Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


March 23, 2009

The Pakistani Prince of Comedy

It's Kumail Nanjiani's world, we just LOL in it.

Adam Rosen

When Gelf first spoke with Kumail Nanjiani last March, the Karachi, Pakistan, native had just arrived in New York from Chicago. Having won Best Comedian at the 2007 Chicago Comedy Awards and having created the award-winning stand-up show Unpronounceable, he had nothing left to prove in the Second City. But New York comedy conquest is guaranteed for no man.

Kumail Nanjiani
"Luckily there are many different roles for brown men. Wait, that's not true."

Kumail Nanjiani

To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, Nanjiani's first year in the Big Apple was pretty fucking good. In less than 12 months, he's accomplished what many very funny, talented people won't in a decade, if ever: appearing on Saturday Night Live and The Colbert Report; earning 2008 ECNY Awards for Best Male Standup and Best One Person Show; and opening for national comedy darling Eugene Mirman. And this is all for fun—Nanjiani's day job is writing for Michael and Michael Have Issues, a sketch-comedy series starring Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter premiering on Comedy Central in July.

In the following interview, which was conducted over email and edited for clarity, Nanjiani considers what an ex-President Bush means for comedy, how he's deceiving his family and friends in Pakistan, and what it's like to be a brown funny man. [You can hear Nanjiani, Onion editor Joe Garden, and CollegeHumor staffer Sarah Schneider speak at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speaker Series event on March 26].

Gelf Magazine: The last time Gelf spoke with you, you'd just moved to New York. How's the city treating you?

Kumail Nanjiani: Great! I love New York City. It's probably my favorite city that I have lived in…ever!

Gelf Magazine: Where are you finding your best material?

Kumail Nanjiani: I guess stuff I'm really passionate about is stuff that I find I write good material about. It doesn't have to be anything important. I have bits about video games, and bits about how I really, really hope whoever writes Lost knows what the fuck they are doing.

Gelf Magazine: If he did nothing else, President Bush provided an unending stimulus to American comedians for the last eight years. But did he enable laziness?

Kumail Nanjiani: Now we have to look past the nation's highest seat for comedic inspiration. Now we have to look to…the man who once held the nation's highest seat. What does he do now?!?

Gelf Magazine: Now that's he's gone, has comedy been suffering?

Kumail Nanjiani: Yes, but it's a small price to pay for literally every other aspect of our lives.

Gelf Magazine: America—or at least the majority of America—proved it was finally ready for a minority president, but is the country comfortable enough to laugh at him? Apropos the fist-jabbing New Yorker cover and, more recently, the New York Post cartoon, are there certain jokes that should be off-limits?

Kumail Nanjiani: Well, we're OK to laugh at him, but perhaps not at his race. Which is fine.

Gelf Magazine: But isn't it really tough, if not impossible, to separate Obama's race from the man? And isn't the purpose of comedy to slaughter sacred cows, regardless of sensitivities?

Kumail Nanjiani: I don't think it needs to be, always. I like some sacred cows. They till my fields and are more useful to me doing that than they would be as steak on my table. Wait, what are we talking about? I just made myself hungry.

Gelf Magazine: You were on The Colbert Report and SNL. How'd you score those impressive gigs?

Kumail Nanjiani: Writers on both shows had seen me perform, at the Upright Citizens Brigade [in New York] and other places.

Gelf Magazine: Is any of your work (SNL, Colbert, etc.) available in Pakistan? Have you gotten any feedback from old friends or family?

Kumail Nanjiani: Nope. They think I'm a banker. Which is exactly how I want it to be.

Gelf Magazine: Do you ever worry about being typecast? Or does being Pakistani give you an edge and a certain level of comedic freedom?

Kumail Nanjiani: Well, I'll never play anyone other than a brown man, but luckily there are many different roles for brown men. Wait, that's not true.

Gelf Magazine: What about Bobby Jindal? He's got a traditionally white role if ever there was one: Republican head of an ex-Confederate state.

Kumail Nanjiani: That guy is nothing but a dirty volcano denier.

Gelf Magazine: If you weren't a comedian, what would you do?

Kumail Nanjiani: I would probably live in a trailer, own a lot of cats and collect Cheetos that resemble celebrities.

Gelf Magazine: Have you seen The Room yet?

Kumail Nanjiani: I'm actually watching it tonight! So by the time this is published, I will have seen it.

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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