Kumail Nanjiani: Leader of the Pack
With 'Silicon Valley,' 'Portlandia,' and 'The Meltdown' on Comedy Central, Kumail Nanjiani is laughing all the way to the bank.
Photos by JUCO
Kumail Nanjiani, he’s the man with the name that sounds like it could belong to an international Victoria’s Secret supermodel (give or take a vowel) and at least one person in the land of YouTube comments thinks he “looks like an Indian version of Joaquin Phoenix.”
While the debate of whether or not he resembles OS-loving Theodore or Commodus may go on forever, one thing is certain: Nanjiani is actually Pakistani, originally from the city of Karachi. There’s also no doubt that he’s a funny guy.
You might recognize him as the cellphone salesman mastering in the art of mumbo jumbo on Portlandia, or Homer, the Greek food delivery dude whom Colbert insists is a Middle Eastern terrorist named Omar on the dearly departed The Colbert Report, or as Dinesh, the competitive computer programmer on Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley. Kumail has a knack for doing characters who in real life would probably be pretty boring, but who he turns into memorable folks who say hilarious shit without even trying. On screen, he often speaks timidly, but does so with either a quiet confidence or nervous energy that pulls viewers in.
The 37-year-old comedian, who now resides in Los Angeles, first gained national attention with his one-man show Unpronounceable in 2008, and followed that with Beta Male, which aired on Comedy Central in 2013. Although he’s tackled his struggles with his Muslim faith in his solo work, most of Nanjiani’s material is universal, dealing with everything from movies and video games (he hosts the gamer podcast The Indoor Kids with his wife, writer/producer Emily V. Gordon) to childhood memories.
In the last five years, Nanjiani has built an impressive resume as an actor too (Veep, Newsreaders, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, and his own series The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail are just a few things he’s done), which makes it even crazier to think how close he was to never stepping on stage. Destined to follow in the footsteps of his family of physicians, Kumail had enrolled in a biology course in high school that was a requirement for med school. The class was overfilled, and on the first day, the teacher entered to find a room full of talkative students. When she hushed everybody, Kumail inadvertently blurted out a loud, “Huh?” This annoyed the teacher, and from that point on according to the comic, she picked on him constantly in hopes that he would drop the class. He did. That fateful decision would lead him to attend college in Iowa, where he would study computer science and philosophy. It was also here that he would undergo an “existential crisis” and eventually make the decision to pursue a career in comedy.
“All of it came down to me saying, ‘Huh?’ in that classroom,” he said in an episode of The X-Files Files, his other podcast, which is dedicated to the beloved ‘90s sci-fi show. “If I hadn’t said that ‘Huh?’… I would have been a doctor in Pakistan right now.”
Mass Appeal caught up with Kumail at a coffee shop in Silver Lake a few hours before he was scheduled to catch a flight to San Francisco. Clearly grateful for his “awesome life”—he drops knowledge in the new season of Silicon Valley this spring, appears in the big-budget kids movie Goosebumps this summer, and hopes to get the semi-autobiographical script he and his wife wrote with Judd Apatow into production—Nanjiani still has his sights on establishing himself as a household name.
Mass Appeal: You moved to the U.S. when you were 18, so you’ve basically lived half your life here. Do you feel totally Americanized?
Kumail Nanjiani: I haven’t been back [to Pakistan] in a long time. But I feel like I sort of really relate to the problems over there. You know, unfortunately, my part of the world is in the news a lot, and it’s in the news for not good stuff. And every time I read something about it, it really affects me. But, I also feel pretty American in a lot of ways, so… I think [it’s] like 50/50.
Did you hear about the racism in America before you got here and were you prepared for it?
No, I anticipated it. We heard stories — and this was before 9/11 — [about] anti-Muslim sentiments, specifically. The racism that is in America is not something that is really hidden. There’s a lot of movies about it, TV shows. The Civil Rights Movement [happened], obviously, [which] wasn’t that long ago. So I was pretty ready to feel weird. [But] I actually got less than I thought I was gonna get. I think going to Iowa helped ‘cause I was in such a small town that people were more interested in where I was from rather than dismissing me for it.
Is it true that you once worked at a sex toy warehouse in New York?
[I was working for] this young Chinese guy. He was first generation. He was importing sex toys from China and selling them. They were very low quality products. But they also shared the warehouse with another Chinese company that imported just regular Chinese toys. So one side was just kids toys, knock-offs like fake Batmans, and the other side was sex toys. And one day they got in… you know those little cars that kids can get in and drive around? [The company got an order of those toy cars], but they had to test them. So I was just sitting there moving my dildos, looking at old men in tiny cars driving around, being like, “This is fucking weird. I got to get out of here.”
When you were first starting out did you ever consider getting a stage name? We could be talking to Karl Nugent right now.
Kumail Nanjiani is my stage name. [Laughs] What if that’s what I picked? Terrible, right? But I did use my middle name instead of my last name for a little bit [when I lived] in Chicago. So I went by Kumail Ali because I thought that was simpler. I did that for just a month then I was like, “What am I doing? My name is weird, just go with it.”
You started acting on Michael and Michael Have Issues back in 2009. What’s the important thing to focus on when making the transition from stand-up to acting?
I think I’m still figuring that out. I’m taking acting classes. I would say that probably the most important thing for a stand-up who is getting into acting to really focus on is to listen to other people; give other people their space. Working with other people can sort of be hard. The one thing that stand-ups are generally not as skilled at is listening to other people because it’s usually just one person up on the stage.
The other thing that was hard for me was that with stand-up everything you say is supposed to be funny. [But] when you’re on set you’re playing a character, so not everything you say is funny. There’s information to be told [to move the story along]. For me, the hardest thing was doing lines that weren’t meant to be funny. That for me was hard because then I didn’t have a gage of how well I was doing. Because I know how funny something feels, but I don’t know how serious something feels.
Do you do research for characters in sketches that are only going to last 3-5 minutes?
For the small sketches, like the cell phone thing [on Portlandia] I did a lot of research. I looked up cell phone plans because I knew there’s a lot of improv on that show. There was no script for that. But I had to go in knowing what kind of bullshit I have to sort of come up with.
The character Pindar you played on Franklin & Bash is a “germaphobic, agoraphobic ornithophobe.” How much of that character is based on the real you?
Enough to be able to understand him. I’m not really a germaphobe, but I have to wash my hands before and after every time I eat. I don’t like touching food. Like I’ll eat burgers with a knife and fork. [Laughs] That’s true. Or like I hate if I get food on my clothes. If I’m eating a sandwich and I get sauce on my shirt, my week is ruined.
You also are Prismo on Adventure Time. What’s it like playing a wish master?
I love doing that show. It’s just such a cool character. I like the idea of this omniscient god type character that can do everything, but he’s kind of lonely. He’s not a stoner, but you know how you have a friend, and he’s a great guy to hang out with, but he’s never gonna amount to anything? Prismo is like that [except] he’s the most powerful being in the world. So it’s a cool juxtaposition of taking this super nice, completely lazy character and then putting him in a position of ultimate power.
Will the rivalry between Dinesh and Gilfoyle intensify in the new season of Silicon Valley?
Yes. It’s interesting because clearly those two characters they’re sort of like a married couple, so there’s a lot of love for each other, but they’re very competitive. And their dynamics I think work really well [together] in that they are similar and different in important ways. Now [that Pied Piper] won the competition, the stakes are higher. [Before] we were just in a room coding, and now it sort of matters what my position is, what his position is. But we have to work together, ultimately.
What do you like most about Mike Judge’s comedic sensibilities?
What I like about it is that it’s sort of skewed and heightened, but it always gets at some kind of real truth. I love Office Space, right? It’s a comedy, and there’s a guy who gets hypnotized, and there’s like crazy stuff [going on]. But that movie really got to the reality of the boring nature of going in every day and doing something you don’t give a shit about. And I think that’s what Mike Judge is really good at. Same with like Beavis and Butt-head. There’s guys like that in small towns. That’s a real thing. And they’re not characters you usually see. You usually don’t see characters that are unpopular and assholes. It’s usually like the unpopular kids are cool and the popular kids are assholes, right? [Beavis and Butt-head] are all the bad stuff.
What is the premise of the script you and your wife worked on with Judd Apatow?
It’s about my wife and I when we first met. She got really sick and she went into a coma for 10 days. So, [the movie] is basically like this young Pakistani guy and these two old Southern people sort of hanging out for 10 days while she’s asleep. You know that awkward thing where you like have connector friends and then you’re hanging out without your connector friend, and you’re like, “I really don’t know this guy without John there.” So it’s like that. And it’s sort of commenting on me being from Pakistan and having an identity issue with that. So a lot of things that are my concerns in real life sort of come into the movie. It’s a comedy, but it actually gets pretty serious at times.
You’ve frequently been asked about Pakistan in interviews. It’s almost like you’re an unofficial ambassador or spokesperson. Do you ever get annoyed with all the questions?
Well, no, it’s not annoying, it’s just I’m not the guy to speak for anybody. And I don’t want to have the pressure of sort of representing a whole group of people that probably wouldn’t want to be represented by me or by any one person. So I could just give you my opinions and my feelings on it, but I don’t think I’m a good representative.
You recently said on Twitter: Must be pretty cool to be white and just represent yourself and not your entire race. I know what you mean, but could you elaborate on that?
Well, it’s always interesting, right? You understand. Like some white guy steals something: a guy stole something. Some black guy stole something: a black guy stole something. That’s the story. That’s just how it is. Because we’re minorities it feels like anytime you do something you’re representing everybody that looks like you.
A lot of people liked that tweet, but a lot of people — white people — got really angry at me. I just think it’s hard for anybody to get a perspective on how it is to be someone else.
Yeah, it seems like every person of color has been in a group of people where they are the only one of their ethnicity, and someone will ask something like, “Hey, is it true all Mexicans love chili?” Like what are you supposed to say?
You just say, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask all the Mexicans? Go find all of them.” [Laughs]
But it’s also like your Call of Duty joke in Beta Male, where the video game is so detailed that the shoestrings on the characters bounce, but then the street signs in Pakistan are written in Arabic instead of Urdu. It shows that part of racism is people just being lazy and going with stereotypes.
Well, it’s not just laziness. I think it’s ignorance. Because people think, “Oh, that’s just that part of the world. They’re all the same. Who cares?” I think America does have this arrogance because they’re so big and so powerful, it’s very easy to live in a bubble. In Pakistan when you get the newspaper, there’s Pakistani news, but there’s a lot of world news. Here it’s mostly just American news. So you just don’t have that perspective as much as you should over here. Because [this nation] is so powerful, you can just learn about America and sort of get by, right?
Sean Penn’s green card joke toward Alejandro Iñárritu at the Oscars caused a stir on social media. If a friend had said the same exact thing right before you won an award, how do you think you’d react?
Honestly, I think it was just a bad joke. I don’t think he meant anything by it. In the moment when I heard it, I was like, “Oh, I think there’s gonna be a backlash to this.” Obviously, people can have whatever reaction they want, but it felt really playful to me. And I think Sean Penn is friendly with [Alejandro] Iñárritu and I don’t think Iñárritu took it bad.
I have friends who make fun of me being Pakistani. A lot of times there is a tendency when you have a friend who’s brown to make jokes about their brownness. And I think that it points to the fact that you’re inherently a little uncomfortable with that aspect of them. That’s just my theory. I don’t think it’s anything really aggressively bad. I think some of it just comes from a lack of identifying with [someone that’s different from you].
Have you ever been mistaken for Mexican in real life like in that Silicon Valley episode?
Yes. People will come up to me and start talking to me in Spanish, and I’m like, “I don’t speak Spanish. I’m sorry.” It used to happen in New York every now and then.
The term “interracial” feels like a word that should only be used when discussing porn, but you’re in an interracial marriage. How close or how far away do you think we are to where interracial couples are not a big deal anymore? Because it’s sometimes a big deal on both sides of families.
Yeah, it was a bigger deal to my parents than it was to her parents. I feel like it’s happening more and more. You walk around here in this neighborhood, almost everyone is interracial couples. You see like these gorgeous kids who look like The Rock, y’know? They look like all the races. I think we’re heading in a direction where like 30 years from now we’re all gonna have like a nice beige color.
Speaking of porn, it’s one of the last places where political incorrectness runs rampant. Do you think the porn star Mia Khalifa wearing a hijab in a scene crosses a line?
Honestly, for me, more than anything, it’s hack. You’re collapsing yourself to one aspect of yourself. I think people should have full authority to comment on religions or make fun of them, or do whatever. So from that aspect, I’m totally fine with somebody wearing a hijab, trying to make some kind of comment while getting fucked. For me, I don’t know if her comment was anything more than just selling out your race a little bit. But I don’t know what her motivations are, I don’t know her. I don’t know how it read to most people, but that’s how it read to me.
Going from X-rated movies back to The X-Files Files podcast: You told that story about how simply saying “Huh?” to a teacher in class one day changed your whole life. Have you had any other moments like that since then?
I feel like I’ve been really lucky. For instance, Portlandia happened because I had done a very small recurring role on Colbert years ago, and Allison Silverman directed it. Then one day I was just walking in New York to the subway and I ran into her. And she’s like, “Oh, I’m working on this new show. Would you want to do it? [The only thing is] we can’t fly you out.” And I was like, “Oh, I’m going to be in Seattle anyways…I’ll drive over.” That one sketch ultimately led me to getting a lot of jobs. If I hadn’t run into her that day, I don’t think she would have thought of me for [the show]. You sort of have to get lucky to be at the right place at the right time. And you have to be prepared. There’s a lot of opportunity out there.