An entire generation of Grinnell College students considers comedian Hari Kondabolu — who never actually attended the college — a quintessential part of their central Iowa education.
For roughly half a decade in his early days on the comedy circuit, the Brooklyn, New York-based comedian stopped at Grinnell annually. When Grinnell's student-run newspaper, Scarlet & Black, asked the comedian in 2017 why he kept coming back, Kondabolu could only muse.
"I don’t know!" He told the paper at the time. "I feel like I could ask the same question like: 'Why, Grinnell?!' But I connect with the students here, and they connect with me."
In that 2017 interview, he goes on to explain that the audience at Grinnell made him comfortable enough to create new material. When speaking with the Des Moines Register on Tuesday, he added that his chemistry with the audience got better every year.
"One year, (Grinnell College) called it the Kondubolu Brothers Festival," Kondabolu said. "They had me perform one night. They had me and my brother do our podcast together… and my brother was in a rap group called Das Racist, so they had them perform that one day as well. So there were three days where we were doing something every night."
Grinnell students adored Kondabolu so much that the school named him "an honorary alum."
"I get alumni mail even though I didn’t go here," he told the newspaper. "I feel like this is all part of a weird legacy I didn’t expect to happen at this school."
That status arguably led him to, at least temporarily, overshadow one celebrity who actually graduated from the college in 2001: Kumail Nanjiani ("Eternals," "The Big Sick").
When Kondabolu was still appearing at Grinnell regularly, he said he asked Nanjiani to record a comedic voice mail asking the student body why Kondabolu was invited back regularly instead of him.
Despite being a regular at Grinnell College, and even popping into Iowa City once in 2017, the comedian has never performed in Des Moines. That's going to change this weekend.
Kondabolu takes the stage at Teehee's Comedy Club, 1433 Walnut St., this Sunday. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. with the show starting an hour later.
Since his string of Grinnell performances, Kondabolu's star has continued to rise. Variety named him a comic to watch in 2018. He appeared as a guest on public radio programs from "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!" to "All Things Considered." He also wrote the documentary "The Problem with Apu," which investigates how the character from "The Simpsons," Apu Nahasapeemapetilan, impacted Kondabolu's own career as well as other comedians of Indian descent.
Kondabolu plans to release a yet-untitled hour-long comedy special by the start of 2023; material from that show makes up a portion of the set he's touring with now. He's also co-hosting a new Netflix show with comedian Megan Stalter planned to hit the streaming service on Nov. 30. There, 12 chefs make iconic snacks and compete for a $50,000 prize.
"They keep on changing (the title). It's called 'Snack vs. Chef,'" he said of the show.
Those who did see him perform in Grinnell can expect a more confident Kondabolu on the stage. He's more experienced and willing to dip into his own personal life with his comedy to help connect with an audience. Topics like turning 40 at the end of this month and becoming a father during the pandemic are likely to come up.
The world has also readily provided additional subject matter.
“There’s still a lot to talk about in the world, and the sad thing I’ve realized is things like colonialism and racism are pretty evergreen," Kondabolu said. "With colonialism, for at least my stand-up act, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
Though he often visits topics of injustice, he also understands that people who might not be familiar with this comedy might feel uncomfortable. Kondabolu views that aspect of stand-up comedy as a promise, so he knows that he's obligated to make that discomfort funny.
Kondabolu feels he's gotten better at finding a way to relate to a room when some jokes don't land. As a younger comedian, he recalls trying to dismiss that discomfort rather than defuse it, but now he understands it can be a tool.
“If something doesn’t work, it’s almost like saying ‘OK, there’s nothing we can relate to so far, but the one thing we can relate to is that the last 10 minutes were uncomfortable for all of us. We share that experience. We were in the room together for that,'" he said.
“For people who have never seen me, it’s my job to let them know I’m funny, I’m present, I’m in Des Moines right now, I’m excited to be here and if a joke doesn’t work, I’ll hopefully make you laugh regardless.”
Tickets for the show are $25 at the door or $20 in advance through teeheescomedy.com.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Comedian Hari Kondabolu debuts his show in Des Moines this weekend