Co-creator Hari Kondabolu delves into the revival of their in-demand podcast after three years, why Donald Trump is ‘not a typical candidate’, and how being a new parent has affected his world view
The last time Hari Kondabolu was in Hyderabad, he fell in love with Irani chai. “They were some of the most delicious drinks I had in my life,” he laughs, “Especially the ones at the iconic older places in the city.” From a time of constant travel, the actor-comedian-podcaster is now creating content in a house-bound setting.
Over a video call from California, the 37-year-old says he and long-time friend W Kamau Bell are closely watching the US political landscape as the 2020 Presidential election campaigns and debates roll on.
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Hari is co-creating content for the third season of Politically Re-Active (Topic Studios). The new season comes three years after the previous one, and for both Kamau and Hari, the timing and urgency called for a revival. The three-year absence did not go unnoticed; many fans of Hari and Kamau continually asked when they would return. Hari mentions that Kamau, who has won an Emmy for United Shades of America, was asked more about the podcast than about his television show, so “it’s clear people resonated with the podcast.”
The podcast, which kicked off in 2016, is not just another political science satire show. The second season’s episode on gerrymandering has been implemented in many US schools’ curriculum for its relevance and easy-to-understand approach to a complex topic. Hari looks back, “On a level, maybe we didn’t anticipate the ratings to be really good and that was cool.”
The early episodes certainly have stick, in that people are still listening to them, three years on, given they feature personalities such as Hasan Minhaj, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Van Jones, Lewis Black, Akilah Hughes and more.
The reason we went off the air, to begin with was, it was a well-done podcast; but that takes time and effort, tons of research, preparation and editing. Even with producers, we were doing some heavy lifting.” So season two came to a close, but Hari and Kamau stayed in touch: Kamau started United Shades of America and Hari released The Problem With Apu in November 2017, a documentary about Apu from The Simpsons.
Then in 2020, COVID-19 struck; the world came to a stand-still and Kamau and Hari found their schedules to be more free. The third season was based “on a gradual acceptance that this was a popular thing that people loved, and on finding time to do it during an important election year.”
According to Hari, Trump is “not a typical candidate.” He elaborates, “Trump has been able to exploit cracks in the Constitution and the system. We can talk about what he’s done with immigration but we have a system that allows him to make choices; and we’re supposed to have a system of checks and balances but the fact that this man was not checked, tells you about that system.”
The third season launched with the first official episode on October 8. Episodes of Politically Re-Active are hot-off-the-mic, with Hari and Kamau recording weekly from their respective homes. Hari recalls recording the first episode, “Trump had just been tested positive for COVID-19 — so the chaos we are in now is certainly different than the chaos of pre-election. It is extreme now.” Certainly, this is like no other process largely due to the pandemic, explaining the way people are voting is changing, and how the debates look.
Seasoned guests for season 3 include:
- Jon Lovett, former Obama speechwriter and co-host of Pod Save America
- Cori Bush, a nurse and Black Lives Matter activist poised to be Missouri’s first black Congresswoman
- Alexandra Rojas of Justice Democrats
- Desmond Meade, who led the movement to get the vote for disenfranchised ex-felons in Florida
- Actor-comedian-filmmaker Ilana Glazer (Broad City) who is working to empower young voters to participate in elections
To add value to the third season, Hari and Kamau will bring in a variety of political experts and activists, with whom they had engaged through their years in the industry. “It was a multi-fold process; we thought about who we would like to talk to in general — somebody with personality, is interesting and is engaged in political thinking or work.”
The newfound timeliness also comes from Hari becoming a new parent over the last month, and Kamau being a father of three.“There’s a degree of thinking about where this [country] is going, and what we have to look forward to. We think about systems and larger institutional things and we always have more than whatever the topic of the week is, so it’s important to keep the eyes on the prize.”
Though Hari’s new son is only a month old, parenthood has given him some new perspective. “In my most cynical times, when I think about the end of the world through environmental disaster or nuclear annihilation [laughs] there is this really dark part of me that thinks to myself ‘well, at least it’s done, human suffering is over because humanity’s over — it’ll be over with.’ [laughs]. I can’t have that thinking with a kid, right? I’m certainly thinking more about the future in that we must salvage things to create a future that’s livable. Optimism is valuable when you have a kid; you’re working towards their growth and for that to work, you have to value said future.”
Pulling it together
The episodes are meaty, each about an hour-long and there have been some challenges, he admits, chief among them being the global lockdown. “There is a general disconnect from people this year,” he says. “ Earlier when we did the podcast, the guest would be with me or Kamau, but this year, that is not there. I hate that everything is so distant, there isn’t a human connection!”
One of the most remarkable differences within the house-bound settings is that Hari and Kamau may not be as out and about; for the time being, their portal to the elections is largely screen-oriented. The Vice Presidential Debate on October 8 saw Hari and Kamau live-tweeting real-time responses and observations as a form of communication, and also, interestingly, some zen, “Both of us, being comedians, the instinct with these live events is to tweet, to find perspectives and jokes as a way to deal with the absurdity of it. We’re not going to short on material this election!”
But podcasts possess an inherent intimacy for both listener and creator, agrees Hari. “I love that we are learning with the listener, it’s more genuine when the audience knows it, too, because they seem themselves in you. I would rather be in that position than in a position of ‘preachiness’.”