Published Oct 03, 2013Kumail Nanjiani is a very funny person who hails from Karachi, Pakistan, but currently lives somewhere in the vicinity of Los Angeles. He has worked on numerous television shows as a writer and/or actor, including Michael and Michael Have Issues, Portlandia, Veep, Franklin & Bash and Burning Love. Alongside Jonah Ray, he's due to star in the upcoming Comedy Central show The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, which will have something to do with the regular showcase the duo host at the NerdMelt Theatre in L.A. Nanjiani is also the co-host of a popular videogame podcast called The Indoor Kids and, on July 23, Comedy Central released his hilarious new stand-up special, Beta Male, as a CD/DVD package. Exclaim! caught up with Nanjiani recently and talked about his Judd Apatow connection, his latest work, Indian/Pakistani movies, watching porn in Pakistan and much more.
Where are you and what are you doing?
I am in L.A. in the Silver Lake area and when you called me, I was doing some writing. I've been working on this movie for a little bit and I'm doing the second draft right now. I'd like to pour more time into it but I have to find time between stuff to write. It's a comedy but pretty grounded; it's not one of those wacky, weird ones. I've sort of been working with Judd Apatow. It's nothing official but we go back and forth and he gives me notes. He really likes the idea and he wants me to write it. He's sort of been my mentor and guru through this and he's the guy I'm sending the pages to.
So this could be a big thing?
It could be but y'know, it's hard to think about it like that because you get excited about stuff and then stuff doesn't come through so I just try to focus on what I'm doing. Hopefully it turns into something and if it doesn't, you move on to something else.
You were just at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal. How was your time in Canada?
I love that festival and always like going. This was the first time we did the Meltdown show [outside of the U.S.] and it was really awesome because people knew the show. We had a really good lineup of comedians but it was cool to see that people in other cities were aware of it. It's basically a stand-up show that Jonah and I host with different comedians. We do our show here [in L.A.] every Wednesday night in the back of a comic book store, which has this really great performance space. Red Hour, the production company that Ben Stiller owns, sort of approached us and they said "We wanna do this for TV," but we said "Y'know, we'll go pitch it around but only if we can shoot it in this space." For us, the big appeal of doing the show was the space itself and how organic and real it was. So, we decided we'd pitch it but only do it if they allowed us to shoot it back there and that's what Comedy Central did, so we'll start next year. We taped some backstage stuff for the pilot and that turned out really well. We had an amazing lineup — Pete Holmes, Tom Lennon, Nick Kroll, Jim Gaffigan, Natasha Leggero, Jerrod Carmichael — and we just filmed them hanging out and it turned out really well. It's one of those things where we know what the feel of it will be but the specifics of it, you're discovering as you go.
Based on your act, you were raised Muslim but your upbringing in Pakistan was heavily influenced by Western pop culture. How common was that among your friends?
Fairly common. We definitely had access to Hollywood movies. Everybody had VCRs — I'm talking about middle class people in Karachi. Out of all my friends, I was definitely the most into movies and videogames but the big ones, my friends would also see. The movie theatres we had would mostly play Urdu, Pakistani movies but towards the end [of my time living in Pakistan] they started getting bigger American movies. Like, the first one I can remember was Jurassic Park. We used to get like, Dolph Lundgren and Steven Segal stuff — like b-movies — but that was the first A Hollywood movie I remember seeing in the theatre.
When I went to India in 1989, we discovered this video store that had bootlegs of movies currently playing in North American theatres. Was much of what you saw legitimate or shady?
It was shady for most of my life but it turned legitimate. Movies that were still in theatres you could see bootlegs of by guys with camcorders. That's how I saw the last Lethal Weapon movie, which was by a guy who was sitting way too close to the screen. I saw a lot of movies like that. You'd go to the rental store and the guy would be like, "This one's pretty good, this one isn't good." And they would have Indian or Pakistani names on them and he'd tell you which ones were Lethal Weapon or Silence of the Lambs or whatever.
At some point, I discovered that there were a lot of Indian adaptations of American films.
Yeah, they did that a lot. I watched a lot more Indian movies than Pakistani ones because Bollywood — their quality is, for the most part, much better, and I've seen every big Indian movie until about '97 when I moved here. And a lot of them were straight rip-offs. There was also a long time where every Indian movie had the same premise. It was some variation of "parents get killed, kid grows up and takes revenge" or "brothers are separated and they recognize each other by like half a locket or a matching birthmark." Or somebody gets hit in the head and loses their memory, 30 years later, they get hit in the head again, regain their memory. Cops were always the bad guys. I still have a weird distrust of police because of that.
But they could all sing and dance quite wonderfully. Almost every movie is a musical. Any idea where that comes from?
Part of it is that we were pretty conservative societies. India's changing a little bit now but you couldn't really show it but you could imply sex. So a guy and a girl singing together usually implied that they'd had sex. A guy and girl would be singing and in the next scene she's pregnant. So that happens a lot. They dance around trees; that also means that they've had sex. For the most part, India and Pakistan are very poor countries so theses movies are like escapism. You go to forget about your troubles.
In your special you say you haven't been back to Pakistan since you left. Is your family still there?
My parents are now in New Jersey. They moved a few years ago but my grandparents and aunts and uncles and everyone else is still back there.
New Jersey? I can't imagine the adaptation there. How are they doing in New Jersey?
Well, they didn't want it to be too much of a quick step up from Karachi. I'm sorry; I apologize to New Jersey. It's interesting; I never gave my parents enough credit for adapting when they were coming here. I thought it was gonna be pretty bad because they're in their 50s and lived in Pakistan for almost their whole lives and we're a close, big family. But they love it here. In the beginning they were a little weird about having Hindu and Christian friends but now they do and they hang out with everyone. They're really having an awesome second life there.
What compelled you to leave Pakistan? Were you rejecting your culture in any way?
The plan was always that I would come to America for college because, even though we lived in a nicer part of town, it's very corrupt and poor and things have been bad forever. So the plan was always to get us out. I have an interesting relationship with Pakistan. It's home, I love the food, I love the people but there's lots of things about it that I still haven't been able to come to terms with. It is a very closed-minded society — it's very misogynistic, it's very homophobic for the most part, and it's very, very religious. Pakistan, I believe, was the first country formed for the purpose of one religion; Pakistan means "land of the pure" and the "pure" are Muslims. So, the identity thing is weird for me because I don't consider myself American or Pakistani. It's weird to not have a big group of people I can identify myself with. I define myself, I guess, as a comedian and that's the only community I can really call home.
So, when you arrived in America, were you some kind of racist, sexist, homophobic zealot?
I wouldn't say I was a zealot. I definitely remember being homophobic and, part of that was what we were told but also that we didn't know anyone who was out. I was fairly closed-minded and definitely felt that people of other religions were wrong and I was probably a little homophobic and misogynistic. I was a very agreeable, normal guy but definitely had these vestiges within me.
It's interesting that you came here for college, which is often an age and atmosphere where your thinking about the world evolves.
Yeah, you get to figure out who you are as a person and, for most people, it's in college where you think about who you are and where you want to be.
Some comedians can really mine the cultural or racial differences between us for jokes because, on-stage in particular, it's this reaction to the otherwise unspoken tension about it in the room. When you talk about watching porn or TV in Pakistan, it almost has the opposite effect because you're bypassing the difference for something relatable. Is that a conscious decision on your part or just an offshoot of authentic storytelling?
I don't think it was a conscious decision on my part. I just thought it was a fun story that I wanted to tell. I knew I never really wanted to talk about the difference in culture and race because it was just something that wasn't that interesting to me and I've seen a lot of great comedians talking about that. If I was talking about me being from Pakistan I still wanted to talk about very personal experiences.
I didn't really have an agenda beyond that but maybe you're right, it does have the nice side effect of humanizing a part of the world that people aren't really too familiar with. The only time you see Pakistan in the news is when something bad happens. That wasn't ever the intention. I just wanted to tell these stories from a very personal perspective. Everyone has a story about hiding porn from their parents but maybe not everyone has the experience of taking a VCR apart because the power goes out and they live in a third world country.
Listen to the complete interview with Kumail Nanjiani on the Kreative Kontrol with Vish Khanna podcast.