SASA fall speaker Hari Kondabolu highlights South Asian representation in the arts


Beatrice Villaflor/The Daily Northwestern

Hari Kondabolu answers the audience’s questions in Lutkin Hall after his stand-up set, while SASA co-Directors of Social Affairs Vik Nandigama and Nithin Krishnamurthy moderate.

Beatrice Villaflor, Reporter

Before Hari Kondabolu even walked onstage at Lutkin Hall, the audience was abuzz, full of attendees looking to start their weekend with a laugh.

Kondabolu, a stand-up comedian, writer and podcast host, spoke at Northwestern on Friday as the South Asian Students Alliance’s fall speaker. Several attendees cited his critically acclaimed 2018 Netflix special, “Warn Your Relatives,” as a draw for the event.

Weinberg sophomore Nithin Krishnamurthy, SASA co-director of social affairs, summed up succinctly what to expect as he introduced Kondabolu. 

“We’re ready to laugh our asses off,” Krishamurthy said. 

Referring to himself as an “overeducated clown,” the New York native launched into a set about his upbringing, college experience and role as a new father. Kondabolu also explored a variety of heavier topics in his jokes from identity politics to the pandemic and abortion rights. 

Weinberg junior and SASA co-Director of Social Affairs Vik Nandigama said inviting Kondabolu signified a new direction for SASA, since the group had not previously hosted a stand-up comedian. 

Typically, SASA invites musicians or actors to be its fall speaker, Krishnamurthy said. 

Nandigama and Krishnamurthy began planning the event earlier this year and have spent the last three months finalizing the details.

“Everyone we bring in is usually someone who’s defying what the general norms and stereotypes are when you think of ‘South Asian,’” Krishnamurthy said.

Weinberg sophomore Stacy Caeiro hadn’t heard of Kondabolu before SASA announced the event, but she watched his Netflix special in preparation. 

Caeiro said she appreciated how Kondabolu’s comedy spoke to South Asians in the audience because of the population’s historic underrepresentation in the media. 

“Growing up, I didn’t really see myself on the stage,” Caeiro said. “I kinda looked at other token Hispanic or Black characters as, ‘Oh, this is all I’m gonna get.’” Kondabolu voiced this sentiment during his set. He said Indian American visibility in the media was rare during his childhood.

He cited the character Apu in “The Simpsons” as an example of how he used to settle for subpar representation. The character led him to create his 2017 documentary, “The Problem with Apu,” which analyzes how the character perpetuates negative stereotypes about Indian American people.

“‘Harold & Kumar’ was my ‘Black Panther,’” he said, referencing the movie series featuring Indian American actor Kal Penn.

He also joked that since the NBA and professional sports at large have such little Asian representation, he saw Taiwanese American former NBA player Jeremy Lin as Indian.

After the set, an audience member asked Kondabolu about his journey to stand-up, which he said is the “most honest art form.”

“(As you watch live comedy), you’re seeing edits, you’re seeing decisions, you’re seeing choices,” Kondabolu said. 

Despite any on-the-spot changes, he said his humor has always been rooted in his identity as a comedian of color.

Moving forward, Kondabolu said using his platform to uplift other underrepresented voices is a priority. He also encouraged audience members to create the representation they wish to see in mainstream media.

“No one is restricting you from making (art),” Kondabolu said. “Make your s–t now.”

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