by Mark Molloy
KUMAIL NANJIANI is a writer, comedian, and actor in Los Angeles. He was born and grew up in Pakistan, moving to the United States when he was 18. Nanjiani was a regular on the Chicago alternative comedy circuit years ago before moving to L.A. His material blends his personal experiences growing up in Pakistan and moving to the U.S., a deep understanding and love of pop culture as a medium for understanding broader society, and the presumptions and contradictions of American culture seamlessly. He has a knack for both relating to his audience and challenging them to a different way of thinking. As a kid in Pakistan, Kumail devoured Western culture, gravitating to horror and horror/comedies like Ghostbusters and Gremlins, and developing a fascination with video games that he currently expresses as host of “The Indoor Kids,” a podcast produced as part of The Nerdist Industries family of podcasts. Besides the hilarious “Indoor Kids,” he was a writer and performer on Comedy Central’s “Michael and Michael Have Issues” with Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black, has appeared on “Franklin & Bash” on TNT, and has performed stand-up on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,”” Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” “Late Show with David Letterman,””Conan,” and “John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show.” One of his sets can be heard on The Nerdist Podcast episode 51, “Comedians You Should Know.” We spoke to him by phone from L.A.. and discussed how writing and storytelling underlie his work as a comic.
I write every day, and I have a specific idea of what I want to write, stand-up or other stuff. I have to write at least for ten minutes every day, and that grows to hours. I write about what happened to me, often things that happened to me in my childhood, and I try to find a new perspective—whether it’s food I ate or something I saw. It’s interesting––it used to be I’d try to find something funny and write it down, and now I write about something to find a funny angle on it. What else is interesting, the more specific I find my situation, whatever it is, the more generalized it becomes as I write about it and relate to it.
I think of myself as a writer who performs his own work—in fact at the beginning of my career, I didn’t think of myself as a performer at all. That was just the best way to get what I wrote out there. But, you find things on stage that you could never find sitting at a desk, writing. In the beginning, I used to dread performing, but now I look forward to it. Sometimes, I definitely have material that just will not work when I perform it, but just as often it’s the opposite. Something that is really funny to me in a very specific way may not translate to the stage. You have to see how it will connect. I do a bit about how much I love “The X-Files.” It works because even if the people in the audience are not fans of “The X-Files,” they can see my passion for it, and they have a similar experience with something they love. I’ll write it, go and try it out, and rewrite the next day. And I always try and write it as personally as I can—that sounds more pretentious than it really is—it’s just that it’s significant to me.
Ultimately it is storytelling. The storytelling method is as important as the idea under it. The idea is what you want people to come to, and the storytelling method is how you get people to it. Right now, the newest story I’m telling is about this birthday party in Pakistan. There was a snake and mongoose fight for entertainment, and it turned very bloody and awkward. It’s a very specific story for me, but it’s also very general, because it’s about one of the first times you think about mortality—watching this bloody fight while wearing a birthday hat. And that’s a very universal thing––at some point in your life you realize you’re going to die.
Also, I think video games are really underrated as narratives—you can get so involved in them. They tell a story, and you’re involved in it. I do try to read, though. You know, actually, weirdly, I was never really into comic books, but in the last month or so I got into these two comic books, Lock and Key and The Unwritten. Salman Rushdie is my favorite writer—he doesn’t have magic just to have magic, he has magic to get at real stuff. It’s a way to get to an idea. [Like] I try to use pop culture references because it is an efficient way of getting at a larger idea. Rushdie talks about a lot of real things that I understand. For me, I do a bit about the video game Call of Duty. In the level set in Pakistan, all the signs are in Arabic rather than Urdu. It’s a video game joke, but it speaks to how that whole part of the world is lumped together in the West, about the racism of it. You don’t want to start there—you know, “I want to talk about racism”—but you want to get there. I find that whenever I write jokes, they start gravitating toward things that are important to people, these common threads.
Photo by Suzanne Plunkett