The talent of 30-year-old New York comic Hari Kondabolu is undeniable: he’s cerebral, witty and occasionally daring—more than willing to eschew traditional joke structures in favor of meta-bits that fold in on themselves and wrap around back to the start, providing a neat beginning, middle and end that are unusually distinct. Moreover, he’s a highly informed and intelligent comic, imbuing into his comedy a real take on real things; he’s not a guy who talks for the sake of talking.
Kondabolu’s debut album, Waiting For 2042, however, is not as uniformly distinguished as its author. One of the album’s biggest hindrances is its bizarrely enthusiastic crowd, which borders on orgasmic every time Kondabolu raises his voice, makes a cogent point or even chastises them. Throughout 2042’s hour, there’s rarely an extended stretch in which the audience does not burst into laughter or applause at even the most generally agreed upon of Kondabolu’s socially-focused arguments. The crowd is unconditionally welcoming.
To that end, at times it feels as if Kondabolu is unintentionally toeing the line between delivering something truly unique and innovative, and pandering. Kondabolu is unabashedly liberal and progressive, and he’s playing for an even more unabashedly liberal and progressive audience.
Kondabolu passionately says at the top of track nine, “I get accused a lot about being obsessed with talking about race… Really? In America, I’m obsessed with talking about race? In America? Do you know who would disagree? Trayvon Martin’s parents, probably. I think Oscar Grant’s family would disagree. I think anybody in Guantanamo [Bay] and their families would disagree. I think anybody who’s a victim of racism every single day in America would agree that I am not obsessed with talking about racism in America.” These opening lines come off as more of a rallying cry than a prelude to a bit, their inclusion rendered as 30 seconds that are as unnecessary as they are laughless.
When Kondabolu rails against homophobia, racism, religion and general ignorance, he’s positing ideas that are valid and smart, but far from groundbreaking. Homophobia and racism are bad; religion is illogical; ignorance holds society back. We know all these things, and we’ve been inundated with them for decades by other like-minded comics—as well as liberal segments of society at large—to the point that they’re simply too easy of targets. To stand out in the field, one needs something to separate him- or herself from the pack, yet it’s obviously rare to find a comic with the power of a Bill Hicks, the nuance of a Bill Maher, or the linguistic dexterity of a George Carlin—some outstanding element that provides a new lens through which to filter the subject. Kondabolu’s too skilled to sound like just another comic, but his takes, though well-reasoned and right, too often feel derivative. Where veteran political comics might aim to challenge and disrupt their audience’s thinking, here Kondabolu merely reflects it.