Sometimes it takes a comedian to make sense of the current state of the world. And the perfect one to do just that is Hari Kondabolu, who is featured in PBS’s five-part docuseries “Asian Americans,” airing over two nights on May 11 & 12 at 8 p.m., which examines the story of this immigrant community, from its soaring successes to the horrific hate crimes.
Kondabolu, who has made countless TV appearances as a comic, as well as produced the critically acclaimed documentary “The Problem with Apu,” appears in the fact-filled and moving PBS series that examines the lives of the complex and varied groups that comprise the label Asian American, which intersects various ethnicities and faith groups from the Chinese and Japanese, Pakistani and Filipino, and everyone in between.
As Kondabolu explains to me on “Salon Talks,” the common denominator between these divergent communities is that they have all endured the “immigrant experience” in America, meaning they had to overcome language and cultural challenges while at same time dealing with white supremacist bigots and racists.
“Asian Americans” features Kondabolu in Episode 5, the series’ final installment, which focuses partly on representation in the media. The Queens born and raised Kondabolu speaks of how seeing Korean American comic Margaret Cho perform stand-up as a teenager opened him up to comedy for two reasons. One, it was the first time he saw an American comic talk openly about the immigrant experience. And secondly, Cho was being embraced by both mainstream audiences and Hollywood.
It was an inaccurate representation in the media that propelled Kondabolu to make the documentary, “The Problem with Apu,” which focuses on “The Simpsons” and its use of a non-Indian actor (Hank Azaria) to voice the character of Apu. (Azaria has recently stated he will no longer voice the character.) Kondabolu made it clear that his goal was not to shame the series that he’s actually a big fan of, or end the character’s existence, but to raise awareness of representation in Hollywood as well as share how the character had become a tool used by bullies to mock Indian-American kids.
There’s no doubt that the experience of Asian Americans as a community, both in terms of media representation and in daily life, has improved vastly over the decades as documented in the PBS series. But it’s recently become more challenging for marginalized communities since Donald Trump has intentionally pitted Americans against each other to help himself politically, namely turning his white supporters against people of color. Kondabolu rightfully expresses concern that given Trump’s use of the term “Chinese virus” and his recent ratcheting up of blaming of China for the release of COVID-19, there will be even more hate crimes perpetrated against the Asian American community during the 2020 election cycle, especially with the economic struggles the nation is facing.
Above all though, Kondabolu says he is optimistic for Asian Americans and our country going forward. Watch my “Salon Talks” episode with Kondabolu here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about “Asian Americans” and the comedian’s take on the process of building fair representation in Hollywood. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
You’re known for using comedy to raise important issues about immigration. Why did you want to get involved in this documentary? Tell us a little bit about the series before we dig into it a little deeper.
The documentary is five parts going through the history of Asian Americans. That’s many different communities that we’re talking about from the 1800s onwards. We’re talking about the Chinese Exclusion Act and the different things that prevented different groups from entering the country. It’s a variety of topics within the larger subject of Asian Americans. The part that I’m in, Episode 5, is a lot about the representation and racial profiling especially post-9/11. It’s more of the contemporary stuff over the last couple of decades. I wanted to be a part of it partly because I feel like when something is on PBS, it cements it as a part of American history.
I feel like there are so many parts of our history that aren’t shown because there’s this particular account of history that is told by the powers that be, and it leaves out so many accounts of marginalized people. That’s why a book like Howard Zinn’s “People’s History” is important because you’re starting to get other voices in. For me, once PBS wants to do this miniseries, it’s including our stories and our history in the larger story of America. It’s like an official stamp, and I felt like that’s crucial. I wanted to be a part of that.
You mentioned the Chinese Exclusion Act in Episode 1 of this miniseries. It is a gripping, educational and angering and frustrating when you see the history of Asian Americans, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 banning Chinese after using them to build the railroads. Is this the story of white supremacy, on some level, in America to use people of color, then when they’re not useful anymore, you discard them, demonize, and even in the case of Asian Americans, kill them?
Yes, I mean, that was one thing I discovered from watching parts of the documentary. I had no idea Asian Americans were lynched and that was part of the history there too. It’s interesting. Some of what’s discussed in the part I’m in is they talk about the L.A. riots and the relationship between the black community in L.A. and the Korean community, maybe even nationally, just how the experience that so many non-Black people of color have experienced.
Our experiences, they’re different than Black Americans’, but there are a lot of parallels that unite us. There’s a lot of parallels in how we’ve been discriminated against. It works in the interest of those with power to have us divided. That was one of the things I found more shocking, upsetting, and empowering to know that this documentary is trying to bridge those gaps. We need to support these larger movements.
Certainly, I think going in I knew enough about it, but not as much as I do after watching it. I feel like I’m fairly educated about these things, but I feel like much more equipped to talk about these issues than I was before. I think you’re right by the way. The history of people of color in this country being used as props, as being used as workers. Often, even the way we’re used against each doesn’t benefit any of us.
Yes, the broad experience of being Asian American is vast. If you ask the average American, they probably are going to say Chinese, Korean, maybe Vietnamese, but you are Indian American, South Asian as well. When you hear about the stories of other Asian Americans, is there a common denominator between your experience and their experience?
There is a common denominator with traditional families all coming over, large families, finding communities that are similar. There’s the idea that we’re grouped together, but Indians in Pakistan, Hindus, Muslims, there’s a lot of tension there. You have Koreans and Japanese, there’s a lot of tension there. That all gets ignored when you come here because you almost just have to stick together, because what options do you have? What I love about the documentary is that it really does complicate what Asian American means. A lot of people wouldn’t see South Asians in that. Also. when we think about the model minority Asian, the stereotype, and we think about well-off Asian Americans who’ve succeeded in this country. we’re not talking about a lot of Southeast Asian refugees who struggled when they got here that had an incredibly difficult time.
The working-class South Asian folks, the working-class Asian American . . . it’s not that they’re not working hard, but they’re struggling. They didn’t have the same access, they didn’t get here on a cushy visa that sets them up for higher education. I think that’s important because this whole discussion of model minority and what’s not model minority complicates that.
There’s no such thing, and a lot of this, of how people end up where they are, and how their children do as we know has a lot to do with how their parents got here, what conditions their parents came under, what education levels their parents have, what opportunities were available to them. I think if we want to squash this model minority thing, a big part of that is also to complicate what it means to be Asian American. We’re not all just going to Kumon learning math years ahead of everybody else and getting into our first colleges.
I think it’s interesting, the term model minority. The first time I really heard it used was about six, seven years ago. I interviewed Soledad O’Brien and she brought that term up. She said, “It’s exhausting to be the model minority.” At the time, I didn’t understand it. Now, I fully understand exactly what it’s about. It’s interesting you bring it up. Episode 2 of this PBS documentary on Asian Americans was about a question of loyalty, which permeates every minority community in the country. If you are from immigrant stock, it doesn’t matter how many generations you’ve been here because you have brown skin. My last name is Obeidallah, it has “Allah” in it, I’m born in New Jersey. I get the same garbage, “Go back to where you come from!” How in America do you finally get accepted?
I mean, it feels like it’s a decades- or even centuries-long hazing process, and you never quite get in. I feel like the hazing that we as South Asians, Arabs, Muslims, anybody with dark skin had was post 9/11. That was the biggest hazing process whether it was deportations, detentions, whether it was hate violence, numerous ways that we had to deal with our skin being a certain way, our facial hair being a certain way. It was also unifying because it meant that these divisions— I’m from a Hindu family, but it did not matter. Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, none of it mattered. If an assumption was going to be made, if the connections were made based on poor media images that led people to believe that somehow we had something to do with it, we’re all in on it, it throws us all in the same situation.
There’s so much of that sense of you’re never quite from here. I think that’s part of how this works. Black Americans are seen as less than and Asian Americans are seen as perhaps more capable, but never fully American. That way, you have white Americans who both belong to a place and are capable. It separates us from that and from each other. That’s the way it’s worked for a really long time.
In this documentary, there’s the idea that people come here for the American dream. That means different things to different people. Do you think the idea of the American dream is still enticing to immigrants when they look at the United States of America today with a man like Donald Trump as president?
I think that resources are resources. It’s hard to argue with the amount of power and money this country has. Even though it’s a hard world, it’s interesting when my parents talk about coming here. Most of their friends in India retired in their 50s, while they worked at least a decade longer if not a little bit more. People don’t see that part of it. I mean, are we better off? That’s an argument that people could make. Are you better off having more stuff and more access to certain things, but you don’t get to stop working? Are you better off spending more time with your family, having a little less, and dealing with less than ideal conditions? It’s a very hard thing to think about in hindsight. Certainly, I think having the ability to make money and dollars have weight when translated to rupees, for example. What is a middle-class life is a very good life in India for people who decided to go over. I think that the dream is still alive, but it’s certainly not as advertised.
Were your parents immigrants?
Yes, my mom and dad. Me and my brother were born in Queens. My parents both came from Southern India.
My father came here in the ’50s, but when I think about America today, I’m not sure if my Muslim dad would have gone to a country where the leader was saying, “I want a total and complete shutdown on Muslims coming to this country.” Maybe he would have went to Canada, frankly, or maybe he would have went to Europe to try to start a new life. He didn’t want to live in the West Bank that’s under occupation. What about your family? Do you think there’d be any hesitance nowadays?
Oh, yes. I mean, it depends on what situation you’re coming from if things are bad enough, Trump as frustrating as he is, you’re still thinking it’s America. America does a great job of propaganda because pop culture, film, TV, music paints a pretty glamorous image. I think that idea of we’re making this journey for what? Do we just get sent right back? There’s no stability (and take COVID out of it), this isn’t necessarily the best time to be in this country when you’re dealing with someone who is willing to throw immigrants under the bus the way he has.
Let’s talk about the episode that you’re really a big part of, Episode 5. It really deals with, at least your part, representation. Why is it important to Americans who are not a minority that there is fair representation? There’s nothing perfect, but fair.
I think there’s a pretty direct line between how people view you and how they treat you. I mean, just the phenomenon of black people are depicted as violent, as people who steal, as uneducated. Then, you have people crossing the street when they see black people. People they don’t even know, human beings they’ve never met before. That comes from your brain being programmed after years of being told certain things and seeing certain things, as well as literally programming. What is it that you’re consuming? Post-9/11 if we had a fuller vision, discussion, and diversity of brown people in mass media, do you really think people would have been locked up the same way? Do you really think people would have been beaten up and harmed? I think about going to the U.K. and seeing Sikhs working airport security and how surreal that was for me.
The look on white American faces as they’re going through security because in this country, certainly the Sikh American is not running airport security, they’re being harassed by airport security. To people in the U.K., it’s like these are Sikhs, this is completely different. Even with Muslims to some degree too, it’s like they have a longer history of being in the U.K. and sharing their stories than we do in this country. To me, the connection between how people see you and what they do to you is in sync. Whether it’s bullying or whether it’s racial profiling, I think it’s all linked.
You mention in the documentary that Margaret Cho was inspiring to you. Her show “All American Girl” broke the boundary. Why was that important to you? I’m sure you were a kid when this came out.
For me, “All American Girl” wasn’t necessarily the inspiration, but her existence was. Watching her stand-up to me was she’s not black, she’s not white, she’s not Latino, she’s something closer to my experience. Having immigrant parents, growing up as a first generation, her experience is so different growing up in San Francisco at a different time versus me in Queens, New York. At the same time, it was more than we had gotten. It made me feel like I could talk publicly, and my experiences are valid. If they’re listening to her, why couldn’t they listen to me? That was huge.
You also talk about growing up and watching people in essentially brownface play Indians sometimes maliciously, sometimes playfully, in “Short Circuit,” for example.
Yes, Fisher Stevens.
What was it like growing up watching that?
First of all, I didn’t even know Fisher Stevens wasn’t Indian. I was happy an Indian guy got work. That’s cool, this Indian actor, but I never saw him in anything else. Initially, it feels good to just count, even if you’re being made fun of. It’s like if they’re making fun of us, they know we exist. When you’re not used to being at the table, scraps feel pretty good like holy crap, we get to eat. There is a certain entitlement that you rightfully should have being in this country. I deserve as much as everyone else. I deserve a fair shot, a fair shot whether it’s employment, a fair shot at success, a fair representation. I should be seen as equal to.
After a while, you realize we’re just a joke and our parents are just a joke. We’re not seen as the same. I grew up in Queens, New York. I’m looking at the media and I’m seeing that discrepancy between none of my friends and family, nobody who looks like them is on TV. There’s nothing that looks like home and you start realizing you’re being sheltered. You start realizing what the country thinks of you. That’s incredibly important. It’s huge.
Your 2017 documentary “The Problem with Apu” about “The Simpsons,” a show that you love, brought attention to the fact that Hank Azaria is playing Apu and he’s not Indian. Growing up, did you hear garbage directed at you because of Apu on “The Simpsons”?
Sure, yes. Absolutely. Some of it’s the typical bullying anybody gets, I suppose. It extends past that into people yelling things on the street. I mean, it stopped after 9/11. We got different things yelled at us post-9/11. At that point, you wish it was, “Thank you, come again,” because they’re still asking you to come back. They just wanted you to leave after 9/11 happened.
Certainly, it affected how people have treated me, but it also affects how you see yourself. When you feel like the community you’re a part of is just a joke, how do you have pride in that? If you are very aware, all of a sudden, super-aware of how funny your parents’ accent might sound to another person, why do you want friends coming over? There’s a sense of embarrassment about these people who sacrificed everything for you. That’s awful. Why should I feel embarrassed by people who have done nothing but right by me in this country? How does that happen? That happens because you’re made to believe that you and your community are less than. More than just people screaming things at me or threatening violence, I think it was that minimizing of self that I think causes the most damage.
That’s such an insightful point. There were studies after “The Cosby Show” that showed the impact on white America and seeing this successful black family, but there’s also an impact on black America. Seeing themselves represented as professionals and an intact family was something they had not seen onscreen. It actually affected them psychologically. Katie Couric years ago said, “We need a Muslim Cosby Show,” which is now not a good idea. At the time, a great idea.
The idea of aspirational goals, right. The idea of this is possible, a world where we’re just neighbors, we’re accepted, and where we’re successful. Our racial stories are critical to who we are, our culture is critical to who we are, but it doesn’t define every single thing we do.
It’s very clear that you did not make your documentary to get “The Simpsons” to stop using Apu.
They made a choice to stop. Are you happy about that?
Hank Azaria said he’d stop doing the voice, and someone else, hopefully a South Asian, does it. The documentary to me wasn’t about that. When I made the documentary it was like three, four years ago. The show had already been out over 25 years. It wasn’t even relevant the way it had been before. To me, I couldn’t make the documentary when I was 7, otherwise it would have been a bit more timely. It was to tell a story that had been ignored for decades, to hear a perspective of a community that hadn’t been heard, especially during a time when everyone’s talking about representation and progress. It’s funny to see this thing which is a relic of another time and a caricature that was grandfathered in. I think it’d be interesting to analyze that because “The Simpsons” isn’t just a show, it’s an institution in this country.
It’s been around 30 years now. I feel like you have to break it down, and that was the goal. It was to have a thoughtful conversation about representation and to look at something that has a great deal of cultural weight. What the discussion became was very different than what I intended because most people didn’t see the documentary, even people who wrote about the documentary were basing what they wrote on other interviews I did or on other articles they read. They hadn’t actually seen the thing. Especially in other countries where it wasn’t even available, articles were written. You start to believe, this is how clickbait works, and this is how the story gets spread. It’s a hot idea, but if you don’t see it, what the hell are you talking about?
People are claiming I’m saying things I didn’t say. “How come you hate the show? You’ve never seen the show, you don’t know what it’s about. Everyone’s a stereotype.” As if I didn’t address any of those things in the film. They didn’t see the film. That gets frustrating when you try to have a thoughtful discussion and you create a film that tries to create a thoughtful discussion, that’s now how Twitter works, that’s not how the internet works.
It’s funny that you mentioned if you made it at [age] 7. Society has evolved so much in terms of talking about diversity now. Being respectful actually means something now. It didn’t years ago, that’s the reality of the world we lived in.
Also, it has a different value. As much as the people who have fought for decades have allowed us to create the arc that we’re creating, part of it also is it’s not lucrative to not include different communities now. I know maybe that’s a little cynical, but the stand-up shows you used to draw, I’m sure people seeing all those shows sell out had impact. Like, whoa, this community can draw. Russell Peters is touring and selling out giant places. It wasn’t just like, “That’s interesting.” No, for people who were executives, working in Hollywood, it’s like those people have money. They sold out a thousand seats, they each paid 40 dollars. That’s money we could have. It’s not lucrative to cut out a piece of the population because it’s not the old days with four networks where you’re trying to get a giant piece of the pie, the biggest possible. The biggest possible now is just a sliver. If you get a couple of communities down, that’s your sliver. It makes no sense alienating us. Certainly, I think it’s not lucrative to alienate whole communities.
Before we wrap up, we’re heading into an election. In every presidential election, there’s a spike in hate crimes. Sadly, we’ve seen hate crimes against Asian Americans in the last few weeks. It might get ginned up because you’ve had Trump and Pompeo somberly saying, we think this came from a lab in China, the entire COVID-19. When you have 25, 35 million Americans out of work, there’s a pandemic going on, you have Donald Trump ginning up fear of Asian Americans, what are your concerns going into this election?
It’s exactly that. The public scapegoating and also we see how Trump riles people up. It’s us versus them; that’s his tactic. This seems like a pretty good us versus them situation for him. This is like the ideal setup to get people to go to the polls or to mail in their ballots in favor of him because if we don’t, what’s going to happen to us economically because of China? I mean, it’s also remarkable because the idea that the Chinese government would want to destroy populations in other countries . . . everything is made in China. If you don’t have people to buy the products, they lose money. I always found that really strange. Why would you destroy your customer base, which is the rest of the world?
Last thing, are you optimistic looking at America going forward with or without Trump? Especially in terms ideas of immigrants and the immigrant story being told from today and going forward.
I am optimistic. I’m optimistic because I think we have the tools to create our own stories, depict our own stories to create our own art. In terms of that, I’m certainly optimistic. Also, I’m optimistic when I see young people like Greta Thunberg, the Parkland kids, and it goes on, the number of young people who are stepping up and really putting their butts on the line to create change, more than any other generation I can remember.
The idea of 11- and 12-year-olds, 14-year-olds, these are kids who are stepping up, who are savvy, who want to create change. When I see AOC, Bernie Sanders, and Liz Warren’s election runs, even though at the end, they were stomped out, I do see there was a lot of young people voting for them. There were a lot of people of color voting for them. I see that as hopeful. The idea that we’re even talking about socialism and democratic socialism, the idea of what is fair. In previous elections, this wasn’t even possible. The idea of even bringing up health care and universal health care, an even better system, not even in the realm of possibility. That all gives me hope. I just hope that we don’t run out of time. That’s my worry because the environment is something that there is a cap on. We just don’t know what it is.
“Asian Americans” airs Monday and Tuesday, May 11 & 12 at 8 p.m. on PBS.