Interview with Comedian Kumail Nanjiani ’01

September 20, 2010
Kumail Nanjiani '01 talking to Grinnell audience during his 2010 visit.
Photographer: Grant Dissette '12

Comedian Kumail Nanjiani ’01 returned to campus to talk to students in Paul Hutchison’s Taking Comedy Seriously tutorial and perform in Grinnell's Harris Center on September 8, 2010. Here Matthew Imber ’11 asks Kumail about his experience at Grinnell, his comedy, and scary movies.

Nanjiani, originally from Pakistan and a philosophy and computer science major at Grinnell, has appeared on The Colbert Report, The Late Show with David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Michael and Michael Have Issues, among other television appearances.

His new show, Franklin and Bash, will air on TNT this fall, and he can still be seen performing stand-up comedy around the country.

How was your visit to a tutorial?

It was really fun, actually. The kids were very interested and excited and curious. It’s different talking about humor in an academic way. The reading was pretty academic but our discussion was more fluid. I had a really good time.

Do you remember your own tutorial?

Yeah, it was Storytelling and Audience with Elizabeth Dobbs. I had a big fear of public speaking, which is why I chose that tutorial. Basically you studied storytelling and then at the end of the semester you write a story and perform it in front of the class. That was my first time performing in front of an audience. It was fun. I was very scared. I remember running it over and over again in my head—in the shower, everywhere. I think it went well. I had a good time. Very nerve-wracking.

Do you get nervous before your sets?

I used to get really nervous. Now I channel that energy into excitement. It’s a good sign, getting nervous—it means you care. If I’m not nervous, something’s wrong. In filming I get nervous the day before, but you do a scene maybe ten, fifteen times, so you only get nervous in the beginning. You settle in; you have multiple takes, and you get comfortable in the situation and people you’re working with.

You’re filming a sitcom on TNT. Are standup skills transferable to acting?

Definitely. With standup, you want to be in the moment, listening to the audience or reacting to them. Acting is very similar: being in the moment, reacting to the other characters. It’s not just that you memorize your lines and you recite them. I’ve never had any acting training and I don’t know what happens in an acting class, but I do feel that nine years of standup really helped me act.

You appeared on The Colbert Report as “Omar,” Stephen’s prisoner from Guantanamo Bay. How do you feel about playing racial stereotypes?

Well, in The Colbert Report he thinks my name is Omar, but my [character’s] name is actually Homer, and I’m Greek. I really like doing that—it subverts the stereotype. There are a lot of roles out there that are stereotypical, and at some point I made the decision that I wouldn’t do a part where I had to put on a thicker accent. It just gets hard for me to distinguish whether something is funny because it’s funny or because it’s a stereotype. I try to stay away from stuff that’s just caricaturish. It’s not for me.

What’s it like working with Stephen Colbert?

He’s a very friendly, very sincere, very genuine guy. Very talented and hilarious. I would see him snap into it, and I would feel like he was right there, reacting to everything I was saying. Doing that scene with him was really educational. He’s a genius. He orchestrates that whole show. To have somebody who’s so funny and so specific about what they want, but is still a good guy…everybody on set looked up to him and liked him. It was a really good experience.

An audience of Grinnell students is quite different from, say, an appearance on Letterman. Do you cater your set to different audiences or is it fairly consistent?

I try to keep it fairly consistent. Certain jokes I would do at Grinnell, but I wouldn’t do on Letterman. Doing comedy for an audience is very interactive. The audience has to meet you halfway, and if I’m doing my job right, no matter what the audience is, they’ll be willing to meet me halfway. You’re not talking about them; you’re talking about yourself. You’re giving something. I try to write so that most audiences will respond. But at Grinnell I can talk about being at Grinnell and I can’t do that anywhere else.

How often do you change your set, rotating out the jokes?

Pretty often. Some stuff falls out after a couple months, some after a couple weeks. Some jokes last a year. I try to write every day and whatever is the oldest, whatever feels the most boring to me, will drop out and the new stuff will move in. In New York and Los Angeles, I usually do ten minute sets — generally the ten newest minutes I’ve written, If it’s not funny to me anymore, it’s hard for me to convince other people that it’s funny. The more you write, the better you get, and if I’m not using the new stuff I’m cheating myself out of stuff that’s better.

Do you have a favorite joke?

The one about the guy who called me “Kumar,” from “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” I like because it’s personal. Whenever anybody is racist to me, it really gets to me, so I sat down and tried to figure out why. It’s because I have no comeback. As a comedian, it’s all about comeback, having the last word. When someone’s racist, they take that away from you.

What about hecklers?

Usually the people who do it think they’re helping. I talk to people in the audience and it helps me set the scene and be present and people feel more involved. So I think maybe I invite that a little bit more. But you don’t get hecklers that often and I don’t really mind them, because suddenly the whole audience galvanizes on your side, against the heckler. But dealing with hecklers is something that only comes with experience and confidence. It’s really hard.

You include a lot of jokes about horror films. Do you have a favorite?

The Shining is a really, really good. It has chump scares, it’s creepy, it looks great, and it has iconic moments…When you watch it, you realize it has so many images that have become part of the pop culture lexicon, like the girl twins or the elevator of blood, or “Here’s Johnny!” It’s my favorite.

Looking for more on Nanjiani? Check out:

This article appeared as a web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Fall 2010.

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