Kumail Nanjiani takes a break from his busy schedule to chat with us about being a shy kid and the etiquette involved in appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman. Kumail Nanjiani has been having a busy year. Based in New York, the Pakistani-born comic has performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live, periodically popped up from under Steven Colbert’s desk as an unsuspecting terrorist, and been awarded the 2009 ECNY trophy for his timely one-man show, Unpronounceable. Fresh off a writing stint on Comedy Central’s Michael & Michael Have Issues, he stops to chat with us about the dubious honor of being a “top-ten comic.”
Tanja M. Laden: So how does it feel to be named a top comic by Variety, Hollywood Reporter, and New York Magazine?
Kumail Nanjiani: It’s good. I mean, I try not to think of that stuff too much. I try to focus on the stuff I do, like writing and performing, and it’s really easy to get caught up in these things. I’m sort of a workaholic — my fiancée tells me that I don’t take enough time to appreciate stuff, so I guess it doesn’t really change the way I work. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fucking great; I’m just my biggest critic. After every show, I think about the stuff that could have gone differently, rather than the stuff that went well.
TML: What do you think it is that sets you apart from other comics, seeing as how you’ve become well-known relatively quickly, when other comics struggle for years to make it?
KN: I’ve been working in stand-up for a long time as well, it’s just that I was in Chicago, where there’s no industry or anything. There’s this perception that I just started and got a bunch of things, whereas I was in Chicago for a good five years performing and writing and trying to get better, and had no industry, no interviews, no mentions, or anything like that. It was easy for me when I got to New York, because I had a lot more experience and confidence than other people.
I don’t know if there’s any one thing that I would say sets me apart from other comics. I mean, I try and have my comedy be pretty personal. It’s not political or anything, it’s just about stuff I like – like roller coasters or movies. In the way that everybody is unique or whatever Barney the purple dinosaur says, that’s the way that my comedy’s unique, because it’s just my perspective – every bit of it is my perspective.
TML: How is being natural onstage preferable to having an “act”? Or is your being natural also an act?
KN: It’s the hardest thing to do, to be yourself onstage. It seems to me it was the biggest hurdle I had, and it’s only been in the last, I would say, year and a half when I’ve been able to be myself up on stage. That was something I worked on, but now it’s not an act, it’s natural. I used to not talk to anybody for a half hour before I went onstage and get into the zone or whatever, but now I can be having a conversation with someone, they call my name, I can go onstage and just sort of continue on, you know?
TML: Do you feel you would have been any more or less accepted as a comic ten years ago?
KN: I did a one-man show called Unpronounceable, and it’s certainly true for that. That show, I don’t think, would have gotten the attention that it got if I had done it ten years ago. But my stand-up doesn’t really get into a lot of that stuff. I always wanted to keep it separate, because I am Pakistani and Muslim, but that’s just a small part of me, so it’s not exclusive to my comedy, but my comedy is also not exclusively about that. I don’t think the way my stand-up would have been received or perceived would have been different ten years ago, but certainly, the one-man show would have been.
TML: How was your sense of humor received in Pakistan, as opposed to the United States?
KN: I actually was never the funny kid in class; I was very, very shy. I was very introverted, I had a hard time talking to strangers or speaking up in class. The comedy in Pakistan, I would say – it’s sort of catching up – but the standard there now, it’s sort of where stand-up was here 20 years ago. It’s a newer country, and this kind of comedy is pretty new there. You get a lot of impressions and sort of broad, political stuff, and double entendres. I don’t think my stand-up would do very well there, and like I said, I was never considered a funny kid or anything. There are obviously some limitations as to the things you can talk about. Here, you can talk about anything and you might upset people, but in Pakistan, there are definitely certain sacred cows that you cannot mention.
TML: How does your family feel about your career choice?
KN: My parents really get a kick out of it. When I still had my day job, they were like, “Oh, this is just a hobby,” and when I quit my day job, they were like, “Uh-oh, this could be weird.” But then the spots on TV and stuff legitimized it in their eyes. Just two days ago, my mom was like, “You picked a very difficult career. There’s never gonna be any stability.” I was like, “Yeah, I guess that’s true, but, you know, this is what it is.”
TML: You’ve opened for Zach Galifianakis, Eugene Mirman, and Tom Arnold. Do you work your routine around the comedy of the headliner, or is it more or less the same routine no matter who you open for?
KN: I wouldn’t say I tailor it to specific headliners. You’re gonna do different stuff based on where you’re playing, so if I’m doing a comedy club in Times Square, my stand-up is going to be slightly different. Stuff I’m gonna do at UCB at midnight is going to be different from what I do, you know, Friday night at Caroline’s. I already try and tailor it to the headliners, and usually, the way it gets paired up, it’s sort of a similar sensibility. Zach’s a very different comedian from me, and he sort of understood that we would have the same audience. Same with Eugene Mirman, so opening for those guys was actually very easy for me, because everyone’s so excited to be there. We’re all in the same ballpark of the things we talk about.
TML: What’s the writing process like working on a sketch comedy show like Michael & Michael Have Issues, as opposed to writing your own jokes for stand-up?
KN: It was actually a really interesting educational experience for me. When I write stand-up, I always try and come from stuff that I find interesting, and then have my enthusiasm and passion for it draw people in. And I could always trust that, because I know I’m interested in this, I know I’m excited about this, I know if I write about it and talk about it, I could get other people excited about it. It’s my own voice, and obviously you know your own voice really well. Writing for Michael & Michael was very different. The first couple weeks I was sending in sketches that I thought were very funny, and none of them really went anywhere. And then I realized that, in my head, I would hear Showalter and Ian Black saying these lines and it wasn’t fitting.
So then I sort of learned to write in their voice. Those guys have such a defined voice and once you key in, it’s a very specific and unique thing that you can write to. That was the biggest difference for me – writing for somebody else in somebody else’s voice. What really did help was that those guys do have such a defined point of view that is very funny and very skewed, but also very specific.
TML: How do you feel about appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman at the end of the month?
KN: I’m obviously very excited, but I’m very nervous. It’s literally fucking David Letterman! It’s not like the next David Letterman, or the young David Letterman – it’s exactly David Letterman – so it’s very intimidating, ’cause he’s so good, and he’s so funny, and he’s been so funny for so long. Watching these shows, before I ever did stand-up, I’d watch these guys do comedy and be so envious, not being in the position to be able to do that. It’s very scary, but it’s very, very exciting, too. I get nervous when I think about it. I think Letterman is one of those guys everybody freaks out over. Him liking you means a lot. You can see the people he doesn’t like, like the people who show up and are like, “Hey, Dave!” and pretend they belong, and it’s like, no, you don’t really belong there. Everyone should have this deferential attitude on that show, you know? He’s a legend, you’re a guy who was in a new movie with robots. Don’t pretend this is not a big deal.
TML: How is your follow-up to Unpronounceable coming along?
KN: I haven’t really sat down and worked on a one-man show, per se. I’m sort of working on other things. Hopefully if Michael & Michael gets picked up again, I would love to be involved in that show again.
TML: Are you still working every night doing stand-up?
KN: Yeah, yeah. I’m taping Live at Gotham on Sunday. And I’ve been busy with Michael & Michael, so I haven’t been able to perform as much, but since then, I’ve been performing every night.
TML: How do you like performing at Comix, compared to other venues?
KN: I really like doing different kinds of shows – like the UCB, which is a smaller space, more intimate, and Comix, which is a big comedy club. It depends on my mood, I guess, which kind of show I’d want to do. Of all the comedy clubs, I would say I really feel most comfortable at Comix. Maybe it’s because I perform there more, but Comix really tries to get more alt people in there, more downtown New York people, so I really like performing there, I feel really comfortable. It’s a big room, and if you get enough people in there, it’s great – so hopefully we’ll get enough people in there!