Talking to Kumail Nanjiani About Standup, Acting, ‘SNL’ Auditions and More
Fans of Kumail Nanjiani have no shortage of places to find him. He’s appeared in every season of IFC’s Portlandia, and is a regular on TNT’s legal dramedy Franklin & Bash. He also hosts the video game podcast The Indoor Kids alongside his wife Emily V. Gordon, co-hosts the weekly standup show The Meltdown in Los Angeles with Nerdist’s Jonah Ray, and just recorded his first special and CD for Comedy Central.
I recently got the chance to chat with him about acting, touring, and auditioning for SNL.
You recently recorded your first hour special in Austin. Does it have a name yet?
There’s a couple names we’re kicking around. There were, I think, three names at the end, and I honestly don’t remember which one we picked. Beta Male is what we went with. I think. It’s that thing where, like, I was living and breathing it for two months and as soon as it’s done, it just escaped my head. Like all of it just fell out of my face.
Do you know when it will premiere?
The way Comedy Central shoots, they block shoot four at a time. So it might not come out until April or May.
And this is your first special, right? You never did a half hour?
No, they asked me to do one a little bit ago and I was at the point where I was pretty close to having an hour I really liked, so I decided to wait another year and get to the point where I could do an hour.
The hard thing about doing an album 10 years in is that you could really over think what you put in it. This special, half of it’s very new stuff, within the last year, and the other half is probably a best-of from all years prior to that. But half of it or more than half is stuff within the last year. I found that, the kind of jokes I was telling changed in the last couple years, so I really wanted that to be a big part of the special. But then also put in stuff that, older jokes that I really liked that I never recorded.
I know you and Jonah just celebrated your second anniversary of the Meltdown show. What’s your favorite part of hosting a weekly standup show?
What I really love about it is, first of all, our audience is so good. They’re so positive; they’re always so excited. And what I like about doing that show is, Jonah and I host it, and we never plan an opening and we usually talk for about 15-20 minutes. So I really like exercising the muscle of just going on stage and trying to find stuff. And knowing that, if I don’t get to something, Jonah will, or vice versa. I really like trying out new material every single week, doing something new. I can never repeat anything on that stage, because it’s such a repeat audience.
And, you know, some of the best comedians in the world come and do our show. A lot of them will come and try new stuff, which is really exciting to watch Louis CK try something new or Demetri Martin try something new or you know, Daniel Tosh comes by a lot. We had Robin Williams drop in. It’s fun to have a community of comedians where everyone’s sort of equal, even though some people are comedy legends and some people are just starting out, but they’re all going up on the same stage.
You’re also new Adult Swim show Newsreaders. Can you tell me a bit about that?
It’s a Childrens Hospital spinoff. They have a show on there called Newsreaders, it’s part of their weird reality. Childrens Hospital is such a funny high-concept show. They have episodes of Childrens Hospital that are an episode of a made up show called Newsreaders, and then in that episode they’re covering the show Childrens Hospital. It’s all very meta.
So then they decided to spin that off into its own show. There are 10 episodes; I think I’m in 3 of them. It’s basically a really bizarre and surreal 20/20 report. So each episode is a separate report about something, like a kid who solves crimes, and they have correspondents who cover individual stories, and I’m one of the correspondents. It has an amazing cast. I mean, Dave Foley was in it, Rachael Harris was in it. Dennis Haysbert. I got to act with Dennis Haysbert, which I never thought I’d be able to do.
And can you give us any spoilers about the next season of Portlandia?
I have two episodes in it. It’s really — you know, it’s a sketch show obviously, but as the episodes go on, the narrative parts of it become stronger. So I think that happens more this season where the connective thread between the sketches gets stronger and then there are a couple of episodes it’s not a sketch show, it’s just a narrative show. The season finale is actually really really cool, I think it’s a two-parter. I haven’t seen it, I don’t think they’ve edited yet, but it’s a really cool, big, pretty epic concept. I’m really excited to see it.
Between those shows and Franklin & Bash, you do a lot of TV acting these days. Is that something you’re interested in doing more of?
I really really like acting, and it’s not something I’ve been doing that long. I sort of fell into acting because I was writing for a show on Comedy Central called Michael and Michael Have Issues, back in 2009 and they wanted the writers to act on the show, so that’s how I sort of started acting. And it’s very challenging for me, just because I haven’t been doing it as long. Something like standup, I’ve been doing 10 years. I feel like I can go into a room doing standup and do well. At the very least, I know what I’m capable of as a standup. But, as an actor, it’s a lot more challenging. I would love to continue to do more acting.
If you do standup, the only way to make a living is to tour, which can be a pretty brutal life. You know, I like being at home, and I think if you can find acting work, that’s a good way to not have to move around as much. It’s not that I don’t like to tour. I do like doing it. But there are people who are introverts and people who are extroverts, and I think the difference is where you get your energy. Some people get their energy from being outside and doing crazy stuff and traveling, and some people get their energy from being at home and sort of being on their own, and I definitely am an introvert in that way. I feel most myself and most relaxed when I’m at home. I was just out of town for you know a couple weeks and it sort of drove me insane. I was in Baltimore for two weeks.
What were you doing there?
I did an episode of Veep. It’s one of my favorite shows, so it was very exciting to do that and to work with people who are bonafide comedy legends. Obviously, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is unbelievable, but also Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris. I’m a huge British comedy nerd and those guys, they’re royalty.
Oh, I know you were at Edinburgh Fringe this year. I’m kind of obsessed with Edinburgh, and on your podcast you talked about seeing [poet and comedian] Tim Key, who I adore.
He’s amazing. It seems like in the UK, there are more different kinds of standup and more different kinds of comedy that people are doing. When I saw Tim Key’s show, I didn’t think comedy could do that, you know? It just felt like a very non-American approach to it. It was exhilarating to watch, because I had no idea what to expect, and it was hilarious. It was very funny, it wasn’t this artsy-fartsy weird thing. It was just very very funny and very very bizarre and very very weird and not like anything I’ve seen before. So going to Edinburgh was cool in that they don’t have that stigma against, like, mime or puppetry that they have here. So I saw a lot of really good puppet acts, and if it’s good, they like it over there. There’s also a lot of bad stuff, but I saw some pretty good stuff.
Why did you decide to go to Edinburgh?
I decided to go because I was about to do my special. I’d been traveling and figuring out that hour and I figured if I went to Edinburgh for a month, do the show every single night, that I would really figure it out and get it really sharp and tight, come home, take a couple weeks off, and then go do the special. I ended up not being able to go for the full month. I went there for two weeks, which was enough. At the end I got really sick of it.
I hear it’s exhausting.
It’s really really exhausting. And I got sick, and I was sick for a month, because it’s people from all over the world bring their horrible germs and everybody hangs out in like these giant tents and the bars are open until 7 am so nobody gets any sleep. It’s very exciting and it’s very fun, but at the end of it, everybody gets really sick. It’s a really great experience but it’s very tough. I know some people who have had really horrible experiences.
I heard you say once that you wrote for SNL for a week. How did that come about?
I did yeah. I did this audition and they asked me to come and write for a few weeks, and I could only do one week, so I went in and wrote for a week. And that was a really amazing experience to see how that show happens. It’s obviously such an institution, but being there, seeing it and knowing that Bill Murray and all these guys were here, it was really exciting. It’s also a very difficult show to work for because you’re writing a new two-hour show every week. It’s really exhilarating but I could see it’s a very intense show to work for. It was really really interesting seeing how it happens and seeing the process. And, I mean Lorne Michaels is very involved in the show, so you’re hanging out with this guy all week who’s a legend. The way they write that show is so specific and it’s so interesting, so it’s cool to sort of experience that.
What made you decide to audition for SNL?
Honestly, it happened because it’s the same production company that does Portlandia. Broadway Video is Lorne Michael’s company, I’d done a couple seasons of Portlandia and they liked my work on it and they wanted me to come audition. I said, “You know, I don’t really do characters.” And they said, “Just come do standup.” So I just went and did standup. It was just one of those things where it aligned and they wanted me to come out to New York and audition. I mean, you can’t not audition for SNL.
So what’s next from you?
Well there’s Portlandia, Newsreaders, and then there’s this web series Burning Love. It’s really funny. It’s Ken Marino and his wife Erica Oyama. She writes it, he directs it, he stars in it. It’s a parody of the bachelor. Season two comes out in January, I’m in that, and that has an amazing cast. Michael Cera, Ryan Hansen, Martin Starr, Colin Hanks, Jerry O’Connell, Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, it’s a fucking crazy cast. So that is in January. And there’s a couple movies but I have no idea when they’re coming out.