How does a Pakistani-by-way-of-Iowa kid end up a comedian in Chicago? If that sounds like the setup to a joke, then the punch line is Kumail Nanjiani’s one-man show Unpronounceable, which tells the story of a hazardous Pakistani adolescencewhat happens if you’re watching porn on your VCR and the electricity goes out?and of 29-year-old Nanjiani’s experience moving to the US and "falling down the rabbit hole."
"The Academy was going to nominate my script, but they said it was 'not good enough.' Them and their veiled riddles."
When a tender 18-year-old Nanjiani arrived at Grinnell College, a small liberal-arts college in Iowa, he had not so much as shaken hands with a woman outside his family. Suddenly surrounded by crass American teenagers, he nevertheless woke up before dawn every morning to pray, feeling sorry for his roommate, whose sexual antics were surely setting him on the path to hell. Gradually, Nanjiani began to question his deeply conservative Shiite Muslim upbringing. And after seeing a friend perform stand-up at an open-mic night, he decided to give it a try, eventually finding a place for himself in the world of comedy. First there were open-mic nights; then the BLERDs collective, a Chicago-based comedy troupe that also includes TJ Miller, of Cloverfield fame; and, most recently, Unpronounceable, which was commissioned by Chicago's Lakeshore Theater.
In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Nanjiani talks to Gelf about pronouncing foreign names, the comedy scene in Chicago, and why he got into the game.
Nanjiani will be performing Unpronounceable at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City, on Friday, March 28, at 8 pm ($8). Before that, see Nanjiani, longtime Onion writer Todd Hanson, and writer/blogger Patrice Evans, aka The Assimilated Negro, talk about their work at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speaker Series event Thursday, March 27, in New York’s Lower East Side.
Gelf Magazine: Your one-man show is called Unpronounceable. Can you give our readers a simple, phonetic pronunciation of your name so we can stop sounding so lame?
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah, it’s pronounced Kumail Nanjiani. (Haha!) Coo-male Nan-jee-ah-nee.
GM: The bio on the BLERDS blog is very funnyyour mother is Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons, apparentlybut it sounds like, well, a joke. What's the real story of how you grew up?
KN: Spent the first 18 years of my life in Karachi, Pakistan, the next four in Iowa, the next six in Chicago, and am now in New York, where I will stay until they find me.
GM: When did you know you wanted to be a comedian? Did you have an Oprah-style Aha! moment?
KN: Not really. I saw a friend do stand-up at college and thought "This looks fun." So I signed up for an open mic, had fun doing it, signed up for another one, and then just kept going. It was never a discrete decision that I made or anything like that.
GM: Who are the BLERDs collective and how did you become involved with them? What are they up to now?
KN: The BLERDs are a bunch of my friends who did comedy in Chicago, and we sort of got together and started making videos together. It was a lot of fun. Then some of us moved to LA, some to New York, so BLERDs is unfortunately not as active as we used to be in Chicago. The LA BLERDs guys are working on some fun stuff right now, but I, sadly, cannot make it out there regularly enough.
GM: Is it true that Chris Ritter, who commissioned your show for the Lakeshore Theater in Chicago, had to coax you into writing more personal material for Unpronounceable?
KN: Well, I've had the idea for the one-man show for a long time. He approached me and wanted to give me a slot at his theater, but he did not want it to be stand-up. I told him about my idea, he really liked it, and so I had two months to make it happen.
GM: Has your family seen Unpronounceable? What do they think of the show?
KN: My family has seen it, and they like it. They have mixed feelings about certain details, but overall they like it.
GM: What do they think of your career as a comedian?
KN: They see my comedy career as a sort of fun distraction.
GM: You recently moved to New York from Chicago. What do you miss most about Chicago?
KN: Chicago is a great city, with a lot more burrito places. I haven’t found any fantabulous burrito places here yet. :(
GM: What kinds of differences have you noticed in the comedy scene between the two cities? Do you think you'll stick around?
KN: I'm here till they drag me away! The New York scene is much bigger than the Chicago scene. And you see more "celebrities" around than you did in Chicago.
GM: What's your ideal next move? Books? Film? The internet? (Kumailnanjiani.com is still available).
KN: You know, I would love to write some scripts. I have one right now that I wrote with my friend. It’s about 130 pages of unnecessary detail. The Academy was going to nominate it, but they said it was "not good enough." Them and their veiled riddles.
GM: Last question: what's the best joke you've ever written?
KN: I like to think I haven't written it yet. Ha! Maybe that was it.