Review: Hari Kondabolu Is A Purveyor Of New Dad Gallows Humour on ‘Vacation Baby’

By Aditya Mani Jha 1 May 2023 3 mins read

Hari Kondabolu's latest special 'Vacation Baby' is largely about him and his partner’s surprise pregnancy, their decision to keep the baby, and everything that decision meant for their lives.

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All parents need a sense of humour. We all remember the tiny little despots we were as children. New parents, in particular, would do well to maintain a deep reservoir of bittersweet jokes. How else are they supposed to make their peace with constant anxiety, mounting bills and sleep cycles getting shot to hell? Freshly minted parents, therefore, have developed a very specific brand of gallows humour that encapsulates the challenges and hard-fought joys of their lives. It is this demographic that Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu speaks to directly in his new hour-long special Vacation Baby, released on YouTube on 18 April.

Vacation Baby is largely about Kondabolu and his partner’s surprise pregnancy, their decision to keep the baby, and everything that decision meant for their lives. In any era, this would have represented a considerable challenge. As it so happened, the pregnancy was confirmed close to the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic, complicating matters further. 

“Do you know how hard it is to be pregnant during a global pandemic, how strange it is?” Kondabolu says. “It’s weird, people are dying, there’s death everywhere, despair and there’s no hope and you’re bringing life into that? Having a child during a global pandemic is like buying real estate in Pompeii as Mount Vesuvius is erupting!”

This is a funny bit on its own legs but Kondabolu pushes it further and transforms it into a recurring gag through the special. Once the laughter has subsided, Kondabolu immediately says, “Now, a little bit about that failed punchline…” and explains that in the original version of the joke, he said “like buying real estate in Ukraine just as the Russians are entering”. That he decided against the Ukraine bit was due to “the comedic concept known as ‘too soon!’”, but doing the Vesuvius bit made him realise “another comedic concept known as ‘too long ago!’” Isn’t there, Kondabolu says, “a horrific event that I can use as a metaphor, that we can all laugh at as a family?”

What’s going on here? This meta-analysis of his own joke is intended to make the audience think about what they laugh at, and why. The concept of a tragedy that’s “chronologically in the sweet spot” (i.e. not too distant and not too recent) is absurdly hilarious. This is the tricky part of the comedian’s job—selecting metaphors that will almost certainly divide the room (and hopefully, not denigrate already-suffering demographics).

‘Vacation Baby’ is a solid, entertaining display from one of the more literary comedians on the circuit currently.

There are so many other bits here that are impeccably timed. There’s a heartfelt monologue about the US Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade (the right to abortion is no longer federally guaranteed); the special was shot right after the Supreme Court’s widely unpopular decision was confirmed. There’s also a very funny segment about far-right prime-time host Tucker Carlson that hits even harder now that Carlson has been fired by Fox News. After landing a punchline involving “the Kraken” (a gigantic mythical sea-beast), Kondabolu says, “What’s that, like, the plural of ‘cracker’?” (‘cracker’ is a satirical term directed at white Americans). Responding to the couple of groans from the far side of the audience, Kondabolu shoots back, “Tucker Carlson does more damage to race relations in America every night than my entire career can ever do!”

Kondabolu’s immigrant parents don’t have as much of a presence here as it is in his previous works. He does get in a few good licks at our parents along the way, but this time around, he’s speaking from the point of view of a parent himself. Like the routine about what his son might grow up to become—on the one hand, Kondabolu wants the child to be a star athlete because he wants to live out his own dreams vicariously. “I want him to be like Steph Curry, man, can you believe it? That guy’s so good at basketball that you have Indian guys running around with jerseys that say ‘Curry’! Can you believe it? They’ve forgotten their childhood trauma.” But on the other hand, the comedian also confesses to be “afraid of my child being more famous than I am someday.”

Not that Kondabolu is bullish about his increasing prominence—the concluding gag in the show is about the time he, blinded by his “middling fame in coastal cities”, snubbed a collaboration request from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I won’t spoil the joke for you, but AOC certainly found it funny—she responded to Kondabolu’s tweet about the incident last week.

‘Vacation Baby’ is a solid, entertaining display from one of the more literary comedians on the circuit currently. We always knew he could write (as his work with W. Kamau Bell and his Simpsons documentary showed us) and this special reveals Kondabolu’s significant strengths as a live performer as well.    


Aditya Mani Jha

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist. He’s currently working on his first book of non-fiction, a collection of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.


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