Hari Kondabolu appeared virtually on Thursday at an Amazon Studios event, accentuating the importance of Asian & Pacific Islander Representation In Film & Media. There, he delivered a “Lightning Talk,” in which he addressed complaints among comics of a politically correct world, and his hopes for more diverse and inclusive media.
In his pre-recorded speech, the comedian and filmmaker behind acclaimed 2017 doc The Problem with Apu argued that stand-up comedy is “the freest art form,” and that that has never been more true than it is today, despite what some comics are saying. This is true because today, comics from underrepresented communities can speak their mind or hit back, when racist or intolerant jokes are made—whereas in the past, a power imbalance existed that prevented them from doing so. “As a stand-up, you should be able to talk about whatever you want, but that doesn’t mean there’s not repercussions,” Kondabolu said. “Now…you have to deal with the repercussions of what you say, more than ever before. But I think that’s a good thing.”
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Among the comics Kondabolu addressed are those who complain that they can no longer make the kinds of jokes they used to make, which would be considered offensive today. “First of all, why do you want to say old stuff? That’s just not creative,” he said. “Art has the ability to both reflect and shape society, and if you’re not, you’re failing on two fronts.”
Kondabolu also touched on those who have said they won’t play colleges anymore, because young audiences have become too sensitive or politically correct. “That’s just like saying, ‘The kids these days….’ and that’s the last thing you want,” he said. “The last thing you want is to come off as irrelevant.”
The comic acknowledged that adapting to changes in culture can be “frustrating.” But at the same time, he explained that it’s inevitable and important. “Times change, audiences change, and you go with it. That’s the nature of entertainment,” he said. “[It’s also] a part of learning and growing, and ultimately, I think it makes you a better artist.”
He then touched on the idea of being ‘canceled’ for something you say on stage. “I don’t see the point in complaining that you’re being canceled. You’re not being canceled,” he said. “This isn’t a country where you’re killed or thrown in jail [for speaking on mind]. You’re criticized on Twitter.”
During his 10-minute talk, Kondabolu also offered his two cents on the things those high up in Hollywood can do to help create a more inclusive world, one of which is to trust creators from the AAPI community and others to tell their own stories, and to do it well.
Calling for diverse writers’ rooms and an end to tokenization, he also said studios, streaming services and networks need to realize that their audiences are smarter than they think. “We’re used to dumbing things down, but we have to trust that people will get it, that if you have a story about a family with two moms, and they’re Cambodian, a white family will get it,” he said. “Why? Because they’re human beings, and the human story is not that different, even with all the variables.”
Kondabolu also expressed his hope in the next generation of artists, and of people in general, who want change now and “will work for it.”
“We see that with marches for Black Lives Matter and the environment, and I think the same thing will translate into media,” he said. “If you want to put out the best stuff, trust in the voices of young people. They generally are right at the end of the day.”
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