You can take the comedian out of Seattle, but you can’t make him drink.
Reggie Watts and Hari Kondabolu both credit the city as a springboard but have found their fortune—Comedy Central specials, TED talks, Madison Square Garden gigs—after moving to New York. Can one place be funnier than another?
Hari Kondabolu Do you miss Seattle?
Reggie Watts I’m still trying to understand what Seattle was for me. I mean, it was a lot of shit, you know?
Hari How many years were you there?
Reggie Fourteen years. That was a crazy time. A rollercoaster. Growing up from 19 to 33, that’s a major portion of your life. So much happened, between bands and weird things and experiences and drugs and driving and accidents and cool parties and crazy art experiments and lofts and moving 14 different places.
Hari You grew up there essentially. My thing in Seattle is different because I was there two years.
Reggie When did you get there?
Hari ’05. I left in ’07. It was really small, but my life changed because of it. So it’s always going to have that for me.
Reggie Where’d you move from?
Hari New York. I grew up in Queens. My college roommate was from Seattle and he always talked about it in this amazing way. Like it had all these possibilities creatively. So I got a job out there and I lived there for two years as an immigrant rights organizer.
Reggie Wow, badass!
Hari Yeah, I was doing comedy at night. It was a hobby. That’s when People’s Republic of Komedy started. I got there just as it was about to peak and it was great, you know? Whenever I think about Seattle, I think about the fact that I wouldn’t be doing comedy without it. It was two of the most incredible and intense years of my life.
Creatively, for me, it’s harder to make stuff in New York. In Seattle I could live off less, I had all my friends and creative partners there. My writing partner Aham [Oluo; see Trending p. 18] is there. I don’t have that here. Here I’m trying to get by, and you do a five-minute, 10-minute, 15-minute spot. In Seattle you can do 15 to 20 every night if you want to.
Reggie That’s the interesting thing about a place like that. Once you realize that you’re getting stronger, gaining confidence, once people recognize and enjoy what you do, you have three-dimensional access to an entire facility known as Seattle. But you get to New York and you’re back to not even square one. It’s square negative two. And you have to just build it up.
In New York, if you’re doing something underground, it feels different than if you’re doing something underground in Seattle. In New York, if it’s underground, it knows it’s underground. Whereas in Seattle it’s like the Little Rascals. It’s like this bunch of kids that started booking shows. It’s more innocent.
In the mid-’90s I would do these jam nights with bands. I was always doing comedy between sets, informally. The band would be done and they were supposed to turn on the music, or we were supposed to take a break. But I would just get onstage and start doing comedy stuff. I remember people being very confused about that.
Hari Seattle’s so isolated from everything else, so no one really knows. I still think about that city every day. And I wish I were there. Creatively, every time I go, I’m freer. I’m onstage, I’m not thinking, I’m just going. And I come back [to New York] with a bunch of new ideas. New York is always a struggle. I’m always fighting through stuff, I don’t have enough time. I mean, I get enough, I go up everyday, but not in front of a nice crowd that’s excited, where I can just improvise and do whatever pops out of my head. But there’s no practical reason to stay [in Seattle]. And that’s hard. I wish I could. Musicians can pull it off, I guess.
Reggie Musicians can. Definitely musicians can. Because Seattle has a long history of music, so even if generations change, there’s still that core DNA. Whereas the comedy thing, people think of it as extra.
Hari Right. “Oh, we have this too.”
Reggie Yeah, absolutely. Whereas New York, you think comedy. You think Broadway, you think comedy, you think theatre. LA is the same way. Comedy requires larger oxygen supply as a combustible thing. Whereas music can take its time and do what it’s doing. Unless you’re a filmmaker. If you’re a filmmaker, you can be anywhere. Seattle’s fine for that, because it’s cheap. If you wanted to make comedy films, you could live there and do that.
Hari Well, a lot of it is drive too. People get comfortable. You get lazy. You could be brilliant and it’s like, “Seriously, it took me six years to buy a camera?”
Reggie I know, man. That’s why I ended up moving. We tried. The band that I was in, the stuff that I was doing… We tried doing sketch comedy, we tried to start something. I threw these performance nights at the OK Hotel before it burned down. There was so much stuff that we tried, you know?
Hari You couldn’t go further than you got.
Reggie It’s a great incubator—that’s what I think of Seattle. And as long as you’re industrious and you can get a hard line to the world from there, then you’re set. Because now you have the best of both worlds. You have the motivation, the productivity, you’re getting money, but you’re taking advantage of the sleepiness, the comfortability of the town to attack. You have that attack spirit in Seattle.
Hari That’s what I tell comics who are starting. Start in a city like Seattle that supports you and lets you build. You start [in New York] and you get bitter. You also start following trends because it’s like, “This is what’s working for them, this is what I’m doing.” In Seattle nobody knows what you’re doing. Nobody cares. It’s frustrating—but if you’re just getting started, it’s perfect.
My goal is black box theaters that have video projector screens. That’s what I want. That way I can make more short films and then mix them into the shows.
Reggie That’s cool. I have to see a whole set of yours. I’ve only seen you in bits and pieces.
Hari I want you to see the show I do with my brother, man. I’d love to have you on it, actually.
Reggie What are you doing?
Hari My brother [Ashok “Dap” Kondabolu] and I do a show called The Untitled Kondabolu Brothers Project. It’s just us talking, and we’ll show some video clips that we’ll analyze, or some articles. A lot of it is my brother going on tangents and me trying to reel him back in. I need structure to work; he doesn’t like structure at all. We balance each other out. He’s my brother. It’s natural.
The last show happened the night after Osama bin Laden got killed. We had a sold-out show at the People’s Improv Theater. Hima from Das Racist was re-tweeting the racist shit that was getting said after bin Laden got killed, like ignorant people on Twitter. Kids, adults, didn’t matter. So we took a bunch of those and showed them on a screen and analyzed each one.
This one girl—she was like 15—she wrote “RIP Osama. Fucking Hindu.” Which was incredible. And we were all laughing about it and then someone in the audience pulled out their own phone and looked her up on Twitter. I took his phone and read it in front of the audience. It said, “Yeah, for all the Hindus that keep messaging me, I know that Muslims and Hindus are different. I just don’t care, okay?” And it was this incredible thing to do in real time.
Reggie That sounds awesome.
Hari Are you doing a TED talk?
Reggie Yeah, I finally get to do TED. It’s one of my big dreams. I always wanted to be able to play Carnegie Hall or speak at TED or do an underground performance art festival in Berlin or do Caroline’s [on Broadway] or do Montreal or do a music video with some popular rap star or do a music video with some weird kind of artist. Because I love all of those. It’s just finding a way to perform in all the various ways that you love. And the audience will just be the audience.
Hari Comedy is treated more like art in Europe than it is here, whether it’s how a club is structured, whether there are intervals, or alcohol isn’t sold during a performance.
Reggie Comedy is a performance art. And some people are more performance art-ish than others.
If you look in the past—Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, the whole Rat Pack thing. Abbott & Costello, the slapstick stuff. That was all very high art because they were always refining it, this idea, these constructs.
We live in a hyper-compartmentalized, divisive, market share performance industry. We have to get ourselves out of that, erase the lines, start finding new ways of calling things different things. In the past, it was just what you’d see on TV or stuff people would see in a club. Or in a movie, like a cameo where someone would just do this crazy thing. But now we can be subtle and wordy, we can just stand there with the microphone and release massive concepts. And you’re like, “What?!”
Hari Comedy now—it’s everywhere. This form of live performance is incredible because it can be as simple as just a human being and a mic. People are finding it. And it’s growing. And it’s exciting for us because we get to travel to the places where it’s growing now.
Reggie Now, it’s like, “It’s new! There’re no rules!” That doesn’t matter—we’re just trying to compartmentalize and that creates a category called “alternative comedy.” Seattle has more actual alternative comedy because it’s the Wild West. You’re deep at this outpost somewhere and it’s like, “I got me an idea! I’ma do me some laughworks!” “What are laughworks?” “Well, you get yer chuckle on. Remember when Dad tripped over the chicken? He fell over and we was all laughin’! Let’s do that! But like, purposeful!”
Hari That person is 23 years old, went to Cornish, has a nicely-trimmed moustache and has decided that’s his voice for the next three years. •
Photography by Kyle Johnson