Kumail Nanjiani on the things he likes and the reclaiming nerd-dom
Kumail Nanjiani isn't exactly your typical comedian. Where most spend their time complaining about things they hate, Nanjiani attacks the things he loves, which happens to be activities of a decidedly nerdy persuasion: Videogames, horror and science fiction all have a place in his routine. You'll be able to find out for yourself, as he'll be taking over the Comedy Works tonight through Saturday. We had a short chat with Nanjiani in preparation for his visit, where we talked about what it means to be a nerdy comic, staying positive and more.
Westword: Can you talk a little about your history?
Kumail Nanjiani: I started doing standup in Chicago around 2002 and I was there for about five years mainly just doing standup. I moved to New York in 2007, and that's where I started writing. I wrote for Best Week Ever for like two weeks, then Michael and Michael Has Issues, which was also my first acting gig. After that I moved to L.A. I have a show debuting on TNT called Franklin & Bash.
WW: How would you describe your standup?
KN: I try to keep it so it's always something really important to me. That sounds a lot more pretentious than it is -- I talk about videogames and horror movies and stuff like that. I try to do stuff that's personal to me, but is also always important to me. It might seem a bit unfocused -- it's really not -- it's all the stuff I'm excited about like horror, videogames and sci-fi comic books. I try and keep the barometer not as something I think is funny, but things I can say funny things about.
WW: Did you grow up with a lot of that media?
KN: I did. I grew up in Pakistan but I had a Sega Genesis. I was always the indoor kid, the only one really who was into that stuff. I used to watch a movie every single day. I loved sci-fi and horror then I played videogames all the time. Like over the summer, most kids would get darker, but I would actually get lighter because I would sit inside and play videogames all summer.
WW: How's the reception been recently? It seems like nerd and geek culture has become a bit more widely accepted in recent years.
KN: It really has, but sometimes I'll talk about really specific stuff. The challenge then is to get people excited about things that you're also excited about for the same reasons. A lot of times it's easier if they're also into it, but I'll talk about specific PS3 games that not many people have played, and the challenge and the exciting part for me is to bring people into that. You're right, it has become a lot more acceptable for adults to play videogames; the word "nerd" has kind of been reclaimed. Look at the movies coming out: Thor, Green Lantern, Captain American, another Transformers -- it's all becoming widely accepted by the mainstream.
WW: Those will all probably provide good fodder for jokes...
KN: Yeah, a lot of them can be pretty terrible. But I try and always talk about things I like as opposed to things I don't like. I'll talk about the X-Files -- I used to do this joke about it: If you saw that new movie it was heartbreaking. I was never really into Star Wars, so X-Files movie was kind of like the new Star Wars movie for me. A lot of people aren't into X-Files, but I think it's fun to bring people into your experience. A lot of comedians will define themselves by what they don't like, but I always try to define myself by what I like. I'm a pretty positive guy, so when I talk about videogames, it's the ones I like, and even the X-Files, it's more about how the film is a betrayal to me because of how much I love the series.
WW: Have you ever done stand-up about you ethnicity or growing up in Pakistan?
KN: You know, I started doing standup right after 9-11, which was a terrible time for someone like me to get on stage. It might not have even reached you, but there were a lot of Middle Easterns who were getting into comedy and using that as a way to get shows. I always wanted to separate myself from that. So I didn't really talk about my ethnicity in the first couple of years. I realized it was a big part of me that I was ignoring on stage, so I wrote a one-man show, "Unpronounceable," that was basically all the things that I didn't want to talk about.
But it was in that personal way that wasn't stereotypical; there were a lot of people making jokes that were like "driving cabs" or "working at Subway" or whatever, but I wanted to talk about my experience. I never try to do it, but it'll find a way into my sets because it's something that is a big part of me. I think you can talk about your ethnicity and your history and not be an "ethnic comic." When I started and I didn't mention my ethnicity people would think it was a bit weird that I wasn't talking about "the big elephant in the room." I think people's expectations have changed recently.
WW: So, just out of curiosity -- with the constant touring, is it hard to make time to play videogames?
KN: I shouldn't even admit this, but I have an Xbox I travel with and take to hotels with me. I think of it as research for work.
(Note: At this point we talked about how awesome Mortal Kombat and Portal 2 were going to be for an extended amount of time).