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In 2009 The New York Times ran a story about the New York Comedy Festival and the independent standup community that had become a hunting ground for late night shows looking for the next round of potential talent, citing Jenny Slate, Donald Glover, Aziz Ansari and Zach Galifianakis as formerly unknown comics lifted from the cramped rooms of obscure bars in hidden basements to a larger stage. The article’s new reference was a guy named Kumail Nanjiani, who “could be poised to follow… Or not.”
On circumstance alone, “or not,” seemed more likely. Nanjiani grew up in Karachi, Pakistan (“not necessarily a very funny place”), raised Shia Muslim in a predominately Sunni nation. But a lot depends on how you see things. His dad was a psychiatrist (a fact he found inherently funny) with an inexplicable love of designer jeans (just blatantly funny). He got a taste of American comedy through movies his dad occasionally brought from the video store, and TV shows like Beavis and Butt-Head and Picket Fences. When he moved to the U.S. for college – and his own safety – he was most excited about being able to see movies and TV shows right when they came out. One of the first happened to be a Jerry Seinfeld comedy special on HBO. Nanjiani was 18 and had never seen standup before. A shy Computer Science/Philosophy double major, he finally worked up the courage to do a 30-minute set in his senior year. He walked on stage so nervous he could barely move, and walked off feeling ready for Letterman.
Or at least Chicago. He got a day job and started doing standup at night, developing his first one-man show, Unpronounceable, which The Comic’s Comic called “a very personal and quite poignant work, punctuated by powerful punch lines.” It got him an agent and brought him to New York and the attention of the Times. Nanjiani never considered that comedy might not work out. He wrote standup material in the mornings, potential TV material in the afternoons and did open mics every night, twice a night if he could. Steadfastly refusing to look at the big picture, he focused only on each step. “What’s next? Now what’s next?” His wife has said she sometimes worried about paying rent, but never about his work ethic.
The “nexts” started piling up quickly in the form of TV appearances on The Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, Portlandia, Franklin & Bash, Veep and too many others to mention. Small movie roles (Collider called his scene in 2013’s The Kings of Summer the funniest part of the movie) started as a trickle and became a steady downpour – sixteen from 2013-2016 alone. In the biggest bit of karmic fortune, Mike Judge, whom Nanjiani had idolized since his Beavis and Butt-Head fandom, cast him as one of the stars of his hit series Silicon Valley. “When I was casting, I was looking for actors you could believe were really intelligent programmers but were also able to play the comedy of it all,” Judge told The Washington Post. “I thought he was fantastic.” As Dinesh Chugtai he veers between sarcasm and charm, and a blend of ambition and insecurity you might expect in a Pakistani immigrant programmer trying to be cool – and maybe a Pakistani immigrant comic who actually wasn’t very good at his five-year tech day job. We’re guessing Nanjiani sees the humor in that one, too.
That kind of exposure can be heady stuff, but Nanjiani never let writing and standup take a back seat to his increasingly packed schedule (or his proudly geeky video game and X-Files podcast passion projects). In 2014 he co-founded The Meltdown, a Comedy Central standup series filmed in the back of a comic book store, featuring his loose, unrehearsed banter with co-host Jonah Ray, and guests like Nick Offerman, Marc Maron, Rachel Bloom, Fred Armisen and Reggie Watts. His second special, Beta Male, premiered on Comedy Central in 2013 to raves. From A.V. Club: “Kumail Nanjiani could easily be ‘that guy.’ He could be the Pakistani guy, joking about his otherness in America, his life growing up as a Muslim in Karachi. He could be the videogame guy, playing off his excellent podcast, The Indoor Kids, which caters to the thriving crossover crowd of gaming and alt-comedy nerds. But he’s not. He can weave those themes into his act without it feeling shticky.” Or too narrow.
That praise grazes what he’s called the elephant in the room. His Muslim upbringing does play a role in his work, perhaps more unavoidably now than ever. But as his career progressed, Nanjiani determined not to ignore it, but also not to commoditize it or take roles that exaggerated it. His comedy became wider and his talent more apparent. He is relaxed and observational on any number of topics, and a master of setup, his build to a joke often funnier than the punch line itself. He has a comic’s timing and a storyteller’s ear.
That sense for story finally made him turn to the biggest one in his own life. He penned an account of how his real-life girlfriend’s serious illness jolted him into maturity and coming to terms with his conservative parents. His (now) wife Emily V. Gordon co-wrote the script, Judd Apatow produced, Michael Showalter directed, and Nanjiani went to acting class in order to play a fictionalized version of himself. The Big Sick sent studios scrambling at Sundance this year (Amazon won for $12 million); Variety wrote that he and Gordon “…mine their personal history for laughs, heartache, and hard-earned insight in a film that’s by turns romantic, rueful, and hilarious. It’s a no-brainer to connect with art-house crowds who like their comedies smart and funny, but this one deserves a shot at the multiplex, too. Where most movies might be content to follow the culture-clash comedy through its typical ups and downs, The Big Sick proves to be a far messier affair, and all the more rewarding for it.”
Nanjiani recalls the first joke he ever wrote: “I wrote about how I always wanted to have a unit of measurement named after myself, because all the cool scientists had one. Then I’d do an act-out of a submarine commander telling his crew to turn the torpedoes up to 5 Nanjianis.” If you’re measuring in laughs, better turn it up to 11 Nanjianis.