're making fun of her hair and the way she looks. Do you feel like that gets to the heart of what you're going for or do you think people just like the cheap joke? Like, “Yeah, she's ugly and she's the governor!” 

ERIN: Well, I try to never say someone's ugly. I never talk about someone's face or body, I talk about the choices they've made about what they're doing. Yeah, it's totally cheap, but I don't really care. I know it's antifeminist to cut someone down superficially, but I don't really care. We do it to everyone and we do it to each other, it's just the tone of the podcast. I do think those choices inform your politics a little bit—a woman who chooses a chunky highlight is going to vote Republican, I think. 

SARAH: What issues have your listeners pushed back on that have made you and Bryan change what you joke about? 

ERIN: Well, one time I did Jan Brewer and I joked about her being a transsexual and that was my first lesson in, like, we have a lot of transgender and transsexual listeners and they didn't like it and I said, “You're absolutely right. I will never do that again.” It's like, the guys I used to work with have a certain experience and so do I and someone with my experience doesn't always translate to what other people are feeling, so I'm going to screw up. And I hope people will tell me. I don't ever want someone to make the assumption that the show is not a moving, growing, organic thing that can't become more inclusive. But at the end of the day, our number one goal on the show is to be funny and second is politics. It's not the other way around. 

[musical break]  

SARAH MIRK: I love how analytical good comedians are. When I'm talking to a good comedian and somebody makes a joke, instead of laughing they often just not their heads and say, “That was funny.” So hopefully today's show has helped you all think about how political jokes are funny and to get inside the heads of two of my favorite comedians. Thanks for all the conversation Hari Kondabolu and Erin Gibson. That's a wrap. 



by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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