The Pakistani-origin boy wonder Kumail Nanjiani has been making waves in the international media — and for all the right reasons. Since he moved to the United States as a young student, he has rapidly established himself as a comedian, podcast host, actor and writer of repute, and was recently awarded the Comedy Star of the Year Award at CinemaCon Big Screen Achievement Awards held in Las Vegas. What’s more, he has scripted a movie along with his wife Emily V. Gordon for Judd Apatow, the biggest comedy movie producer in Hollywood. Called The Big Sick, the film, due to be released on June 23, also features him as the lead star. Time.com has listed it as one of the most anticipated movies of this summer, so one must hand it to him — he has achieved no small feat in a relatively short time. And just this month he was invited by his alma mater, Grinnell College, Iowa, to give the commencement speech to the graduating students of 2017, and was conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. Looks like he is on a roll this year, and there is no looking back for this star of HBO’s Emmy award-nominated series Silicon Valley, currently in its fifth season of airing.
Catching hold of Nanjiani on email and pinning him down for an interview was not as difficult as I had imagined, and one must admit Nanjiani was forthcoming in his answers, and also, a little brief. Perhaps like all great writers and comedians he feels brevity is the soul of wit. Here is what this amazingly talented youngster had to share with Icon:
Award-winning stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani turns to film with The Big Sick
Q. Did you ever act, write, host or do anything similar while you lived in Pakistan?
Kumail Nanjiani: No, I didn’t.
Q. When did you realise you have a talent for comedy?
KN: I think I started to realise that I could be funny in my second year of college. But I didn’t realise I could actually perform comedy until my last year of college in 2001, at Grinnell, Iowa. There was open-mic comedy night at my school when I was in my senior year and since my friends thought I was funny, I decided I’d try it. It went off really well, and I loved it. I had been studying computer science at the time, which was the degree I was aiming to get but I had no interest in it. So, after this unexpected success I graduated and moved to Chicago, because I knew a lot of comedians have come from there, to try my luck as a comedian.
Q. What was your family’s reaction when you decided to make a career out of stand-up comedy?
KN: I think they thought it was fun and cute, but they didn’t want me to quit my job, either. I had started working in tech support at the University of Chicago and had that job for six years. I was doing comedy at night and this office job during the day. When I quit my job I think they were concerned, but still very supportive.
Q. Do you feel you would have adopted this profession even if you had continued living in Pakistan?
KN: Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t think so, as it wasn’t a profession that was taken seriously back then when I was living there. It was like something that was so outside of possibility — I didn’t know anybody who was in this profession. I think if I had stayed in Pakistan, I would have been a doctor, like my father and maternal uncle. I am quite tickled actually, that my parents have finally had their dream come true, with my being awarded this honorary doctorate, as they can now boast to all their friends that their son is a doctor!!
Q. How did you get your first break?
KN: I moved to New York after I had been doing open mics and local comedy shows in Chicago for about six years — nothing fancy, just shows in the back of restaurants and small things like that. Then in New York, some of the well-known performers started asking me to open for them while they were on tour, so I would do ten or 15 minutes before the main act. Later, one of them got a TV show on Comedy Central and asked me to write for it. I would say that was my first real break.
Q. Have you co-acted with or interviewed any famous Hollywood celebs? If so, who?
KN: I’ve worked with a lot of people I’m a fan of, such as Conan O Brien and Stephen Colbert and have featured on their shows.
Q. Any unforgettable experiences while pursuing this career?
KN: Oh, so many. Getting to be in The X-Files was probably the highlight though. It was my favourite show growing up, so to get to be in one of the episodes was extremely exciting. And then, getting to write with my wife, and act in it, of course, was a very fulfilling experience as well.
Q. How did you meet your wife, Emily V. Gordon? Does she help you in your career?
KN: We met at a comedy show. She heckled me, and we fell in love. She helps me a lot. I used to always have her look at my jokes and she would offer me tips. And she supported me financially in our first year together in New York. I didn’t have a job; she did. I just did stand up comedy back then and was making no money doing it. Now she’s too busy writing TV shows herself so I can’t use her as much as I’d like to!
Emily and I have also produced a live TV show for Comedy Central, The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail. We did that for six years and it ran for three seasons. We did a total of 30 episodes before deciding to end the show this June. We also cohost the podcast, The Indoor Kids.
Q. And how did you land up doing a mainstream Hollywood film?
KN: We had been working on this script for a long time, and Mike Showalter with whom we had become friends after Comedy Central, had seen the script and told us he wanted to direct the film. Then I happened to meet Judd Apatow at a festival and he asked me if I had any movie ideas. I said I did, and Emily and I immediately began to finalise the script. It took some time, but he loved it, and The Big Sick is finally going to see the light of day.
Q. How much time altogether did it take you two to write the script?
KN: It took us five years.
Q. What was the inspiration behind it?
KN: It was a real life event that had happened to my wife and me. I don’t want to disclose anything about the plot at this stage.
Q. How was the acting experience for you?
KN: Fun! I had only done small comedy parts in films such as Central Intelligence and Fist Fight earlier so getting to do drama was challenging but exciting. This is by the far biggest role I’ve ever had, as I’m the lead in it.
Q. Who are your co-stars in The Big Sick?
KN: Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher and Shanaz Treasury.
Q. Coming to the award you recently won — were you expecting this honour? Is it your first?
KN: Yes, it is. I was taken completely by surprise!
Q. Now that you have tried your hand at everything — acting, hosting, stand-up comedy and production — what do you enjoy the most and why?
KN: Right now, acting is the newest to me and it’s my favourite!
Published in Dawn, ICON, June 11th, 2017