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*This interview first published on Serial Optimist May 10, 2011 by Zhila Shariat

You’ve heard the same old story before: Born and raised in Pakistan, never seeing comedy once until moving to Iowa to attend college at 18, and being deathly shy, is the road comedian Kumail Nanjiani took to becoming now one of the most sought after and popular comedians around (or only well known by “comedy geeks,” as he would say). Actually, you’ve never heard that story before, because it seems almost unbelievable, or impossible, but that is the story of Nanjiani. Of course I’m leaving out all of the sunny days and good times, his funny and cute supportive parents, his great marriage and successes like writing for “Stella,” being named in Variety’s “10 Comics to Watch” list (amongst many others), killer performances on “Conan” and other late night spots, his show “Unpronounceable” and The Meltdown, and I guess I’ll just stop there. His stock is rising, and has been rising fast; so buy Kumail Nanjiani’s stock now.


Serial Optimist: Hi Kumail! Thanks for taking time to talk to us. Where are you right now, and what have you done so far today?

Kumail Nanjiani: I saved the Doctor from the Pandorica and the earth from a Dalek invasion. Then ate a Thai Beef Salad. (You can do the same if you choose to do the Doctor Who Experience for 17 quid. Plus 4 for the salad.)

SO: You are a Supercomedianhero! You moved to Iowa from Pakistan when you were 18 years old. What was it like for you there? I’m sure you probably came up with some good material being a Pakistania-Iowan; do you still use any in your stand-up?

Kumail: Some of my stand up in the beginning was about that, but I don’t really do that same material anymore. Sometimes it’ll find its way in though.

SO: When did you realize you were funny? Tell us about how you got started in comedy.

Kumail: I didn’t think I was funny until I moved to the US and went to college. Before that I was extremely shy. I couldn’t go to the grocery store and buy stuff because I was too shy to talk to the cashier. I was in senior year of college, having a complete freak out about what to do with the rest of my life. And then I saw a friend of mine do stand up, and I was like “Lets do that to distract from my real world worries.” So I did it once, and then I did it again, and then just kept doing it.

SO: We at SO love “The State.” How did you get involved with “Michael and Michael Have Issues?” Did it change your approach to writing or have any other impact on your personal stand-up routine?

Kumail: I had done a few stand up shows with Michael Showalter and then opened for “Stella” on tour in the Midwest. When their show got picked up, I applied to be a writer on it, which basically involved punching up existing scripts and coming up with new ideas. I learned so much from that show. I learned how to write in another person’s voice, and how to serve the story over individual gags, and how to keep characters consistent. It was a wonderful experience and the fact that we never got another season was very disappointing to me.

SO: Your show “Unpronounceable” is about your childhood in Pakistan. Did you have any hesitation about discussing these topics to an American audience? How did your family receive the show, and what do they think about your career?

Kumail: No, I would talk about anything in front of an American audience, I think. You might think stories about my upbringing are unrelatable, but I think what people relate to most is specificity of experience. As long as you can be specific about your stories, your audience will go along with you. You run into problems only when you try and water down your stories with whatever you think your audience might respond to.

My parents get a kick out of my career, but I don’t think they see it as a reasonable occupation. Which they are right about. It’s all very unreasonable. My dad called me a few months ago and asked when I was going to Medical school. So I’m looking through some pamphlets right now. (I’m not, but just want him to think I am.) (I hope he doesn’t read parentheticals.)

SO: Iowa > Chicago > New York – Tell me one thing about each that you think I should know.

Kumail: Iowa. Very friendly, very empty, smells like alfalfa a lot of the time.

Chicago. Wonderful in the summer, brutally cold in the winter. It puts the brrrrr in brutal. (High five!) It’s a cold that gets into your bones and slowly murders your soul. Which might be why the locals are obsessed with food. You need a layer of cheese to insulate you from the insanity.

New York. Probably my favorite place I’ve never lived, and definitely the most intense. Everyone is always really mad at you, for some reason. I don’t think I walked at a regular pace once. It was great for my quads, and terrible for my self-esteem.

Kumail & Jonah Ray by Tyler Ross

Kumail & Jonah Ray by Tyler Ross

SO: I love that your stand-up is about regular things like video games, horror movies, and roller coasters, but you come up with such funny, original jokes about them. Did you always start simple? Can you tell us about one of your earliest jokes you ever did on stage?

Kumail: I always talk about stuff I feel excited about, which usually happens to be that kind of stuff. And I feel I can be original as long as I am talking about my personal experience with it. Lots of people have played video games, but nobody has had the exact experiences I have had with them, just as I have never had theirs. Long as I can convey that, I am set.

I think my material used to be less personal, more about noticing funny things. I used to wait to find something funny and write a joke about it. And I think now I find something I wanna talk about, and then try and find what’s funny about it. It’s literally the opposite approach.

Probably the first joke I ever wrote was about how I always wanted to have a unit of measurement named after myself, because all the cool scientists had one. But I want it to represent something cool. And then I would do an act out of a submarine commander telling his crew to turn the torpedoes up to 5 Kumails, and then the crew arguing, saying that it would be way too much. Most people can’t handle one Kumail. And then I would mug until people laughed. Genius stuff.

SO: I really did just laugh (out loud). You’re host of the weekly Comedy Meltdown in LA, where a mix of both established and newer comedians perform. Who are some of your favorites? Who would you most like the opportunity to work with?

Kumail: I love being able to do shows with people like Dana Gould and the Sklar Brothers and Patton Oswalt and Eugene Mirman and Demetri Martin. Comics I love so much that I’ve been watching for such a long time. That thrill never goes away, it’s extremely exciting every single time.

I would love to be able to do a stand up show with Woody Allen, mostly just to see him do stand up again. The stuff he did in the late 60’s would be ground breaking if he was doing it today. Amazing.

SO: How is married life? How does the lady deal with you being on the road so much? Is that hard on a marriage?

Kumail: Married life is great! Everyday is like a slumber party. And we have the exact same interests, almost to a creepy level. We both love horror movies and video games and all that kind of stuff.

The lady comes with me on most trips, along with our Xbox. Now if only we could find a way to bring our cat along…

SO: That’s great! Do you have a lot of John Mayer on your iPod? (If you don’t understand why this question would be asked read here.)

Kumail: I celebrate his entire catalog.

SO: Is your father still on designer jean kick? What’s his favorite design of jean? Please don’t tell me True Religion.

Kumail: It actually is True Religion! Also, 7 for all Mankind is a current favorite.

SO: Does is put in added pressure on you as a comic, being named over the past couple years “best comic to watch” “hot list” and all these “best of” and “watch out” for lists? Or is that just pure flattery to you?

Kumail: I honestly don’t really feel any pressure from that. Its nice to be recognized, but its nothing compared to the pressure I put on myself. I am my harshest critic, and live in fear that whatever joke I write is the last joke I will ever come up with. So it has to be good, because there might be no more after this one. I am genuinely terrified that I will never ever be able to write something funny.

SO: What does “Serial Optimist” mean to you?

Kumail: I guess somebody who keeps a sunny outlook no matter how many times they fail. So, I guess, somebody who’s maybe kinda stupid? But in a good way! In an unflappable, one-of-these-things-will-work kind of way. I am sort of a serial pessimist but a big-picture optimistic. Not sure if that makes any sense. I assume every little project will fail, but that overall things will work out well. I guess it’s a very stupid intersection of outlooks to have…

SO: I think most comedians, are serial pessimists actually, which most people probably wouldn’t expect. What’s next for you? Any projects you have coming up that you want to share with us?

Kumail: I will be a regular on “Franklin and Bash,” which debuts on TNT on June 1st. And I am working on an animated pilot right now, but that may never see the light of day. But that’s how it is. You work really hard on something knowing that there’s only a 5% chance that anybody will ever see it. That’s why I’ll never stop doing stand up. Because no matter how shitty my newest joke is, nobody can stop me from doing it on stage.

SO: Thanks Kumail!


SO Note: Follow Kumail on Twitter @kumailn!