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Hari Kondabolu on Bobby Jindal and The Problem with Apu

The comedian performs at The Joy Theater Dec. 10



Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal officially announced his campaign for president on June 24, 2015 via an online video in which he shared the news with his children. The video was noticeable for its awkwardness and his children's lack of enthusiasm. But a different response to Jindal went viral.

  New York comedian Hari Kondabolu tweeted several times that day, including "Bobby Jindal is so white, he beat himself up after 9/11," and "Bobby Jindal is so white, he's looking for a minority running mate 'to add diversity to the ticket.'"

  The hashtag #bobbyjindalissowhite was launched, and it went viral with heavy tweeting from the U.S. and India.

  "The shocking part for me was that it took off in India as well," Kondabolu says. "The South Asian community gave him a public flogging.

  "His assimilation stuff in particular bothered me — the idea that you change yourself for others. So I figured, if he wants to play the assimilation game, then let me push that to the extreme and see how he feels when I call him white."

  Jindal didn't respond, and Kondabolu has moved on as well. His documentary film The Problem with Apu was released on truTV Nov. 18. While Kondabolu has been talking about the movie everywhere from TV's The View to the PBS NewsHour, he's also preparing to record a TV special in Seattle in December. He performs at the Joy Theater Dec. 10. Liz Miele opens.

  The Problem with Apu originated during an episode of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, during which Kondabolu joked that the relative increase in the number of South Asian performers on TV, such as Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling, made it possible for him to talk about how much he hated some South Asian TV characters, notably The Simpsons' Apu, the owner and cashier of a Kwik-E-Mart.

  Kondabolu is quick to acknowledge that he likes The Simpsons. But Apu was always a problem for him, especially his accent. Apu was voiced by Hank Azaria, a white comedian who provides many voices for the show. What did Apu sound like?

  "A white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father," Kondabolu said on the segment.

  Azaria declined to be interviewed on film. Kondabolu turned to others, including Whoopi Goldberg, who maintains a collection of what she calls "negrobilia," artifacts of minstrelry in the U.S.

  Although the argument about representation of a group by stereotype or a flat characterization wasn't new, it struck a nerve. In the film, many actors and comedians with South Asian ancestry talk about being called "Apu" in a derogatory manner. Former Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi talks about years of playing cab drivers and deli workers while trying to land better roles. Kal Penn shares his reluctance to play Taj in the Van Wilder comedies.

  Kondabolu says that TV writing teams still are overwhelmingly white.

  "You're waiting for a white writer to do you a solid," he says. "That's ridiculous. ... There are so many voices. The idea of repeating (the same) stories is just laziness. There's so many different experiences."

  As a comedian writing his own material, he has more freedom than actors trying to land roles, he notes.

  Kondabolu also says he is ready to stop talking about Apu, which isn't a big part of his current act. Again, he's moved on to other subjects, including his parents and their love of prunes and dates. But last week he was talking about Ajit Pai, the Indian-American chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which is considering ending net neutrality, resulting in internet regulation.

  "I sort of feel bad about that," Kondabolu says. "I feel like he's a tool of the telecommunications community. He's selling out everybody. It isn't targeted at anyone."

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