Kumail Nanjiani has been featured in Variety's "10 Comics to Watch," The Hollywood Reporter's "10 Rising Comedy Talents," and New York Magazine's "10 Comedians That Funny People Find Funny." His big break came in the Paul Provenza-directed one-man show, Unpronounceable, so seeing him as a guest on the second season of The Green Room can only be a surprise to those not paying attention. At all. While some lazy observers might point to his ethnicity as the defining characteristic of the Pakistani comedian, the man himself sees something else looming much larger in both his life and his stand-up act: Being a gigantic nerd. Kumail sat down Buzzine Bollywood’s editor in chief Parimal M. Rohit at The Vanguard in Hollywood, California to talk about his teenage move from South Asia to Iowa, his new TV show, and his undying ongoing love of video games…
Parimal M. Rohit: You were just with a pretty energetic crew out there on The Green Room set. How has the whole experience been for you today?
Kumail Nanjiani: It was really fun. I kind of didn’t want it to end. When he was like, “Okay, I’m gonna cut it short,” I was like, “No, let’s keep going…” I had such a fun time!
PMR: The crowd seemed to respond really well to you. When you work, how aware are you of being specifically a Pakistani comedian, or is it more important to you to just do your thing irrespective of where you’re from?
KN: I just do my thing, but I think being Pakistani obviously informs who I am as a person, and I bring a little bit of an outside perspective. I think all comics have this sort of outside observer perspective, and being from Pakistan just heightens that.
PMR: You’re dabbling your hand in a lot of different things. Of course you’ve most famously (so far) done stand-up, but you’ve also had a script sold; you’ve also appeared on TV, and you’ve appeared on talk shows… What has the greatest appeal of all those different parts of the entertainment world?
KN: I just like being able to reach the biggest audience I can, because I’m doing these jokes, and most times you do a show and you see a hundred people or a couple hundred people, and then you do something on TV and it’s millions of people. I just wanted to be able to reach the most number of people I can – that’s what I like.
PMR: You’re going to be reaching a lot of people this summer. I believe you’ve been cast on a TV show on TNT: Can you tell us about that?
KN: It’s called Franklin & Bash and it comes out in June. I play a lawyer. It should be really fun because it’s not a part that’s an Indian… I play an Indian guy, but it’s not an Indian part. He’s not stereotypical in any way; he’s a very specific and idiosyncratic person. He’s a full person who just happens to be Indian.
PMR: You mentioned the word “stereotypical.” Do you think we’re in a place now where Indian and Pakistani actors are finally getting away from stereotypical roles on TV and in film?
KN: I think it’s slowly happening. I think you definitely still go out for auditions that are clearly stereotypical, but I think it’s moving away from that as there are people who are Indian and Pakistani who are becoming famous and it’s becoming more normalized. I see more parts that are just people who happen to be Pakistani, rather than that being their defining characteristic.
PMR: Being an immigrant and coming here directly from Pakistan must have provided a spark to your writing. What from your own experience helps you create your stand-up set?
KN: Just being an outsider. You grow up here and you don’t hear the background noise. Everything seems normal to you because you grew up here. I came from literally the other side of the world; you come here, and then everything seems so weird and different. So the things that might not seem weird to somebody that has grown up here, I would notice. So that really helps me a lot with my comedy – noticing those little things that somebody who was born and raised in America would not notice.
PMR: Was that heightened by the fact that you moved to the Midwest first?
KN: I think so, because it was pretty white, and if I’d come to New York or even Chicago or someplace like that, where there is a sizeable Indian/Pakistani population, a lot of people stay pretty segregated in those populations. But I was in f***ing Iowa. I had to mingle with everybody.
PMR: Even in a big city, we still have some issues… You had a little run-in with John Mayer back in 2009. Could you tell us a little bit about that situation?
KN: [Laughs] Oh, it was just like I was on stage and he sort of disrupted it. I wasn’t really angry at the time, and I do think what he did was wrong and kind of douchey, but it’s weird that he did something one night because he was drunk, and two years later, people still remember it. So I sort of sympathize with him a little bit, because I’ve definitely made terrible mistakes, but then they don’t get written up in Variety. So he’s had a great life, he’s very rich, he’s very famous, he’s very popular, he’s very…everything…but I understand now, this perspective, having this experience, and how much press it got. How much people remember it. A little bit I kind of feel sorry for the guy. We all make mistakes, but when he makes a mistake, it’s news.
PMR: As you mentioned mistakes. What have you learned, in your time in the industry and how are you going to use the mistakes you’ve made to continue building the career the way it’s going?
KN: I think I just have to always be true to myself. I never try to do something because there’s money or because you think it will bring you fame or anything. Just try to be involved with things that you’re proud of – nothing that you would feel like you’d have to apologize for, because you definitely get some things that you’re like, “I could do this, but…I don’t think I’m representing my people well, I’m not representing myself as a person well, and I think that the hardest thing, and the most important lesson I’ve learned is just to do the things you want to do that you really love, that you’re proud of, that you’re passionate about. That’s the most important thing.
PMR: Do you think that comes out when you talk to people? Do you think people get to see your pride and your love?
KN: I hope so. I talk a lot about video games and horror movies because that’s the stuff I like, so I think people get a pretty good sense of who I am because they see a brown guy and they expect them to be talking about certain things, but then I’m talking about video games, and I think that hopefully humanizes us.
PMR: What’s your favorite video game right now?
KN: Oh my God. Right now I’m actually playing Lego Harry Potter, which is really good, but I’m also playing the new Call of Duty. I love Halo – Halo is one of my favorite games of all time. The NBA game – NBA 2K11 is a great thing… I could go on and on...
PMR: Did you know they’re making a Halo movie…?
KN: Oh my God, no, I didn’t know that.
PMR: Let’s put your expectations for the Halo movie on the record right now…
KN: I think it would be great because Halo… this is so nerdy… I think the story of Halo is better than any sci-fi I’ve seen the last ten years, so they made it to be as a movie that they made into a video game. It’s a very cinematic story, so I think it will be a great movie.
PMR: Back into the comedy world - do you have any idols you look up to to guide your path?
KN: The stand-ups I love: I love Woody Allen’s stand-up, I love Jerry Seinfeld, Zach Galifianakis, Patton Oswalt… Louis C.K. I think might be the best comedian working in the world right now. This guy Daniel Kitson, who’s British, is amazing. So just people that make me laugh. These guys I think are always constantly involving.
PMR: How do you make people laugh? You talked about a few things already, but if there was one thing or one word you could say about you that makes people laugh, what would that be?
KN: I think “passion.” [Laughs] That sounds so lame. But when people hear me talk about video games, it’s so important to me, because it really is that important to me. I think it’s funny to people that I care so much about that there’s a Halo movie coming out...
The Second Season of ‘The Green Room with Paul Provenza’ premieres new episodes on Showtime every Thursday night at 11:00 p.m. ET/PT beginning July 14, 2011.