Geeking out with comedian Kumail Nanjiani
Comedian Kumail Nanjiani is having what some would call a moment.
The Pakistani-born comedian has built up his resume over the past several years, appearing on Collegehumor.com, "Adventure Time," "Portlandia," "Franklin & Bash" and countless podcasts discussing even more countless nerdy pop cultural topics. He also appeared briefly in last year's coming-of-age film "The Kings of Summer," stealing a scene as a Chinese delivery man.
The breakout, however, has seemingly begun. Nanjiani released a Comedy Central special, "Beta Male," last summer. He – along with co-star Martin Starr – made critics laugh on HBO's new comedy "Silicon Valley," and while season one of that just wrapped, he also has a new show, "The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail," premiering on Comedy Central next month.
The next stop on his climb to comedy fame, however, is the Turner Hall Ballroom, where he'll perform Tuesday, June 17. Before then, OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with the comedian about "Silicon Valley," crafting a crucial d*ck joke, his love of "The X-Files" and his abusive relationship with "Game of Thrones."
OnMilwaukee.com: You recently premiered a new podcast, "The X-Files Files," correct?
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah, it's for almost … nobody.
OMC: Were you a big fan of the show way back when it was still on air, or did you pick up on it later?
KN: No, I've been a fan since it first started. Honestly, this is going to sound very scary, but this is the fourth time I'm rewatching the show.
OMC: Oh wow.
KN: Yeah, it's sort of a scary thing to tell people about yourself. (laughs) But it'll make sense – I'm not crazy – I watched it when it was on, then I rewatched it right after college with my roommates who'd never seen it. Then the woman I'm married to, I had to get her into it, so I watched it with her. And now, I'm just watching it because, you know, I love the show.
OMC: Are you glistening new things from it even a fourth time through?
KN: It's been interesting. The first time I watched it, I was just blown away. The second time, I really identified with Mulder as a character, like I was Mulder while I was watching it. The third time, I was Scully! I thought her character was a lot more interesting. In a way, she had a lot more at stake because she's religious, and she has faith in one aspect of her life but not in the other. So I was Scully.
And now this time, who knows? Maybe I'll be the Cigarette Smoking Man. I don't even actually know what that means.
OMC: I follow you on Twitter, and you watch "Game of Thrones." You went on a little bit of rant a few weeks back after "The Mountain and The Viper" episode about how "Game of Thrones" kills all joy.
KN: I was genuinely … okay, so we had a "Silicon Valley" party because that was the last episode. So all of the cast and the writers got together, and we watched the episode and we all loved it and we all love each other. It was this very happy time. We all went out and got drinks and food afterwards, hung out late. It was just such a glorious night. So I came home, and I was like, "Okay, let's watch this f*cking fight!" because I'd been waiting for this fight for so long.
And it just … I got so angry and sad. I guess it's kind of good because I hadn't really had that kind of visceral reaction to a character dying, like that kind of sadness, in a long time, so I guess that's good? But what shows do is the characters that people like, they keep those characters around. That's what makes good shows: good characters. If you're just killing off your best characters, then what's the f*cking point? Sorry, I'm getting worked up again.
I just liked that guy a lot, and I liked seeing him, and it sucks; the show is going to be worse without him in it. I just hope there's a plan in place. I hope it's not just that they're killing off people to get these big reactions. I hope there's some sort of endgame. Otherwise, it just seems kind of haphazard sometimes.
OMC: On to a happier topic, you were talking about "Silicon Valley," which that just wrapped up and congratulations on that. When you signed on, did you think it was going to take off like this?
KN: No, you don't really think about that kind of stuff while you're making it. You just kind of want to make it into the best job you can. So it was all of us really bonding, working in this pretty small studio in Culver City from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m., just shooting the show, hoping you're doing the best job you could and having no sense of how people would react to it.
It's kind of interesting because we shot it for about four months, and it was all of our lives for four months. And then it comes out, and it's sort of not ours anymore; it's everybody's. So there was like a little bit of sadness, a little bit of "Oh, this thing we were working on, now it belongs to everyone. It's not just our little thing."
But I'm very happy that so many people watch it and that so many people like it. That's very exciting, but when you're making it, you can't really put yourself in that light, like "Oh, I hope people like this." I think you just focus and do the best you can.
OMC: It's a show about nerdy characters, but at the same time, you want to make sure you're not playing the same, stereotypical nerd role. Were you nervous about playing just another nerd character?
KN: Yeah, what I liked about the show, well, first of all was Mike Judge. Anything he makes, if I get a chance to be a part of it, I'm going to go for it. So I always trusted him. He's very good at getting the specifics of subcultures, and he's very good at making a broader satirical point while still having good characters. So I always knew that, even if the show was about taking a shot at Silicon Valley or satirizing it, it was always going to have characters that felt very real.
And right in the beginning, they sort of added the character a little bit later, so he wasn't fully fleshed out in the pilot, but I talked to (Mike Judge) and we came up with what his backstory would be. So I never was concerned that this character was going to be just a generic nerd or anything. I knew he was going to have specificity to him, that he was going to have a different shape.
OMC: Now, everyone was talking about the d*ck joke from the finale. Was that all scripted?
KN: I believe it was mostly scripted. There's a bunch of improv on the show, but I believe it was mostly scripted. I think that the girth conversation, where we say would girth difference affect Erlich jacking off everybody. I think that might have been improv. Certainly our gestures, where we're going from a skinny d*ck to a thick d*ck, that was improv. But a lot of it was pretty scripted.
That was a tricky scene to shoot because it's gotta work on so many levels. It's gotta work as a joke, the math of it has to make sense, it has to make sense that we get into such an absurd thing to talk about and get wrapped up in it, we have to ramp it up slowly enough and it can't feel like a joke to the characters. All of that, and most importantly, it really ties into the story of the whole season. So if that d*ck joke doesn't work on any one of those levels, kind of the whole season falls apart. There can't be a false note in there.
KN: We really worked pretty hard on getting the tone of that exactly right. Like I remember the part, the first time I walk to the white board, we shot that a bunch of times because they were like, "You're walking too fast; you're walking too slow." It's gotta be like, "I don't want to have to do this, but let's try this." It's gotta be a very specific tell.
So we shot that scene – I believe it's only about three minutes or something – for 14 hours, just getting so much coverage, moving cameras, getting different takes, just because they didn't want to get into the editing room and be like, "Oh sh*t, this scene doesn't work." So that was a very long day of shooting the same scene over and over again.
OMC: That's a lot of pressure on a single d*ck joke.
KN: I mean, it's a heck of a d*ck joke, but it is a d*ck joke.
OMC: It is now d*ck joke royalty at this point.
KN: I hope so! When we were shooting it, we were like, "God, I hope this works; otherwise we're going to look like utter *ssholes!" (laughs)
OMC: Do you have any idea where the next season is going to be going?
KN: They just started writing it. Obviously, it's going to go in the direction of now we have some success. If you remember the last conversation that Monica and Richard have, it seems like that's going to be a little bit of road map for the next season, where she says people are going to want to sue you, people are going to want to be a part of this, you're going to have to hire employees. I imagine that's the direction it's going. I don't know any of the specifics, but that seems to be where it's going to grow.
OMC: We should probably talk about your upcoming show in Milwaukee. What kind of material are you planning on bringing to the show?
KN: My stand-up is a lot of personal stories – not like confessional, but just like stories that happened to me now or when I was a kid or about stuff I like or that's interesting to me. Basically, I'm working on figuring out the next hour that I'm going to do. So I did an album that came out last year, "Beta Male," so this is basically the next step toward the next one. So what you'll see in Milwaukee will be the beginnings of my next special.
Some of the stuff I know for sure what it is and what's going to be in there. I'm going to be playing with structure a little bit. It's still going to be hopefully a really good show, but when you're doing an hour for TV, you have to put specific beats in there, or peaks and valleys. So this is me trying to figure out where those are going to be. But for a live audience, hopefully it's just going to be a really fun show.
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