Hari Kondabolu’s Netflix special Warn Your Relatives brims with the kind of incisive political comedy one can expect from Kondabolu, the star, creator, and executive director of the pop culture documentary The Problem With Apu. There are digs at Trump, and self-aware attempts to stop talking about Trump that end in, of course, talking more about Trump.
There are also a lot of jokes about jokes. Kondabolu partakes in the kind of comedy about comedy that generally plays well at live shows in Los Angeles and New York City, but is tougher to sell in a special setting. Multiple times, he spells out the origin of a bit and even weaves a meta-narrative into the bit in which a past version of himself acknowledges that yes, this real-life moment will indeed become a bit. Those moments don’t add much, especially since they roll out much less naturally than Kondabolu’s more specific comedy, like how much he loves firefighters.
In another self-aware comedian attempt that just doesn’t quite click, he tries a slew of alternate punchlines to a joke about God and gay people. One involves him doing a masturbation act-out, something that has become such a trope for male comedians that there has been significant backlash, especially from women in comedy. Kondabolu, self-aware as ever, knows this, preempting criticism by trying to explain the “real” meaning of the joke, putting on a pretentious intellectual persona that doesn’t quite mesh with who he is. Despite his attempts to make it something more, it doesn’t seem like anything other than a cheap masturbation joke. Sometimes doing comedy about comedy is a cop out.
But one of the most perplexing bits, which goes on for far too long, is Kondabolu’s retelling of when he acted in a movie with David Oyelowo where the crux of the joke is that Kondabolu isn’t a good movie actor. The comedian doesn’t present this in a way where he asks the audience to pity him, but it’s also difficult to discern what the takeaway here is other than the fact that Kondabolu was kind of difficult to work with. It’s a strange story to mine comedy from and ends up unfolding in a predictable manner.
All that said, Warn Your Relatives has its bright, smart moments, especially when Kondabolu relaxes a bit, as he does in the hour’s second half. His act-outs loosen up, becoming more organic and less rehearsed. The voice and hyperbole he uses to imitate a white person talking about how spicy something is elevates a very simple joke. The simplest moments in the special are also its most engaging. Sometimes, Kondabolu loses his grasp on the longer stories, resulting in a lackluster finish.
Kondabolu shouldn’t have to feel like he has to do political material all the time; comedians of color too often get shoehorned into those confines. But there’s also no denying that acute social commentary with a political edge is where Kondabolu shines. Those moments in Warn Your Relatives are the most memorable, as are the times when he talks about his family. At times, the special feels haphazardly cobbled together, with a few bits that probably needed more time in the factory. But Kondabolu is infectious throughout, and when he lets his excitement about something (like firefighters! And mangoes!) come through, it’s genuinely fun and feels more natural.
A bit about how much Indian people love mangoes, in particular, is exemplary of the kind of straightforward, specific, joyful comedy that flows well in Warn Your Relatives, tapping into Kondabolu’s earnest personality. The joke is unfussy, unforced, a playful spin on larger ideas about cultural specificity and stereotypes. When Kondabolu finds those personal, zoomed-in angles, it makes for the strongest comedy.