Kumail Nanjiani Discusses TV Writing and ‘The Indoor Kids’ [Interview]
Kumail Nanjiani is a face you know with a name you're probably butchering in your mind right now.
His performances have graced the stages of late night shows such as the ‘Late Show with David Letterman,’ ‘Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,’ and ‘Conan.' Aside from his stand-up he's had recurring roles on some of the most well-known and respected shows on TV today. From ‘The Colbert Report’ to ‘Michael & Michael Have Issues’—where he was also a writer— to ‘Portlandia’ and most recently ‘Franklin & Bash,’ Kumail's talents as a comedian have led him places many have only dreamed of. In fact, adding to his lengthly list of credits, he’s just appeared in the pilot of Kurt Braunohler’s IFC series ‘Bunk,’ which aired on June 8.
If, for some bizarre reason, you haven’t seen Kumail at all then where in God’s name have you been? Start watching TV or get out and see a comedy show people!
We recently spoke to Kumail about his career in comedy and what it’s like working with other great talents within the industry.
First of all, you were just on Bunk. How was that experience?
It was great. It was really fun. I’ve been friends with Kurt Braunohler for a while so I was really excited to do it because I thought it was such a weird and uniquely fun show. You don’t know what’s going to happen and there’s really no way to prepare for it.
You don’t know the questions?
Well, we did run-throughs of different versions of the show. The good thing was that I had done a few by the time it ran. I had done the pilot and a couple more live shows so I sort of knew what to expect. They kind of tell you. They don’t tell you specifics but you sort of know the categories you’ll be picking from and such, you know? But it’s really intense and fun and exhilarating. What makes it easier that Kurt’s so funny so no matter what he always has your back.
He seems like a real down to Earth guy.
Yeah, he’s great. I really love Kurt. He used to do improv and started doing stand up not so long ago but he’s a great stand up.
It was real fun to watch.
Thank you. I think I’m in three episodes. I love doing stuff for IFC because they’re doing all of these really cool different comedy stuff. I really hope it does well for them. With 'Bunk' and 'Comedy Bang Bang' and 'Portlandia', they’re doing stuff you really wouldn’t see on any other channels. I hope these things find audiences and they continue to do these risky, interesting shows.
Those shows are definitely not afraid to take risks, which is something lacking these days.
Yeah, I think the good thing is that most of their shows are much lower budget than anything you’d see on pretty much any other channel. It’s really impressive how quickly they’ve made a voice for themselves. IFC and FX are both doing such awesome, interesting stuff. FX has It’s Always Sunny, which has been out for a while, but also Louie, Archer, Wilfred. All this stuff that is really cool. It’s a cool time for weird, unique and good comedy.
FX and IFC shows are probably some of the best comedy on TV right now.
Yeah, FX is I think doing a Jim Jeffries show and IFC is doing Marc Maron’s show. I’m really excited.
Getting to you. You were born in Pakistan. Was comedy always an interest as a kid?
No, no. It never really was. I didn’t really watch stand up until I came here. The first stand up I remember watching was Jerry Seinfeld, his last HBO special which I think was ’98 or something. I hadn’t seen Pryor or Cosby or anything like that. I’d seen like Mr. Bean, like Rowan Atkinson stuff that was sort of stand up but really one-man sketches.
Did you move from there to Chicago?
I went to Iowa first and then Chicago. I went to school in Iowa. It was my senior year and I was freaking out. I was a computer science major and was really bad at it and I didn’t want to do it. Everyone has those freak-outs with ‘what am I doing with the rest of my life?’ Just f*cking panicking. But there was this open mic at this coffee shop and I saw my friend do it. He killed and it was awesome. My friends said I should try it, so I gave myself a few months to write a 20-minute routine. My senior year in college was the first time I tried it. I remember once the idea got in my head, I was like, “This is the thing I want to do. This is it.” Before I even did it, even though it was pretty late. It was pretty intense. I really, really wanted to be a stand up. So I did it twice in college and then I moved to Chicago for a computer science job but really I moved there because I knew they had a stand up scene.
Being in Chicago, was there ever any interest in going into improv given Second City was there?
There was really no draw to improv. Now, though, I think it would have been good for me to do some improv just because I think everything you do sort of makes everything else that much better. I think stand up helps your acting. I think acting helps your stand up. Improv helps them both. Everything just sort of feeds into each other, so I kind of wish I did a little bit of improv in Chicago. But at the time, there was such a divide between the stand up and improv people. A couple people would go back and forth, but there was really a pretty big divide. But in New York there wasn’t as much of it because of UCB. Even though at they were mostly improv and sketch they were still pretty open for stand up. So in New York that division wasn’t as dark.
Was the goal to merely be a comedian or was acting also a goal?
No, it was just to do stand up. But your goals change as you grow hopefully. Before I did stand up I remember, at the Des Moines Funny Bone, seeing the my first stand up show live. I thought if I ever get to host this show I would have made it. It was all I wanted. I never considered myself as much of a performer. In the beginning, it was more the writing that I got satisfaction from, less the performing. But then I grew to love performing. I sort of fell into writing because I started working for this show in New York called ‘Michael and Michael Have Issues,’ which was on Comedy Central.
That was a great show.
Yeah! I was really bummed when it got cancelled. But they wanted us to be actors in the show too so that was the first time.
Being on ‘Michael & Michael Have Issues,’ there’s such a strong comedy background to that show—with Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter and everyone else—and now being on ‘Franklin & Bash’ we’d imagine the experience is much different.
It really is. Doing something like ‘Michael and Michael Have Issues,’ the most important thing was just being funny and the joke. Obviously the story had to make sense but everything was in service of being funny. But with ‘Franklin & Bash,’ it’s a very different kind of show. Also, my role is different from everybody else’s. It’s a light show but I’m sort of the comic relief on there.
And coming from ‘Michael & Michael’ where everyone is the comic relief, it had to be a big switch.
Yeah, Michael and Michael were great with that. There were the scripts but as the weeks went on we started improvising more and more. By the end, a lot of the things that Michael and Michael were doing were sort of improvised on top of the script. That was so fun and really awesome. The shooting of that show was a really exciting thing. With ‘Franklin & Bash’ there isn’t much improv. They’re really great though, they let me go off script a little bit but here it has to service more than just being funny at the moment. On ‘Michael and Michael’ if I had an idea that was funny, even if it was a little bit of a tangent, they would let me do it. But on ‘Franklin & Bash’ that’s not the case. The parameters are much tighter.
You’ve worked on a number of TV shows, both as a performer and a writer. Do you have a preference?
I would love to be able to write and perform on the same show, which is what I loved on ‘Michael and Michael.’ That’s what I’d like to do, have a show that I can write and perform on because I love sort of acting and being on camera but I also love the writing of it. And I think it really can help the voice of a show. Michael and Michael were obviously the head writers but they had control of the voice because they were on screen too. It’s a very singular vision. You don’t have to convince somebody else of what the voice of the show is. I think that, to me, would be the idea situation.
Is there a show today that you find yourself really wanting to work on? Or being a fan of?
I love 'Portlandia' a lot.
You’ve been on that a couple of times.
Yeah I have. What Fred and Carrie do, that’s a pretty awesome thing. They pretty much write the whole season and then shoot it. The guy that shoots it is Jonathan Krisel. He’s awesome. He gets it. To me, that’s the perfect job. I also love 'Community' and '30 Rock'. 'Louie' too, what an amazing show. I think 'Girls' and 'Veep' are fantastic. I think Lena Dunham is so funny. The casting on that show is incredible. And 'Veep', Julia Louis Dreyfus is so funny and she’s been that funny for so long! I think a lot of these shows are really funny and I’d love to be involved somehow.
Aside from television, you host The Indoor Kids, which is a very funny podcast. For people who haven’t listened, how would you describe the show?
It’s a podcast about video games, but really it’s about the experience of playing video games. We have comedians on, our friends, some people from the industry and talk about the fun and experience of video games in an objective way. I think a lot of video game journalism has a subjective tone, which never made sense to me. But now we’ve started talking about movies and such. I host it with my wife, Emily Gordon. I love doing the podcast and I think people enjoy it because it is a different approach to talking about video games.
How loose is the format of the show?
We always go in with a bunch of bullet points but those are just the safety net in case we run out of stuff to say. In the beginning it was all the topics we wanted to talk about it but now we have people who are our friends and we know we can take it to a funny and interesting place.
How did it begin?
Chris Hardwick, who runs The Nerdist, was trying to expand and start a label of podcasts. I had known him for a while. When I moved here he asked if I wanted to host a comic book podcast. I said, “I like comic books but I don’t really think I have an encyclopedic knowledge of them. I’ll do a video game podcast?” And he said, “Great, let’s record it.” He just asked me and I thought it’d be fun to do.
You and your wife seem to have a great time together working on it. How is that?
We play a lot of video games together, even ever since we first met. When we moved in together we had to get rid of one of our Xboxes. Right from the beginning of our relationship we related with video games.
Given the TV work and podcasts, do you find yourself not doing stand up as much as you hope you could?
Well it sort of changes. In September, I’m doing my Comedy Central hour.
Oh, thank you! But right now I’m shooting this Indy movie and have to be on set at like 6:30AM and leave at like 8PM, so right now I’m not performing as much and it’ll be the same for the next three weeks or so. But I host a show here [Los Angeles] every week with Jonah Ray. With ‘Franklin & Bash’ and Portlandia, that still leaves my nights free so I can tour around and do stuff. Portlandia is like one day in the summer that I do that. ‘Franklin & Bash’ is like two days a week. But once this movie is done at the end of June it’s all about stand up.