The Feministing Five: Hari Kondabolu and Janine Brito

Photo by Matthias Clamer. Courtesy of FX.

Hari Kondabolu (pictured right) and Janine Brito (pictured left) are brave comics who aren’t afraid to speak truth to power and give a voice to the marginalized. Hari’s standup takes on white folks’ appropriation of Native American dress, the impossibility of a white Jesus, and that ever-pervasive question posed to people of color: “Where are you from?” Janine’s fodder includes: the freedom she gets in her wardrobe as a lesbian, her belief that she was the gay antichrist growing up, and not catering to straight guys. Their comedy is a punch in the face of convention and offers a refreshing departure from the straight, white, male narrative that usually relies on tired tropes and stereotypes. They’re also writers for the new FX show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell (pictured center), which premieres on Thursday, August 9 at 11 pm EST.

Hari was raised in Queens and has performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham, and the 2007 HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. His Comedy Central Presents half-hour television special debuted on the network in February 2011. He’ll be appearing on two episodes of this season’s “John Oliver’s NY Standup Show” (July 20th/August 17th).

Janine Brito was raised in St. Louis and is the winner of the 2009 SF Women’s Comedy Competition, recipient of Rooftop Comedy’s 2010 Silver Nail Award, and was named the 2011 “Best Comedian with a Message” by the East Bay Express. 7×7 Magazine hailed her as “one of SF’s more daring voices” and one of “the 7 funniest people in town.” She’s been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle and has been known to take to the blogosphere herself.

Since this is a double person interview, our format is a bit different today. I got to be a fly on the wall as Hari and Janine talked about women in comedy, diversity in writing rooms, and connecting comedy to your politics. You don’t want to miss a single piece of this interview.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Hari Kondabolu and Janine Brito.

Anna Sterling: What came first: politics or comedy?

Janine Brito: For me, knowledge of comedy came first. But as far as doing things, I was very politically active in college with the student and labor rights movement in St. Louis. I didn’t start doing comedy until after college.

AS: Was your comedy always political?

JB: Absolutely not. The first two years that I did comedy were horrendous and I said horrible things. It’s hard. It’s a really long learning curve. In the beginning, we all do the easy things to get a quick laugh because we’re not quite comfortable on stage and we’re kind of desperate to get a laugh. We’re less likely to take risks and go for the more obvious jokes which aren’t always the most respectable, good jokes–and not just in quality but the meaning behind it.

Hari Kondabolu: I think we had very similar paths in some ways. Comedy came first. I wasn’t a political being until college, after 9/11 specifically. I became a very different person after that. I made people laugh in my standup, but I wasn’t saying much of anything. I used lots of stereotypes. I’m Indian-American. I used accents–stuff I wouldn’t touch now. At the time, if I made them laugh, I made them laugh. When my politics seemed very far away from my comedy, I questioned it and felt that I had to make that adjustment. I had to be more honest. That’s typical in some ways. Not necessarily adding a political bend to your material, but the idea of you figuring out your voice in comedy. As you figure out who you are, your material is going to change. Comedy came first as an idea as something I was interested in. As a profession, I was an immigrants’ rights organizer in Seattle and comedy was something I did at night because I still loved doing it. My first real scene was the Seattle comedy scene from ’05-’07. I got discovered in Seattle, so comedy as a career happened after organizing as a career.

HK: Politics is a general word.

JB: A lot of people think it’s headline comedy.

HK: And it separates our point of view from who we are. There are folks who talk about headlines, politics and figures, but when your politics is essential to who you are as a person, there is no separation. That’s always the frustrating thing when we talk about our points of view as people of color, as minorities. Whenever we talk about who we are, it gets niched. As if our point of view is not a mainstream point of view, as if we only speak for a small percentage of people.

JB: And people don’t recognize the universal elements in our experiences. They’re completely compartmentalized.

HK: I hate when we get called political comedy. From a branding standpoint, I understand it. But the second we do that, it’s like, “Oh, we don’t really book political comics on the show.” Maria Bamford, she’s not branded as a political comic, but the things she’s saying are extremely political, loaded, and brilliant. I don’t need to be called political, I’m just talking about my life experiences.

AS: What’s your favorite thing to write about?

HK: Race. There’s no question. You have enough terrible, awkward racial incidents on a daily basis of people being awkward around you and not understanding how you exist in the world. One of the jokes that I do is about the fundamental question: “Where are you from?” And they’re not asking if I’m from Queens. The daily requirement that you have to be “Other” all of the time. When something happens, it’s become a way to deal with pain. I can rant about this, but I can also turn it into a thing so that awful experience now has value.

JB: For me, it would be sexuality and gender politics. I especially like going on stage as an androgynous woman and saying, “Straight guys, I’m not for you in this way and I don’t give a shit what you think.” I feel like they need to get taken down a notch and society accommodates them in every way possible with regard to advertising and using sexuality in advertising. I just like to remind them, I don’t care what you think.

AS: Who’s funnier, the right or the left?

JB: The left!

HK: Intentionally?

JB: [Laughs] Yeah, the right is genius.

HK: The performance art of Ann Coulter is spectacular! The show she puts on–what a character! [Laughs] That’s a hard thing to say though. There’s a ton of unfunny people on the left. In fact, most of the unfunny people I know are on the left. Then again, I also know more people on the left.

JB: But I think intrinsically, comedy works when you’re pushing up, when you’re attacking either your own or people above you. When you’re attacking down, it’s bullying. I think the right a lot of times beats on the little guy.

HK: It’s hard in some ways because a lot of comedians have no real political affiliation when they’re on stage. I agree with you that pushing up is the way to go, but that’s not a shared idea. There’s a lot of things that people find funny that are really just bullying. When people get bullied, there are people that laugh. And I think that is a lot of comedy. Whenever people come up to me and say I don’t really like comedy, but I love what you do, it tells me two things. One is that’s someone who has had really bad experiences either with bullying or with going to a comedy club and being made to feel uncomfortable because something is directed towards them. I also know that person might not be a good comedy audience member. They’re traumatized by the experience of comedy, which is upsetting because comedy for me has been something that has uplifted me. It’s given me a voice. I remember going to comedy clubs, growing up in New York, going to the Comedy Cellar, which is an incredible comedy club, being put up front because me and my friends were minorities and knowing “this comedian needs a target and we’re brown people” and feeling I could never say anything because I’m an audience member, but once I get the chance…And now I have that chance. This show [Totally Biased] is kicking upwards. It’s built because the years all these folks didn’t have a voice–well this is the start of us chipping away at that.

AS: Tell me more about Totally Biased, your new show with W. Kamau Bell.

JB: I’m really excited. These last couple of weeks in the writers room have gotten me really pumped. Women in the writers room aside, it is the most diverse writing staff that I know of. I think that helps us pull these points of views and say these very nuanced, specific things that don’t come out of other writing rooms because they don’t have those people in the room.

HK: Chris Rock, who is executive producing the show, said how when he was working at SNL, it’s not like the writers are necessarily racist, they just didn’t know how to write for a black voice because they were all white writers. They could only do the best of, the hits, and the bigger issues about race everyone would understand but not the intricate things. They just wouldn’t understand. It’s not their point of view. When he did the Chris Rock show, he didn’t even need to finish his sentences. He’d start an idea and everyone else would know exactly where it was going. I think our writers room feels like that. It’s special. It’s great to laugh that hard and not have to cringe constantly.

JB: Or explain things. Why is this even a thing that you think about? Why is this even an issue? It’s not only a pain you feel alone, but it’s also being belittled by people who don’t understand it.

HK: Even if they don’t intend to.

JB: And they rarely do intend to. People have good intentions, but it’s just a lack of knowledge and experience not only because they don’t experience it themselves but they’re not that close to people who do experience those things.

HK: It’s privileges. Privileged people aren’t necessarily bad people. They’re not trying to hurt others. It’s just that they don’t even see it. They’re so caught up in being comfortable.

AS: There’s been a lot of talk about women in comedy these past few years. Where do you think we are now in terms of women in comedy?

JB: I think we’ve been breaking barriers for awhile. At least personally the point I’ve reached with the entire argument is: “Why are we even still talking about this?” It’s such a non-issue for me. If it’s an issue for you and you don’t think women are funny, then you’re an idiot. It’s just clear. There’s no arguing the point. I think a lot of people in the comedy world and in comedy audiences have seen enough women be hilarious that that kind of feeling is growing of: I’m not even going to give this argument any validity by talking about it because it’s simply not true. Most of my favorite comedians are women. It’s a different point of view. It’s something refreshing that isn’t the mainstream and I think you delve a little deeper and say more exciting things when you’re seeing a point of view you don’t see all the time.

HK: I think there has been progress with women in comedy and that’s probably why you get things like Adam Carolla’s statement. Whenever there’s progress, there’s a huge backlash.

JB: People get scared.

HK: Things are changing but we’re still not where we’re supposed to be. Lindy West, who is a good friend and an incredible writer, wrote an article when Bridesmaids came out. It was about the way the movie was being advertised as: “The funniest women! Look at these funny women!” First of all, they’re being essentialized. Also, you’re making it sound like these are the only funny women that ever existed in one movie. The movie is groundbreaking content-wise, but why do we have to market it that way? It’s a great movie. It’s not a “chick flick.” It’s a fucking great movie.

JB: I don’t know how true this is and I didn’t have any industry ties at the time, but apparently when Bridesmaids was being made and marketed, a lot of female-led projects were being put on hold until people saw how Bridesmaids did.

HK: That’s so upsetting. Its like the Jackie Robinson thing.

JB: A lot of female writers and comedians who experienced being told this in meetings went on to the blogosphere and did a call to arms to other women, feminists, and comedians, asking them to please support this movie because everything was riding on it for us–which is ridiculous. Yeah, it’s the Jackie Robinson thing.

HK: There’s a legacy of pioneers and important figures that for some reason we just push aside.

AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

JB: I really like Beebo Brinker. She is this really butch lesbian character in these ’40s and ’50s pulp novels that Ann Bannon wrote. She’s this woman living in New York in the East Village who essentially dresses like a man and chases women around New York. She’s so extremely butch and it’s interesting for that character to be around in the ’40s and ’50s. Of course, because of politics the books had to end with her saying this is all wrong and she’s sick, but you could kind of tell the way Ann Bannon wrote it that it happened at the very end as a kind of wink to people that knew otherwise that that wasn’t what was in her heart with the story.

And far and away my favorite two shows are The Golden Girls and Roseanne. They’re such unique points of view that we don’t really get anymore. We don’t have a show anymore about women of age who are smart–actually any women of age! There’s nothing like that on television. That show was so great because it was these women that no one thought they could relate to, but every episode you felt a connection.

HK: Lisa Simpson. Roseanne, certainly! I love the story about how she got her show back, how she got control of the show after a year.

JB: I don’t agree with everything she’s done, but I’m kind of in love with Hillary Clinton.

HK: I interned for her in 2003. I was a “Clintern,” as we called ourselves. We had softball shirts that said “Hillz Angels.” I got to open her mail in the mailroom. It was mostly positive letters and all the negative ones were from Texas. They’d say things like “Dear Billary Clinton” and then something homophobic and then a picture of Monica Lewinsky. I also admire Hillary Clinton.

JB: She’s a BAMF [bad ass muthafucka].

AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick?

HK: Food’s definitely pizza. I’ve lived off pizza for a month. My drink would be Moscato. The feminist would be bell hooks. I think it’d be funny to get tipsy with bell hooks everyday.

JB: I would say carrot juice for me. I love carrot juice. I would have an Indian buffet for my food. Erykah Badu is who I would bring.

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