Hari Kondabolu on Making Peace With Hank Azaria, Still Feeling Conflicted About ‘The Simpsons’ and Not Being Afraid to Tell Dad Jokes

The stand-up talks to Cracked about his new special 'Vacation Baby,' the fallout from his documentary ‘The Problem With Apu’ and what he thinks about people clapping at his shows
Hari Kondabolu on Making Peace With Hank Azaria, Still Feeling Conflicted About ‘The Simpsons’ and Not Being Afraid to Tell Dad Jokes

When Hari Kondabolu was promoting his most recent stand-up special, Vacation Baby, he recruited an unlikely new friend to help get the word out: Hank Azaria.

For anyone familiar with Kondabolu’s career, the joke was delicious — and a long time coming. In 2017, Kondabolu made The Problem With Apu, a documentary that expressed his frustration with The Simpsons’ portrayal of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the lovable Indian immigrant who operates Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart. The film convincingly argued that Nahasapeemapetilon was little more than a coarse cultural stereotype, inspiring generations of Simpsons viewers to thoughtlessly greet real-life South Asians with Apu’s exaggerated, clownish accent and his trademark expression, “Thank you, come again!” That the character was voiced by a white actor, Emmy-winner Hank Azaria, was even more offensive to people like Kondabolu, who in the documentary talked to other South Asian celebrities, such as Kal Penn, who grew up being bullied because of Apu. Kondabolu had hoped Azaria would sit down for an interview for The Problem With Apu, but he declined.

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Things have changed in the last six years — both for Kondabolu and Azaria. In recent times, Azaria has made amends for the performance, going on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in 2018 to announce he was “willing and happy” to stop doing the character. He also eventually reached out to Kondabolu, who spoke to Azaria about the fallout from the documentary on Code Switch earlier this year. As for Kondabolu, he’s still getting death threats about The Problem With Apu, but he’s moved on. For one thing, the 40-year-old comic had a son during the pandemic, a momentous, unexpected occurrence that helped inspire Vacation Baby. (The name comes from the fact that the child was conceived while Kondabolu was on holiday in Hawaii.) 

Self-financed and released for free on YouTube — an extended album version of the special is available for purchase through BandcampVacation Baby finds Kondabolu in a laidback, reflective mood at the Bell House in Brooklyn. He remains politically pointed — Roe v. Wade was overturned about a week before he recorded the special, a landmark decision he knew he had to tackle — but he’s also looser, more relaxed, like he’s just talking to us about what’s on his mind. He’s still really funny, but less concerned about going for the jugular. On Vacation Baby, he allows his humor to breathe a little. 

“With recorded stuff, historically, I very much am ‘joke, joke, joke,’” he says over Zoom from his Brooklyn home while assessing the comedic shift that’s evident on Vacation Baby. “‘This is what I planned, riffing if necessary, but this is what I planned.’ But my best work, honestly, is when I’m not like that — when I’m kind of in between when I know my shit but can go off on a tangent and it’s just as funny. I was having more fun up there.”

As he talks to me, I notice pictures of Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone behind him on the wall. “That’s my partner’s,” he says, referring to Jocelyn Bonadio-de Freitas, the mother of their son. (In Vacation Baby, Kondabolu amusingly jokes about how certain liberal audiences are always so disappointed that when he refers to “my partner” that he’s not gay.) Also on the wall is the black-and-white photo of Kondabolu and his baby that adorns the cover of Vacation Baby. There are plenty of terrible things still going on in the world, and Kondabolu isn’t about to stop calling them out. (Talking about some material he wrote pre-pandemic that he’s ready to revisit, he notes, wryly, “Luckily, colonialism and racism is still evergreen. So I still got a bunch of stuff to talk about. If anything, colonialism is something that more people are talking about now than ever before. I’m like, ‘Just a matter of time until colonialism is back in style.’”) But there’s no denying that he’s in a good place right now — and he isn’t going to complain about that.

During our conversation, we talked a lot about Vacation Baby, but we also focused on its larger implications both professionally and personally. Where does he see his career at the moment? How has fatherhood affected his comedy? And are he and Azaria buddies now? Kondabolu had the answers — as well as telling me why clapter can be useful as a comedian and why he still feels very conflicted about The Simpsons

Maybe I’m imagining it, but you seem happier in Vacation Baby. You still talk about why everything is terrible, but I get the sense that fatherhood very much agrees with you.

Yeah, I think that you see joy on my face a bit more in this special. I look at the other work I’ve done, it’s not like I didn’t have joy then — it just feels like maybe I didn’t know how to put that forward in the same way. 

There’s something about anger that works as a protective shield — if you’re venting, if you’re fuming, it’s harder for people to hurt you. I historically have been able to let people see me through my values and ideas and not through my personal life in any way, because that was a scarier place for me to go. This one, I’m actually opening up, but I also discovered that lets me be more playful and silly and fun because I’m allowing myself to enjoy parts of it. I love being a dad — I love this part of my life. When people don’t laugh at an idea, that’s vulnerable enough, but when it’s about a personal experience or something you’re going through, it makes you feel that much more vulnerable: I shared this with you, and you betrayed me. That is new for me.

Some comics worry about doing “Life as a new dad” jokes because they fear it will make them seem less edgy. Were you concerned about that?

There was a part of me that was, “Just ignore it. Just go back to what you normally do.” And then I’m like, “That’s not what you’re supposed to do.” (Fatherhood) is a life-changing experience, plus COVID — to ignore both those things, that doesn’t show any bravery and that isn’t consistent with what I’ve wanted to do with my art and with my career. But part of it for me was, “How do I do it in a way that (isn’t) cheesy?” That’s the biggest fear — that you become a “dad comic” who talks about day-to-day dad stuff. 

There is something about having experiences other people (have) when you’re in your 20s that feels corny — the thing you want to be the least is corny and hackneyed. I remember looking at a sunset once and thinking, “Man, this is just like a postcard — this is so cheesy.” And then I’m like (angry at himself), “It’s a sunset!” Yeah, you can have experiences that many people have, but it’s still distinctly your own because it’s not the experience itself — that’s part of it, but it’s the filter that it goes through, and you’re the filter. The years of living that you’ve had is the filter and the lens you bring as a result. It took a long time to be able to accept that. 

With fatherhood, some of it was like, “I have a feeling this has been done. I’m pretty sure this has been done. The different-colored poops have been done. What is the deeper stuff? Where are the insecurities? What is the uniqueness?” And part of the uniqueness was how we had the kid, the fact that we had to move cross-country to have the kid. It was a global pandemic. It was bringing a child into the world — I don’t know if there’s ever been a great time in world history, but this certainly isn’t it. 

And then the last little bit that was fascinating, (I was) recording the special a week after Roe v. Wade happens — I found out the news hours before I went on stage in Chicago the week before. So I had a week to figure out how to make this special make sense to me. Look, I could have still put it out without referencing Roe v. Wade, but it just felt phony: I’m a man talking about having a child during a pandemic, and I’m just going to ignore Roe v. Wade like that never happened? Part of the special is about the choice to have a child: The child wasn’t expected and we chose to have a kid, and we’re going to ignore the idea that choice is a privilege even more so now than ever before? So all that stuff made for a really unique experience. 

Stand-ups take months and months honing material before recording a special. You barely had any time to figure out how to make the Roe v. Wade material fit with the rest of the hour — let alone make sure it was polished enough. That’s not an ideal situation.

It’s awful creatively. But the part of me that kept getting annoyed was like, “Let me get this straight: You’re getting annoyed that you can’t come up with jokes? The issue is Roe v. Wade being overturned!” To me, it would be a betrayal to the audience in the room that knows me and that came for me to not address it. My thinking was, “At the bare minimum, acknowledge it. Best-case scenario, you come up with something that works, that is something you’re proud of, that is funny, that has some interesting things that ties the special together, something that adds to it.”

The whole time you’re preparing for a special, I think a lot of us run the risk of being not present because we’re not performing for the audience in the room — we’re performing for the audience that (we’ll be) performing for when we record it. Whenever you see a stand-up preparing for a late-night set, even if they were pretending they were making eye contact with the audience, they weren’t there — they were thinking, “How is this going to play later?” And so part of me is like, “I’m in the room — am I going to play for the imaginary audience that’s listening to this later, as opposed to the audience that’s in the room now? At what point are you actually playing for the audience in front of you?” And it was that moment where I’m like, “I got to play for the audience that’s in front of me, because all these other shows I’ve been battling to try to stay focused because I’ve been thinking about this audience — now is not the time to think about a future audience that’s listening to this.” 

I knew that memorizing (the Roe v. Wade material) that late might be tricky. And coming up with something short and punchy — especially about that — that’s also appropriate, that also has heart, is going to be tricky. So I came up with things (my partner and I) had to think about when discussing whether we wanted to have a child. That allowed me to read (a medical pamphlet on stage), which took some of the pressure away. It allowed me to have multiple examples, which were easier to edit around if something fell flat. It gave me opportunities to tie in callbacks so it doesn’t sound out of place — that it’s still organic to the set and it still lets me address Roe v. Wade. The version that’s on YouTube, that’s definitely a poppier version. There’s a longer version of the special that’s on Bandcamp, (that’s) about 25 minutes longer, where you see more of the fat and it’s a little less perfect, but it’s a little bit more honest and raw as a result. I didn’t want that for the YouTube special because that’s not its purpose. But on the album, you do hear a little bit more of that and a little bit more silence by choice. 

So yeah, it was really hard. I was writing up till the buzzer: Even between shows, what I read the first show and what I read the second show (for the special) wasn’t exactly the same. My opener, Liz Miele, was helping me punch it up. My longtime writing partner and collaborator, Ahamefule J. Oluo — who was also recording, and ended up doing the edit and helping produce it — was trying to come up with ideas, too. It was still a living thing, which is what good art should be — that’s what stand-up is. Same thing with my Netflix special: There were a few lines in there that I wrote between shows because I’m like, “It’s still missing a pop and we got nothing to lose. We might as well just throw everything out there.” It’s funny: You’re so precious until the day of (the special), and then all of a sudden it’s like everything goes. If it hits, it’s great. 

So yeah, it was very alive. Looking back on it, I’m like, “You don’t want the thing to feel stale. You’ve done (the material) a million times — this prevented it from feeling completely stale.” There was something that was brand new in it that was actually pretty important.

Do you think of your specials as time capsules of who you were as a person at that moment in your life?

I do, yeah. I think part of that also is a recording philosophy. I think some people want an authentic one-show feeling: “I recorded this, this is how it felt.” I’m not shy about editing because, to me, this is supposed to reflect a period of time — a set of material — and I want it to sound as good as possible for an audience listening to it later. My concern isn’t so much about historical accuracy in terms of one magic-bullet show that you capture all the ins and outs and the flubs — I’m not interested in that. I’m going to give you the best of those two shows where I delivered things the best, where there were funny moments, but also that really best displays the stuff I’m working on and lets you know where I’m at. 

I understand the idea of doing it in one show and having an honest recording: Anything can happen and if things go wrong, that’s part of the magic — I get that. But part of me also is like, “Yeah, but there’s a difference between a live show and something recorded, and you’re getting the best of this time period. This is a slice of my life at this time.” Each one of those hours — whether only I see the difference or feel the difference — reflects where I was. This one is more clear to the audience because I wasn’t a dad before and now I am.

So who’s the guy who made Warn Your Relatives, your 2018 Netflix special?

I was single. The Apu documentary had come out a couple of months earlier, and it was the best and worst thing that has happened, and I still feel that way. I impacted a lot of people — I led this conversation — but I still get death threats. I made a documentary about how I hate being associated with this stereotypical character and, as a result, I’m forever associated with a stereotypical character. But at that point, I’m recording that special and I’m still coming off the buzz of this (documentary) making a dent. So my confidence is at an extremely high level, and I see that in that performance. I also can see how much I cared — this (new) special, it’s not that I don’t care, but I see somebody who’s like, “I have to get this done.” I’m still sharp (in the new special), but I feel looser — I’m going with what’s there. I am having more fun. 

When you’re watching Chris Rock and Bring the Pain — by the way, I’m not comparing myself to that — but this dude is not riffing. He knows what he’s doing — he’s in control of the room, he’s there to destroy you, and at the end, the mic’s going to drop. When I was recording my Netflix special, that’s the feeling I had. But when I was recording in Brooklyn (for Vacation Baby), I’m like, “God, I hope this works,” because I gave myself (only) four months. Usually when it’s ready, then I’ll record it — (but this time) I gave myself three to four months of touring to write a new hour. I didn’t use much of the stuff I’d written before the pandemic, because it felt like it didn’t have a place — I wanted to talk about having a kid. Usually, my stuff is battle-tested over years, but a lot of (Vacation Baby) was written during a really vulnerable period of time, and I’ve never been this vulnerable on stage — here we go. 

You self-financed Vacation Baby. What did you learn from doing a special that way?

I knew how much it costs — it raised the pressure because it’s coming out of my pocket. If there are other comics who were thinking about going the same route, the thing I learned is, know exactly what this is for. Are you putting this out on YouTube, or are you trying to sell it? Those are two very different things — I tried to do both. I thought, “Let me make something — if there are people interested, I’ll sell it, and if not, I’m going to put it out (on my own).” I didn’t want to be patient — there’s a difference between “You make the thing and you just wait as long as you can and see if there’s going to be a buyer” and “You need to put it out now because this thing’s going to be dated.” If you put a timestamp on it, it’s going to be hard to sell, because you’re saying that this thing is going to be relevant only for so long. 

(With Vacation Baby), I said, “This thing is meant for the internet.” And as a result, the production values can be less — still high, but I don’t need a six-camera shoot. You can do it with decent lights and two or three cameras. Liz Miele, who I love, is one of my best friends, and she’s produced a number of specials that she has spent less than 20 (grand on) — and it’s not to say 20 grand or 15 grand are small numbers, but it’s easier to make your money back with that. And I certainly think it’s more sustainable. I’m not going to tell you what I spent, but I will tell you that I would’ve done it for less in hindsight. 

If you’re deciding to go on YouTube, you’re hoping that it pops, but even if it doesn’t immediately, it’s a long game — it’s going to live there. People will pass it around. You don’t know when people find things — you don’t know what clips will eventually go super-viral. You don’t know when something will be relevant again. You let it live. You’re going to have a long career — people will find it eventually, and it’s a much more patient kind of route. 

When you have a Netflix special — or HBO Max or whatever — there’s the immediate push of the network. Even though Netflix doesn’t put a bunch of stuff out in terms of advertising, I definitely had some Subway posters, which was cool — it was on their front page, and that means more than anything else at this point. For (Vacation Baby), you’re doing the push, and you have to be good with that. 

Would I do it again? Yeah, I would. Because, at the end of the day, the thing that was frustrating was the fact that me and a lot of other comics were waiting for streamers to get their shit together, to figure out what they wanted to do, to know who they’re making offers to. And unless you’re one of the big superstar comics, you’re basically waiting. And I got sick of waiting — I didn’t want to be beholden to that. I want to release work. Everything that we do is controlled except when we release the work — that’s just mind-boggling. It feels like you’re sitting on material that you want to expunge, and the only way to expunge it is to put it out. And so that’s what (self-releasing a special) gives you — it gives you that level of control. 

If Netflix came up to me and asked me to make it, of course I’d say yes. But if it’s a matter of just waiting, I don’t want to wait, and we don’t need to anymore. No comedian wants to sit on the same stuff forever, at least not anyone worth their weight. The idea that you have “an act” is absurd — no, you have a living document that you’re constantly editing. To me, it’s a book of essays I’m waiting to publish so I can get to the next one.

In Vacation Baby, and earlier in your career, you occasionally do this thing where you present the audience with a punchline that you know doesn’t work — and then, later, try to offer another punchline, which also doesn’t work. I love that you intentionally do material that fails, creating suspense about whether the joke will ever land. 

A good punchline beats any trick with regards to form. If I found one punchline I was happy with, then we would move on without needing that structural game I like to play. But when you feel like you don’t have that, but the point is still interesting and there still can be fun there…

So much of what I’ve learned as a performer is from the great British comic Stewart Lee. Watching his specials 41st Best Stand-Up Ever! and If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One, you see that the idea of a setup and then a punchline, that doesn’t need to be the only way a joke is told. There’s jokes in the fact that we’re in this room where you can just deconstruct the idea of performance. Even if a joke fails, there’s something in that failure that’s funny. One thing me and the audience all share in this moment — if we don’t share anything else — is that we were just here when that joke failed. It’s really learning to see a show as not just a vehicle to present material, but in itself as material. 

That’s what Stewart Lee's art opened up for me. You saw Mr. Show and different types of alternative comedy and how it could work with sketch and just how the fourth wall could be broken — there aren’t limits — but with stand-up, I wanted to see more of that, and so I already had (that) desire and started to play with that. But once I saw (Lee) do it, it was like, “Shit, this was all the stuff I wondered whether I could do. This is the kind of joke I wanted to make, and he just wrote the master’s thesis version of that joke.” Watching that opened my brain up and let me have more fun on stage. 

It was tricky because I didn’t want to do what he did — for a long time, I worried, “Am I just copying what he did?” But then I started to think, “Well, he’s even talked about some of the things that he does he’s either nicked or came from other comics — he’s put his own spin on it.” So when I see a joke that’s not working, all of a sudden I’m like, “The failure is funny. The idea that I’m even attempting to make this work is funny.” All of that is so freeing — there’s five minutes of laughter there that is so much bigger than one quick punchline could have given me.

I always give him credit because I do think that comedy has been so much more fulfilling to me, as an art form, (because) he made it not just setups and punchlines — he made the whole thing a fun game. But, honestly, it is kind of a curse because it means that there’s audiences that don’t know what the hell I’m doing. The idea of a joke failing somewhat intentionally doesn’t work quite as well if the rest of the jokes aren’t working either. (Laughs) Then all of a sudden there is no difference between an intentional fail and one that wasn’t intended to fail. 

For Vacation Baby, you made a cheeky promo starring Hank Azaria, who you criticized in your documentary The Problem With Apu for his portrayal of the Simpsons character. He wouldn’t be interviewed for the documentary, but you two have spoken since as part of his effort to make amends for voicing Apu. I wondered if there was any part of you that didn’t want to talk to him after the negative online reaction to The Problem With Apu

I’d reached out to him after he was on Colbert and (he’d) said, basically, “I’ve reconsidered the character, and I understand why this is upsetting.” I said, “Hey, thanks for that. It means a lot to know that there was some impact.” He didn’t write back, and that was fine. I was aware, also, that he wasn’t really mentioning my documentary or how he got to that conclusion, which was a little bit of a frustrating point for me, but I was glad that at least it felt like there had been some progress. That was cool to know that I contributed to that. 

Years later, he wrote back to that email I wrote him — he wanted to meet for breakfast and we did. It was a really nice conversation, and he was talking about things we could do together. I was honest with him: “I really don’t want to have to do this whole thing over and have to make it a big thing. Perhaps at some point, we could have a public conversation and that seems interesting, but I don’t want to make this a bigger thing again, because our experiences with it have been very different. For you, this is a, whoa, you learned something and want to impact positive change in the world — especially working with white people with regards to race and privilege, and that’s incredible. But for me, this is old hat — it was an old topic when I made the documentary.” It was something that I felt like I had already addressed. 

I thought, “If we’re going to reopen it, let’s reopen it in a way that fits what I would like to do, which is talk about, not so much the documentary, but the aftermath. That’s what I find more interesting: understanding how an interesting topic can be watered down; how the internet regurgitates it; how people can have opinions without ever seeing the actual documentary; how people in other countries are talking about it and writing about it, even though they didn’t have access to it since it was only available in the U.S. for over two years.” 

That felt like a nice jumping-off point in addition to Hank’s journey with it. And so when Gene (Demby) at Code Switch and I talked about this, and he said, “I think the angle that’s interesting is what happens after a call-out,” I’m like, “That’s exactly the way I’ve been looking at it. That’s the nuanced conversation.” And when Hank was down for that, it felt great — if we were going to talk about it, we were going to talk about it on my terms in a way that felt more authentic to me. Because talking about that cartoon character, after a while it just stopped being interesting.

Still, did you worry that Azaria was using you to validate his redemption tour?

Part of me certainly felt like, “Hey, the offer was on the table when I made the film.” That would’ve been not only a perfect opportunity, it would’ve been such a forward move, because it would’ve skipped all these intermediate steps that we went through — it would’ve shown America this is how a good conversation can be had in an unexpected way. It didn’t become that, and my bitterness about it not becoming that was very clear in the film by the end of it where an animated version of me beats up an animated version of Hank. 

But (the Code Switch appearance), on the other hand, felt like a mature adult conversation, which is what I wanted to have. It was much more nuanced than perhaps we could have had back then, to be fair, because he had to be on a journey to understand this and he had to really think about what it was I was talking about — that it wasn’t a personal attack as much as it was a discussion of his role in a much longer history of minstrelsy and racism. It took years of work on his part, and I’m appreciative of that, but initially, it was like, “Why do I want to reopen this and just talk about what you’ve learned?”

How are things between you now?

We text every now and then. It’s not like we’re best friends, but certainly we’re bonded by this very strange thing. We’re now forever connected and that could have been a negative thing, but we’ve both made it into something positive. I appreciate him, and he has very clearly said how he appreciates me. To me, it’s pretty wonderful. 

At the end of the day, I know I’m right (about Apu) — it always felt that way. I look at this character, and I understand the complexity of the character now. I understand the context that he was created in. I understand how he’s one of the more developed characters on that show now — they did the best they could to make something out of him. But I know that when future generations look at this character, they’re going to wince — that seems obvious to me. What I found amusing and frustrating was like, “You guys are struggling to see this? Really? So many things have happened in our world and you’re struggling to see this?” And knowing that makes it easier to be like, “All right, whatever bullshit I’m taking now…” 

I got a tweet the other day from somebody — I don’t like when anybody mentions my kids, like any parent — that said, “How’s it going to feel when your kid knows that you killed this cartoon character?” And I’m like, “How delusional are you where you think my kid’s going to care about anything I’ve done?” I don’t know if Einstein had children, but do you think they (said,) “Oh, relativity? That was you?!” Also, (my son) is not going to know what The Simpsons is. And he is not going to know what Apu is — and if he does, he is going to know it in the way that we know, like, Sambo. It’s going to be a slur. It’s going to feel weird the way when I saw Speedy Gonzales — that was weird even when I was a kid. 

Talking to Hank about it, though, has given me a lot more clarification. He says, “When you think of a character like Carl” — (the writers) gave him a background that he was adopted and is from Sweden — “the fact they even invested in a backstory is because you made that documentary, so they decided to actually be more creative and do something. The fact that all these people of color who are voice actors are getting work on The Simpsons and on other shows is because you made a documentary that forced people to actually have to confront it.” The Simpsons is more interesting, whether they like to admit it or not, because I forced them to be more interesting. 

Hank saying that to me, I didn’t think about it that way because I stopped watching the show. To be fair, I stopped watching the show for other reasons years earlier. (Laughs) It just got boring. But at the same time, it’s good to know that I had something positive to add. Look, it’s hard for me to even watch the reruns now — it kind of broke my heart with how they reacted to (the documentary). But I still make Simpsons jokes. I still make references. There’s still things I say: “Stop! Stop! He’s already dead!” 

We can’t help it: For a lot of us, that show is embedded in our DNA.

My best friend in college didn’t see The Simpsons and it was really hard — it was confusing to me. It’s like, “You don’t understand anything I’m saying to you right now? None of these (references) make sense to you?” The Lisa and Bart mystery episodes, which I wish they did more of, were always my favorites because me and my brother watched The Simpsons religiously. We were just always joined by the hip — we are extremely close, and anything with siblings always made us happy. I love those episodes, so it’s also a connection to family and friends.

In Vacation Baby, you describe how your son was conceived. Have your parents ever told you how you were conceived? 

No, and I don’t want them to. I have no interest whatsoever. As far as I’m concerned, my parents have had sex twice, so that led to two children. And even the two times I’m on the fence about…

I’m aware at some point (my son is) going to have to deal with the fact that this special (mentions how he was conceived). He’s going to understand it and it’s going to horrify him. That’s something I realized — I scarred him. But if this special helps pay for college, I feel like we’re even.

You talk about your mom in your stand-up, mentioning how close you two are. But what part of you comes from your dad?

The tunnel vision. My dad is very good at focusing, putting his head down, getting stuff done — he’s incredibly hardworking, as is my mom. My dad knew how to hustle — (he) worked not only his main job, but he worked five or six other jobs after his main job and on weekends and put me through college and grad school. I saw how hard he worked. It’s not to say I didn’t see how hard my mom worked — I don’t think, at the time, I appreciated the labor women do when they’re not at work. That’s a job, too — I’ve apologized and thanked her since, but still. 

My dad did what he had to do till he got the job done, but in terms of personality stuff, I think I was always closer with my mom and there was always a give and take. She’s just funny and she’s very dark, and she’s dealt with her own losses and tragedies with humor. That’s always been the reason why I am as dark at times with what I talk about and why I’m attracted to painful things. That’s where you need the most light — the darkest places. That’s why I end up going there.

In Warn Your Relatives, you have a joke where your mom says in anger to you, “Don’t have children.” I wondered if that joke came back to you after you had your son.

Oh my god, I forgot about that joke! I think that was a moment of frustration when she said that and not a general philosophy — she’s always wanted me to have kids. 

I was just thinking about the fact that talking about my family and my parents (in my stand-up) is actually relatively new. It really starts with the second album (Mainstream American Comic) I put out — I was sitting on a bunch of stuff with my family for a decade-plus that I didn’t use. A lot of (my reluctance) was the stigma around hearing other comics say stuff like, “Of course, he’s going to talk about his immigrant parents...” I just didn’t want to be known as that, so I stayed away from it. And at some point, it hit me that they all talk about their parents — what’s the difference between my parents and their parents? 

I don’t use accents — that’s never been my thing, not only because of some of the philosophical issues with it but I don’t do them well. (I thought,) “Oh, is the issue that you can’t make that kind of joke I can make? Is that the reason, because you can’t match me with that? That’s absurd.” And so I started talking about my folks and their experiences and where they’re from and things that I denied myself because I was worried about not even the lens of the audience, but the lens of my peers. 

Stand-up is in a much different place now than it was then in that regard because I see just the number of things people are talking about, and the range of topics is just beautiful. But I think a lot of us were like that where we denied ourselves — which is funny because one of my biggest inspirations, the reason I started, was Margaret Cho, and she talked about her parents all the time. Maybe that was part of where that stigma came from, because people saw how successful Margaret was, and so immediately it’s shutting everybody down who could possibly have a similar thing. 

What I’m proud of is when I talk about my folks, especially my mom, I give them the upper hand. It isn’t “wacky immigrant parents.” It’s like, “Oh, my mom is the one putting me down.” When I talk about my dad in this new hour that I’m doing, it’s more about him being a middle-class person, somebody who likes package deals, somebody who likes to assign blame as a hobby. So I suppose, what makes him unique isn’t just that he’s an immigrant, it’s that he’s totally bought into the middle-class ideal. To me, that’s so interesting. And I stayed away from even getting close to that territory because of the fear of how others would look at it. 

It goes back to the vulnerability thing. Telling a joke about your family is so personal that if an audience rejects it, it’s like they’re rejecting you and your folks.

Absolutely. Even with the race stuff, there’s this feeling of “Am I alone?” And when people are laughing or clapping — I have thoughts on the clapping business, too, I’ll share in a moment — there’s a feeling of catharsis that comes with it. When you don’t feel that, it’s like, “I feel really alone right now.” But the family stuff, it’s certainly that. 

The bigger thing with the family stuff though, especially with the kid, is I don’t want his life to be framed by what I say about him. I don’t want him to have to deal with my feelings and my thoughts about him and his life and who he is and how I view him. I think, going forward, I’m going to be minimal about that. There’s something about him being this small, you’re not really getting him or his personality very much. But as he gets older, I don’t want to do that because it’s not like it’s a one-way street — there’s an echo chamber here, he’s going to be impacted by it. So I don’t know how long I’m going to be talking about my kid, but I know at a certain point it has to be almost more philosophical or what it means to be a father than about him as a human being.

Okay, tell me your thoughts on clapping.

There’s this concept of clapter that’s used derisively: Instead of getting a laugh, people are clapping and it’s a political point and it’s not a joke. That annoys me because I’ve definitely been accused of that, and I think anybody who makes points of any sort gets accused of that. 

If the punchline (provokes) clapping, that’s the issue — but clapping in the setup helps the misdirection, because if people think you’re talking about something in a righteous way, and then you’re able to spin it another way or put it on yourself, they’re not expecting that. They’re clapping because they’ve already made up their mind it’s going in a particular direction — clapping is a useful tool, it’s part of the misdirection. 

When I’ve missed a punchline and I realize it’s not strong enough because people are clapping, it annoys me because it means I’ve failed as a comic. But if the issue is people are (annoyed to hear) clapping and laughing at the same time, which is, I guess, literally clapter, that annoys the hell out of me. Because all the great comics had clapter. Hear every Chris Rock special when he hits a joke that hits you to the bone because it’s so true — people are clapping and laughing. That’s how I know a joke is money — it means that what you’re telling me is, “I’m laughing, but you deserve a bonus because it hit me more.” 

If you simply mean people are clapping at your points instead of punchlines, that’s one thing and that has a nuance to it — but if you’re talking about people clapping while they’re laughing at your punchline, I want to get people so much that they’re laughing but they want to give me a little bit more to know that I nailed it. That’s the ovation that comes with the laugh. A standing ovation is what? That is literally people getting up to show you what you’ve done. Look, there are only so many types of sounds that we are allowing: We’re allowing the audience to laugh, woos sometimes, and clapping. We’re limiting the amount (of reactions) they can show us. Don’t take that sound away — we’re only giving them so many sounds.

I think people dislike clapter because it’s saying, “Yes, I agree with your point,” as opposed to “That joke was so funny!”

And I get that. When you’re a comic that talks about things you care about, you run the risk of being self-righteous and didactic. I have been self-righteous and didactic — do you know how I know? They start clapping, and they’re not laughing. If anything, it’s a warning to me: “You better either turn it or change the punchline, because it means something has not worked out for you. Or it means you’re still too angry about whatever it is and too passionate to be able to make this funny.” So it’s a hint — it’s not the end result. 

Also, I am a comic that is embarrassed to admit I have people snapping at my shows — and when that happens, I get furious. Do not treat this like poetry — if you are snapping, I have failed tremendously. That means I have to throw this whole thing out. I get a lot of people (at my shows) who don’t like comedy, but they like me and I want them to know that comedy is bigger than just me. It is an art form you should love because there’s so much here for you. Do not snap at my show. It makes this very un-lucrative thing seem even less lucrative. 

No offense to slam poetry, but offense to bad slam poetry. Bad, preachy stand-up is bad slam poetry. It doesn’t have the lyricism and the complexity of good poetry, but it has that tone and arrogance and it doesn’t have the intelligence of a lecture. It’s subway ranting.

You talk about having an ego in your stand-up. So many comics lean into self-deprecation, but you own up to your ambitions: “I should be in this. I should be doing that.” How easy was that to admit on stage?

We all have egos — even when we’re being self-deprecating, we’re still thinking about us. Everything is about us. Our business is about us. Our stand-up is about us. We’re on stage claiming that we have something interesting to say for an hour. How pompous are you to just go up with a microphone and be like, “Watch me for an hour”? “Oh, really, are you an expert in this field?” “I’m not an expert in anything, but I’m going to talk for an hour about a broad range of things and pretend I know what I’m talking about, and you’re going to listen and pay for it.” 

You need to be a certain type of person to be able to do that — it’s scary to think about what that type of person is, exactly. But ego is definitely a piece of it. For me to deny that’s a part of it is nonsense. 

I’m grateful for all the things I’ve been able to do — and at the same time (I have) a sense of, “Ah, I want more.” I think that’s everybody — and what “more” means looks different to everybody. I’m sure some of this could be remedied with a nice slice of Buddhism. (Laughs) 

But there’s also this want for stability and this want for the grind to be a little less hard than it’s been, because touring comedy is not easy. I want to be honest about that. I’m not who I was when you saw me at 23. The comic that you saw 10 years ago is different. It’s also me being bruised up a little bit and me being tired and me having ups and me having downs and me feeling great and me feeling like, “Where is this going?” It’s me wanting to quit. It’s me can’t imagining doing anything else. And that rollercoaster, I’m still on it, so why are we pretending that that’s not there? And so I think that’s the reason I bring ego into it, because it definitely influences how I’m feeling and how I’m doing. It’s something that has to be checked constantly by friends, by family and by myself. 

At the end of the day, you’re an artist and that is great, but that’s not all you are. And you might wish you had this, this and this, but the things you have are pretty great. Are you proud of your art? I’m proud of this hour. I’m proud of the work I’ve put out. At the end of the day, that’s what’s going to stand.

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