International Emmys Host Hari Kondabolu on Why the Award Might Become "Superfluous"

Hari Kondabolu-Getty-H 2018
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

The New York comedian, whose documentary about 'Simpsons' character Apu made headlines, also talks about comedy in the age of Trump and the globalization of TV; plus, who will win and who should win at Monday's ceremony.

The International Emmys have never been as diverse, in style and geography, as they are this year, with nominees from across Asia, Africa and Latin America adding to the regular stable of European, Australian and Canadian fare competing to be crowned the best TV in the world.

The International Academy also will honor two small-screen giants: uberproducer Greg Berlanti (The Flash, Blindspot), who, with 14 scripted series on the air, set a new TV record; and Sophie Turner Laing, CEO of Endemol Shine Group, the mega-indie behind such hits as Big Brother, Peaky Blinders and Black Mirror.

Overseeing it all as the host of this year's awards show is New York comedian Hari Kondabolu, who made headlines this year with his documentary The Problem With Apu, which examines the character of convenience store owner Apu on The Simpsons and stereotypes of Southeast Asians in Western pop culture. In April, the show's producers responded by having Lisa Simpson criticize "political correctness" as the camera pans down to a picture of Apu.

THR spoke to Kondabolu about the controversy, Trump-era comedy and why he thinks the International Emmys may become "superfluous."

What's it like being a politically aware comedian in the age of Trump?

It's a really mixed bag. In one sense, what can I say about Trump? How can I do satire when he is the satire. He actually does the extreme things you'd imagine were satire. But I don't really talk about political figures as I do about ideas, about immigration, about racism, about sexism. And because of Trump, more people are politically aware. If you hear stories about kids being locked in cages, you can more easily understand immigration. If you hear stories of women being grabbed, sexism isn't so difficult to imagine. The stuff I always talked about, suddenly everyone is talking about it.

You're hosting the International Emmys and you'll soon be going on a stand-up tour in Europe. How is it different performing in front of a non-American audience?

It's funny, the times I feel most American are when I'm abroad. That's when I realize I have a very American mindset. In this country I'm seen as an outsider. In another country, I'm clearly an American. But I'm really excited about the International Emmy audience. I see this such a great opportunity. Because in a few years, maybe the idea of an "international" Emmy will be superfluous. It used to be you'd never see international shows, but now we're all watching Netflix and Amazon, we're all watching Swedish drama and British comedy and Korea soap operas. It's cool to be at this event, because that's where the world is going.

What's your favorite international series to binge-watch?

It's been off the air for years, but I still am obsessed with the '90s British sketch comedy show Goodness Gracious Me [about the South East Asian community in the U.K.]. When I saw it I thought it was the the future — the future I hoped we could have here. Just the idea that you could tell in-jokes about your community, that you would be viewed as an equal part of the culture, was incredible.

How did you feel about the response from The Simpsons to your doc The Problem With Apu?

The reaction of the show just seemed petty. Mainly I'm disappointed because the people who attacked me, who criticized me, I don't think any of them saw the film. My film was, I think, a fairly thoughtful documentary from the perspective of a Simpsons fan who has a complex relationship with a certain character. When people talk about outrage culture, they usually use it to refer to people talking about progressive things, but I also see it as people getting furious about things they don't understand. The debate about political correctness is often presented as an issue of freedom of speech but, sadly, its usually not a particularly nuanced discussion. Unfortunately, most people haven't done the reading. They are not equipped to have the nuanced conversations we need. I don't think the discussion of these things is the problem. The problem is when we can't properly discuss them.

Why is onscreen representation for minority groups important?

Well, first of all, we're talking about fairness. I'm an American and I'm human being. It's only fair that I been seen as a complex human being, like everyone else. And especially for a marginal group, representation is crucial. Take police brutality against black men. One of the reasons for that is the years and years of depictions of black men as violent on TV and film. The police react in these gut ways because of that programming. Anytime a stereotype is applied, it restricts a people. Regarding Apu, it was because this was the only character on TV representing the Southeast Asian community. Do you really think if we have 30 characters representing our community that we would have complained? 

As a comedian, does resorting to racial stereotypes also strike you as lazy comedy?

One-hundred percent. It is lazy. If Apu weren't a cartoon character, and let's say a white comedian was doing an Indian character and doing jokes about multi-armed gods, curry and 7-11 stores, we'd say it was a hackneyed character. Racism is hackneyed. It's comedically lazy.

You tweet a lot about President Trump. Do you have a tweet ready for 2020, in case he loses?

That just feels so far away, I haven't been able to think of that. Actually, I'm preparing my end-of-the-world tweets: What would be a funny last tweet, a good last joke to end it all for the last three or four people who read it before it's all over?


International Emmys: Who Will Win vs. Who Should Win



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Julio Andrade in One Against All

Andrade delivers a Breaking Bad-quality performance as a public defender falsely imprisoned as a drug dealer in this crime drama. Sadly, the show has not yet broken big outside Brazil.



Emily Watson in Apple Tree Yard

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Thuso Mbedu in Is'thunzi

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Longshot Inside Edge

This engrossing Amazon-backed drama about a professional Mumbai cricket franchise plays like House of Cards on a cricket pitch. But the niche setting might prove a sticky wicket for Emmy voters.

A version of this story appeared in the Nov. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.