Kumail Nanjiani May Be the Busiest Man in Comedy
The comedian talked to Maxim about the new season of The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail (just one of his many, many projects).
Kumail Nanjiani doesn’t know how to take a break. In addition to starring in HBO’s wildly popular Silicon Valley, as Pakistani programmer Dinesh Chugtai, Nanjiani also finds time to act in a few other wildly popular cable comedies (Portlandia, anyone?), set up a steady spate of rom-com guest star roles, record two popular weekly podcasts (The X-Files Files and The Indoor Kids), and still host a weekly comedy show at The Meltdown Theater in Los Angeles for the majority of the year with fellow comedian Jonah Ray.
The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, Comedy Central’s series documenting actual nights at the Meltdown, returns for a second season on June 30th, and from the first episode’s surprise hosts alone, the season more than delivers on its commitment to showcasing some of the most inventive comedy in town. In fact, it may be one of the best half hours of stand-up on television right now. Maxim talked to Nanjiani in advance of the premiere about what we can expect from the new season.
The show looks so much fancier this season. Did the production budget increase this time around?
No, Comedy Central didn’t increase the budget, there are just a lot more cameras. We realized last season our show is at its strongest when it’s capturing moments, and for that you just need a lot of cameras. There was so much great stuff, and we were like “Oh man, if there was a camera on the fridge pointing this way, we could have used this moment!” but we couldn’t because it happened off-camera. So Lance Banks, our director, added a bunch of cameras and we have a lot more coverage this season. From last season, we realized when the space looks it’s best, the show looks good. That place is never going to look super fancy even when we dress it up, so we found a way to clean up stuff and have it look intimate and kind of punk rock. We really focused on the visual aspect of the show this season.
The show has a great lineup this season. One of my favorites is Natasha Leggero’s performance, where she came out, rapped O.T. Genasis’ “I’m In Love With the Coco,” and left. I won’t spoil the best part, but it’s unmissable.
There’s actually an interesting story behind that. We wanted Natasha to do the show as she’s a really good friend of mine. But she was doing a Comedy Central hour special, and Comedy Central has a rule that you can’t do the same material on the channel. So we told her, “Just come do whatever you want. We don’t care what you do, we just want you.” She had this idea to do a lip-sync, and asked if she could do it, and we said great. We tried to contact the artist, but the artist at that point was so small, we couldn’t even get in touch with him. He was in the process of signing a record deal, and we just couldn’t get in touch with him.
So we told Natasha, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do. You come do the bit. If we can clear the song, great. If we can’t, we’ll turn that into the story of the show. We’ll show you on stage, mute you, and then have me, you and [Meltdown co-creator] Jonah [Ray] get in a room and talk about the story of the set.” And that’s really part of we wanted to capture–the behind-the-scenes greenroom aspect of the show, regardless of whether we get to see the hilarious bit, or we talk about the hilarious bit. It was such a weird and wonderful thing she did, that she would never do on The Tonight Show.
Half the show itself is just watching the comedians hang out backstage in the green room before sets. Was that one of the most important things you wanted to capture with the show?
We definitely wanted to capture that vibe. So many stand-up shows on television are showcase-based, where you just see the comedians onstage. What we really wanted to show was that offstage, comedians hanging out are just these normal people, but it can be super hilarious as well.
Is the comedy more out of the box in this second season, or are comics still sticking mainly to traditional stand-up?
We just let people do whatever they want. We said, “Listen, this is your opportunity to do a set you can’t do anywhere else on television,” and people took that however they wanted. Some people just did stand-up that they had tried before, some people did stand-up that was weirder that they wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else, and then some people did something really, really strange and out of the box, like that Natasha thing.
We have a few sets like that, that people wrote specifically for the show. Lauren Lapkus wrote a bit for the show. Adam Pally and Gil Ozeri wrote a bit for the show. What Brett Gelman does on his episode is something I don’t think any other TV show can show. People really took up the challenge, they were excited that they could do something they couldn’t do on TV anywhere else, and we really, really focused on that this season. We realized that’s the stuff we loved last season. And that’s the strength of our TV show and the comics this season really got that.
Is there anything else in Season 2 that people should be watching out for in particular?
There are weirder performances that are great. We’ve perfected the mix of the show. Last season it was such an experiment. We’d never done this [before]. We didn’t know how much onstage versus how much backstage [to show], what kind of stuff worked onstage. This season is even closer to the live version than last season was. Last season turned out even better than I had hoped, and this season turned out exactly the way I wanted it to be. Now if you don’t like the show, then I don’t feel like we failed, I just feel like our vision isn’t what people wanted.
How are you keeping up with all your projects? Between Silicon Valley, the new season of The Meltdown, and your two podcasts, I feel like I’m seeing you everywhere I turn.
I’m lucky that I get to do stuff I really love doing, so most of it doesn’t feel like work for me, I like doing it because it’s fun. Obviously some aspects are less exciting than others, but I love putting on the Meltdown Show, I love doing podcasts, I love doing live shows, I love writing movies, acting, whatever it is. Sometimes I’ll put too much on my plate and I’ll get burnt out, but right now I’m in a good place. Last week I had off, and I went to the movies four times. I haven’t been able to go to the movies in so long. I try to balance it all out, but my balance always leans toward doing more things.
When you go to the movies now–four times a week, apparently–do you get recognized, or are you able to get by?
It’s not crazy, but with Silicon Valley people now recognize me. I can walk around. I watched a movie the other day and a guy and I talked for a bit, and at the end he said “Hey, I really like the show, by the way.” People aren’t weird about it, and it doesn’t hound me. Silicon Valley is the highest profile thing I’ve been a part of, and I just like that people like the show.
You’re on a very successful HBO show, you have a film career, but between your regular podcasts, Twitter, and stand-up, you’re still one of the most accessible celebrities. People don’t realize they can come to the Meltdown any Wednesday night and reach out and literally touch you.
I love doing stand-up. I love having a weekly stand-up show that I host. It wasn’t a decision on my part to be more accessible, but people will come up to me in Los Angeles and say “Oh my god, you’re on that one show, do you ever do anything in town?” and I’m just like “EVERY WEDNESDAY. I do a show every Wednesday, and you can come any Wednesday and watch me perform, and say hi to me, and see a bunch of other great comedians perform. Every. Wednesday.”
Your mom left a very adorable Amazon review of your Comedy Central special Beta Male. Do your parents watch The Meltdown or come to any of the live shows?
They watch and love the show, but they never talk to me about it. They bring it up a bit. They’ll say “Hey, when’s Meltdown coming back?” but that’s all I’ll hear about it. But I went to my dad’s work once, he kept bugging me with “You gotta come to my work, you gotta come to my work,” and I was just like “Why does this man want me to go to his office?” I got there and all his coworkers go, “He can’t stop talking about you! He’s so proud!” It’s really sweet, and a new perspective.
Any other projects on the horizon? You were once Salon’s Sexiest Man of 2013. Where do you go from there?
I guess I go on to never being on the list again!
Is there a get-together for all of the sexiest men of various internet publications? A clubhouse, maybe?
Yeah, I’ve been hanging out with Patrick Stewart nonstop. He was on that list too!
Photos by Photo: Jesse Grant / Comedy Central