Hari Kondabolu says arriving on campus at Bowdoin College in Brunswick in 2000 was the first time he really felt he stuck out because of the way he looked.
And that, it turns out, was a good thing.
Kondabolu, 33, has gained a national profile for a stand-up comedy routine that is socially and politically biting, making funny-but-true cracks about race, class and societal ills. He’s made the rounds of late-night talk shows hosted by David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and others. He’s made two comedy albums, had his own special on the Comedy Central cable channel and is working on a pilot for his own series on Tru TV. He’ll perform Friday at Port City Music Hall in Portland.
Growing up in Queens, New York, he never thought that much about his own minority status. His parents were immigrants from India with solid, middle-class jobs in local hospitals. And all around him, the streets of Queens teemed with people of every color from countries all over the world.
Then, in 2000, because he didn’t get into any other school he applied to, he came to Bowdoin. Among the mostly white student body, many from wealthy families, he really felt out of place.
“I grew up in Queens, the most diverse place in the world, so I knew I was a minority, but only from the media,” said Kondabolu. “But in Maine I felt it immediately. I was a curiosity. It was hard; it never fit my personality. But for a comedian, even negative stuff is constructive. Being forced to stand out helped my comedy become what it is.”
Though Kondabolu’s routine is filled with social commentary, it is funny. And he says he wants to be funny first and foremost.
In one of his bits, he talks about how some people might think he’s “obsessed with race” because he talks about it all the time.
“You can’t be obsessed with race. This stuff happens all the time. Saying I’m obsessed with race and racism in America is like saying I’m obsessed with swimming while I’m drowning,” said Kondabolu. “I’m not the one who’s obsessed, this country is obsessed.”
While performing in Portland, Oregon, he talked about doing his stand-up routine in Denmark and having a heckler yell, “Go back to America.”
“I’ve been told to go back to so many countries –– Iraq, Afghanistan. Usually whatever country we’re bombing at the time. But I’ve never been told to go back to America,” he said.
Kondabolu said he gets some of his comic talent from his mother, who can be sharp-tongued. At points during his act, he’s read things his mother has said to him, like when he called her on the phone and apologized because he had forgotten to make his usual weekly call to her.
“She said, ‘It’s OK. It was a relief,’ ” Kondabolu repeated.
Though being at Bowdoin helped Kondabolu be more aware of race, he said the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, really shaped his world view and his comedy.
“People talk about how that unified us, but what I remember is people being detained and hate crimes and all the division since then,” he said.
Kondabolu started doing political comedy at Bowdoin, but said it was heavy-handed and not always funny. He graduated in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in comparative politics. He comes back to Bowdoin every couple of years to perform on campus and often stays with a former professor.
He worked as an immigrant rights organizer in Seattle, Washington, after college, honing his comedy in clubs at night. In 2007, he appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” on ABC and has worked steadily in comedy since then.
Kondabolu is working on creating a pilot episode for his own weekly series on the cable channel Tru TV, but says he’s not sure what that will be yet.
First, he wants to finish a documentary for Tru TV about the use of stereotypical Indian characters in film and TV called, “The Problem with Apu.” The title is a reference to a character who owns a convenience store on the long-running FOX animated series “The Simpsons.”
He says the film will be “funny and silly” but will also focus on the history of minority stereotypes in American popular culture, including minstrel shows, where white performers acted in “black face” and pretended to be African-American characters.
“That’s one of my favorite shows, but that character is not good writing,” said Kondabolu. “The voice (of the Indian character) is done by a white guy. I really want to look at how characters like that developed. What are the conditions that make that possible?”
And what makes it funny? Kondabolu said one of the keys in all his work is the ability to make people laugh at tension, at tragedy, at problems and contradictions all around them.
“It’s why people laugh at funerals; they are desperate to release whatever frustrations they have,” said Kondabolu. “It’s a defense mechanism.”
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Port City Music Hall, 504 Congress St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $15 to $25