Hari Kondabolu

b&b207: Hari Kondabolu on how to negotiate your rate as an artist of color

Hari Kondabolu is a comedian who lives on his art, but it wasn’t always that way. He shares with us today his struggle to become a comedian, to get shows, to get an agent, and to make it. What does it really take? What were the hardest parts? What could he have done to make it easier?

Music featured in this episode:

Worth by Jaz Kahina

Know Your Worth by Agony the Prophet

Walk Thru Walls by Dirty Rats

Hari Kondabolu interview:

Pam: Thank you so much for joining us. We are super, super excited to have you on the show. So, you did not start off with aspirations to be a comedian full time necessarily, is that right?

Hari: Yeah, I mean I did comedy ‘cause I liked comedy, and I did it when I was 17, and I started then. I continually did it. It was something that I carried with me. I loved the art form. I loved expressing myself through comedy, and I didn’t think of it as a realistic profession, especially back in 2004, 2005, 2006 when Aziz and Mindy had just started to break through, and Russel Peters existed ,but there wasn’t much in between. There was a few actors, but still there was limited roles so what was the point of going there, when, you know, I was an immigrant rights worker as well and that seems like a much better and more important thing for me to do, and I can always do comedy. Like, you don’t stop making art if you love the art enough. You make time for it.

So, yeah, I mean, when I got discovered it kinda happened by me stumbling into it: Had some clips on a website. Living in Seattle as immigrant rights organizer. Somebody from the HBO comedy fest saw my clips pre-YouTube, which is like Avi files or mPeg files or whatever it was on my page at the time, and said, “Hey, I’ve never heard your work, but I’d like you to submit some more work.” And so I submit, I think it was even VHS tapes potentially, I don’t even remember it. Or CDs, or DVDs burnt. Probably DVDs burnt. Submit those and they would watch it. And then, all of a sudden, the next thing I know I get into this festival and I get a manager, and I get an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel live and I have a career! But, I feel like I stumbled into it.

Pam: Yeah. At what point did you realize, like, “Hey, is this my full-time job?” Was it after Jimmy Kimmel, all of a sudden you were like, “And now, I’m a full-time comedian!”

Hari: No, no.

Dyalekt: It isn’t easy to just be like, “Alright, I’m quitting all my other commitments. Letting things ride.”

Hari: No, not at all. No, I ended up going to Grad school first. I really didn’t believe this thing was real, even after being on TV and having–I had the infrastructure of a career comedian, I had the ‘things one needs’ I suppose. But I didn’t do it. I was like, “What the hell is this?”

You know, the same week I got on Jimmy Kimmel Live and got into the HBO comedy festival, I got my acceptance into LSC for human rights program, so it was a weird week. Every day my roommates were like, “Oh, what happened today?” But it was very…you know, I didn’t trust it, as exciting as it was, so I ended up going to London, and when I was in London going to Grad school, I got asked by Comedy Central to come back to shoot another TV thing, and I knew that, if I’m not even doing standup actively and they want me, that must be a good sign. That my work is impactful enough where, if I tried to push it, perhaps even more can happen.

I will say, it was a really strong start to the career, and I think maybe part of me assumed that it would just keep going at that pace, and then you start to realize that things plateau, and then you really have to–once that initial momentum wears off, you really have to work. And, you also realize–I realized, as a person of color who wasn’t particularly interested in acting, who was more of a writer and a stand up, who talks politically the way I do, it was not gonna be quick and easy, and that the money wasn’t just gonna start flowing, and that was frustrating to discover. And you discover it while you’re doing it, obviously.

Pam: So, how did you–I guess what kind of kept the momentum going for you? Was it that you also were getting this masters and doing other things and you kinda just waited for the comedy stuff to pop up, or, when did you start actively pursuing it?

Hari: I mean, as soon as I finished Grad school I actively started pursuing it. So we’re talking about the winter of 2008, and it was hard.

Pam: 2008, too. Wooo. Good timing.

Hari: Yeah. Oh God, right. I mean, everything was about to change, right? But yeah. I moved back to New York and I went from being on TV thinking, “Oh, I can do whatever I want now,” to realizing nobody knew who I was in New York. Getting TV credits, it’s not like the old days where you were on TV a couple of times and you were famous and they give you a TV show. Now, everybody has credits. There’s so many shows.

I remember all of a sudden being in New York–in Seattle I could do whatever I wanted and get on stage all the time–in New York it was like I did one show a week. It was usually in Chinatown at this tea shop, at an open mic at the back every Friday, and that was where I would get time. You know, with me and poets and musicians and sometimes we had a crowd, sometimes we didn’t, but it’s like, “Wow. This is actually working. This is what it means to actually start it,” and I wanted to quit a bunch. I was living at home. I didn’t have income. My parents said–obviously my parents were professionals–I still live with them to be perfectly honest.

Pam: That sounds like immigrant families.

Hari: Yeah, they’re just like, “Why are you spending money when you have a home?” Which I was really lucky, since I didn’t have to worry about rent that first couple of years I didn’t have to get a job. I was just making the long trek from deep in Queens to Manhattan and Brooklyn, hour and a half each way. Sometimes, if the trains were slow, two hours each way. Do five minutes of stand up, have a bad set usually, and then head back at three in the morning without any money, ‘cause you don’t get paid for a lot of those gigs.

Pam: Right. You get drinks.

Hari: You get drinks. They give you drink tickets. In London, they actually pay you for any of those spots, and if you don’t get paid they call it a “free spot.” They let you know. And everything’s a free spot in New York. It’s rare you get paid. So it’s not sustainable early on. You need to be on the road if you going to make money, and to be on the road, an agent helps make that possible. And I didn’t have an agent. I had a manager, but that’s not what they do. An agent literally books gigs for you, and a lot of my peers had them, and I was a little bitter about it actually. I was frustrated. It’s like, “This person has done less than I have, and they have this big agent, and nobody wants to work with me.” It was very frustrating, and I knew. I wasn’t seen as marketable. So I had to do it myself, and as a person of color who didn’t fit a certain mold I ended up–I got a half hour special on comedy central without an agent. I got on John Oliver’s New York standup show, and a bunch of other stand up spots without an agent. I got gigs in London without an agent. I did Edenborough, the festival, without an agent. I got a writing job working for my friend W. Kamau Bell, a show produced by Chris Rock, without an agent.

Pam: How did you do all of this? Was it really just cold-calls outreach, pounding the pavement, or people were finding you?

Hari: No, no. People were finding me. I mean, I did the work, you know. I was on the road. I would go to San Francisco for long stretches. Cold calls or emails, you know, are you funny or not? Comedy is pretty “Can you do the job we need you to do?” And Kamau and I became very good friends on those early days when I would, ‘cause I wasn’t getting stage time in New York, I would go to Seattle and San Francisco, and I met Kamau in San Francisco and immediately we connected, and I told him early on, “I’m gonna write for you when you get a TV show,” and he’s like, “I’m in San Francisco. I don’t have anything close to a show. I don’t think it’s gonna happen.” I’m like, “It’s gonna happen. I’m gonna write for it.” And so, I mean for me at least, I went in with good intentions and I found like-minded people I wanted to work with. It happened through that. It’s through other people who saw something in me, other people of color who saw something in me in particular, that I got these opportunities. And once I had all this stuff and was writing on the show, I was about to make my first record, then I got an offer from agents.

Pam: Hmm, right. Right when you don’t need them, right?

Dyalekt: Yeah, that’s always the case, right?

Hari: Yeah, when there’s already momentum. And what happens now is, once you get the agent, the momentum speeds up. Whenever you get them, it’s gonna be useful. An agent has all these connections to people with money that I didn’t have before when I was hustling. Like, I was hustling before. I was doing whatever I could, and now it’s like they can just make some phone calls and they can get me work, and so, you know, when could I have used it the most? When I was starting. When could I have used it the most? When I was living with my folks. But, I had to find a way to do it myself and I ended up touring without an agent. I found a way.

Pam: That’s amazing. One of the other things an agent does for you, too, is negotiate these contracts and negotiate these rates. So, when you were doing it on your own, how did you approach the money side of it?

Hari: Oh, I hated it. I absolutely hated it.

Pam: Don’t we all.

Hari: You know, there’s something about being an artist…I’m negotiating what I’m worth–

Pam: As a person, right?

Hari: Yeah. And often it was college kids. I’m negotiating with 19 year olds how much they wanna pay me. And sometimes, a few times, they would agree to an amount and I’d book my tickets and everything, and then they’d say, “Sorry, we didn’t get funding.” And I’m like, “But, I just bought these plane tickets and I bought this hotel. What am I supposed to do with it?” And it’s like, they don’t care. They’re 19. They don’t know what the hell they’re doing. And that’s what happens when you don’t have any real infrastructure.

Because I didn’t have these mainstream connections to colleges and clubs, what I often ended up doing is I would get offers from colleges through their Asian American groups, or their South Asian groups, or if there was a political group. It was through the back door. I wasn’t allowed to go through the front, because I’m the kind of comic, if I say something, then it gets written up in the school paper and there’s a thing. Back then, especially. But if it’s through the back door for some other group, I’m performing mainly for that specific community. That, for some reason, is different. So, yeah, that’s how I ended up having to do it.

And I’m very grateful for all those opportunities early on, ‘cause I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t get those early breaks. I performed at the ECAASU conference, which is the East Coast Asian American Student Union, and I got a ton of offers for shows after that. All that stuff really paid off, and it was finding my niche, finding my way of communicating to an audience that should be mine, made sense to be mine, who would understand what I was talking about, but it was harder. ‘Cause I had to write the emails. I had to write back constantly. I had to be the one that nervously waited for an answer, and, if it was no, I was the one who didn’t get that money.

And it was embarrassing to negotiate, you know, hundreds of dollars, and they’d negotiate me down from $1600 to $1200, except I have to pay also my hotel and flight, and by the end of it you get $400-$500. I have to perform in front of the people that negotiated me down money that would’ve been useful? You have to put away the bitterness of, “You’re the asshole kid who wants an extra $500 in your clubs account so you can buy booze, and now I have to do a show for you.” And that kind of stuff, you know, you have to not take it personally, but when you’re negotiating it, you take it personally. When someone else does it, not only does it give you legitimacy, which is bullshit, but it true, it gives you a legitimacy, makes you look more professional, but when they negotiate, there’s no personal stake in it. For them it’s like, “Okay, then he’s not gonna do it then.” And for me, back then, it was like, “I gotta do it. I need the money.” So I’m gonna do it. I can’t say I’m not gonna do it. So how long until I just put up with it and just take whatever it is they’re giving me? Yeah, those early days, it was humiliating, a little bit. Yeah.

Dyalekt: On that tip, for talking to people and negotiating. Do you have any advice for a young comedian, artist, person who’s doing that negotiation–I know how foks are, they have to call colleges and random places–to either get over the bitterness and push through?

Hari: Yeah, yeah. I think one thing, which I never did ‘cause I thought it was ridiculous, and the more I think about it I wish I had, is try to look as professional as possible, even if you’re a shoestring operation. People told me to do it and I never did. Like, “Why don’t you just get another email address and pretend you’re an agent or a manager and you represent the person, so even if you’re writing the email it doesn’t look like you’re writing it.” And I was like “Aw, that’s ridiculous. I don’t wanna do that.” But honestly, just having a little bit of buffer, or having a friend do it, would have been so much better. Just because, them knowing that I’m the one negotiating money that I need, just felt terrible. I mean, as an artist you feel like less of an artist at that way. I didn’t get into this business to sell myself, you know what I mean? To have to negotiate dollars and cents. I just wanted to tell jokes and make people laugh. So I think it’s best to create some gap, even if it’s like, “Okay, I guess I’ll pay an extra $8 a year so I get HariKondabolu.com, so at least my email comes with .com. Whatever it takes just to have those little things that end up paying off more than you’d think. And I probably should have done those things instead of being so stubborn. I think that’s a big one. And also, I think you have to set your standards. It’s okay to have standards. It’s okay to say, “I’m not gonna do this.”

Pam: Thank you for saying that.

Hari: That’s hard.

Pam: Yeah. I feel like we’re also really afraid to say no, ‘cause it’s like, “Well, I know it’s not worth the money, but I do need the money.”

Hari: Yeah, and back then–you know, I still have trouble saying no, even with an agent, ‘cause I remember when I was grateful for any show. And now, my agent’s like, “You don’t need to take this. Do you want to do it?” And I’m like, “Not particularly.” If it’s something you really wanna do, then money’s not an issue, fine. But, if it’s something you don’t wanna do and you don’t need to do it…The power of no. That’s a huge thing.

And it almost feels like you have to earn that power to say no, but you have it from the beginning. You set your own rules. I get it, you’re broke and you’re like, “I need this.” I get when you have to do a gig you don’t wanna do, but at a certain point you gotta say, “Is this worth it? Does this actually help my art?” ‘Cause the thing is, if you do enough bad shows, it affects the way you perform. It kills your soul. You start changing your material to appease people. You’re not doing it for people who like your art, you’re doing it for people who expect a certain thing. “Oh, I can’t do this joke because it will upset them and then I won’t get their money.” If you’re thinking like that, you’re not really making art anymore. You’re selling a product. So, I would say those would be a couple of pieces of advice.

Pam: That’s so great. Thank you so, so much.