Kumail Nanjiani
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Kumail Nanjiani

New York, New York, United States

New York, New York, United States
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Music

The best kept secret in music

Press


"Culture shock therapy"

When Kumail Nanjiani started performing stand-up just after September 11, he noticed a trend among performers of Middle Eastern descent. Over-the-top group parody tours like the Axis of Evil and Allah Made Me Funny, which poked fun at terrorism and Muslim culture, were all the rage. But the Pakistani-born comic made a bold decision: no ethnic-based material, satirical or otherwise. Instead, he mused on job interviews, cell-phone reception and He-Man, and quickly developed a reputation among the ranks of Chicago’s North Side comedy scene as a razor-sharp funnyman.

It’s not that the 29-year-old comic doesn’t have a compelling back story from which to draw. His one-man show Unpronounceable—which plays at the Lakeshore Theater Saturday 7—is the true story of his fundamentalist Shiite Muslim upbringing and his decision to abandon his faith. “I realized a couple of years into my [comedy career] that there was a big aspect of myself that wasn’t being represented in my act at all,” he says. “I want to talk about it my way. No clichés.”

Nanjiani was raised in a conservative, middle-class Pakistani family. Islam was a way of life: Every action and thought was focused on ensuring an eternity in Heaven and avoiding one in Hell. The rules were strict and endless—under no circumstances could he miss a single morning prayer; listening to music was forbidden; and walking into the bathroom leading with the left foot and exiting leading with the right was an inflexible directive. Breaking these and other rules would result in an afterlife more terrifying to Nanjiani than most horror movies. At one point, he was listening to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” when his parents were away; when they told him that the punishment awaiting him in Hell was molten lead being poured into his ears, he sat down, put his head between his legs and cried.

Nanjiani says his strong Islamic training was meant to help him resist temptation while attending an American college—his best chance, his parents told him, to escape the crime, poverty and Shiite oppression rampant in Pakistan. Thus, he was thrown into the “lion’s den” (Iowa’s Grinnell College) at the age of 18, having never so much as shaken a woman’s hand. Facing extreme culture shock and intense loneliness, he fought to maintain Muslim traditions—including rising every day at 5am for the morning prayer, despite being kept awake late into the night by his roommate’s top-bunk sexcapades. - Time Out Chicago


"Kumail Nanjiani, UCB Comedy, Reggie Watts, and More Receive 2009 ECNY Awards"

Winners have been announced for the 2009 ECNY Awards, New York's original comedy awards, which were presented March 10 at Comix comedy club.

Award recipients include Leo Allen (Best Host), Derrick (Best Sketch Comedy Group), Mother (Best Improv Group), Reggie Watts (Best Musical Comedy Act), Michelle Collins (Best Female Standup Comedian), Kumail Nanjiani (Best Male Standup Comedian, Best One Person Show), UCB Comedy (Best Website), Matt McCarthy (Best Performance in a Commercial or Episode of Law and Order), Governor Palin Vlogs - Sara Benincasa & Diana Saez (Best Short Comedic Film), Pat Baer (Best Technician), The Rejection Show (Best Variety Show), Anya Garrett - Jar Full of Roaches (Outstanding Achievement in Flyer or Postcard Design), and Lennon Parham (Emerging Comic Award).

In addition, the ECNY Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to the writing staff of Late Night With Conan O'Brien.

The ceremony was hosted by Jon Friedman, with awards presented by past winners including Kristen Schaal, Nick Kroll, Sara Schaefer, Eugene Mirman, I Eat Pandas, Greg Johnson, Larry Murphy, Harvard Sailing Team, Stuckey & Murray, and John Mullaney.

For more information, visit ECNYAwards.com.
- Theatremania.com


"Kumail Nanjiani as Stephen Colbert’s secret prisoner"

Last night's edition of The Colbert Report opened with stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani hiding under Stephen Colbert's desk as Colbert's secret Gitmo-style prisoner, Omar. Or is it Homer? That must have been weird, since he'd have to have been in there even before the audience arrived -- unless they snuck him in during a distraction. Or maybe it was magic!
For those of you who don't already know and love Kumail, he was born in Pakistan, came to the United States to go to college...in Iowa. He then got involved in the Chicago comedy scene, and now lives in Brooklyn. He is quite funny. Much of his life story showed up in his one-man show, Unpronounceable.

After the jump, a clip of Kumail's stand-up.


Say "Cheese!"

- comicscomic.com


"An Angel Gets His Wings"

Critic's Pick

“I am not as interested in or as insightful about politics as some people are,” says Kumail Nanjiani. “I’m just trying to be funny—but my personal life is inherently political.” Nanjiani was raised a devout Muslim in Karachi, Pakistan. When he first landed in the U.S., for college, the customs officer looked at his passport and, as Nanjiani recalls onstage, said, “ ‘That’s unpronounceable.’ Not ‘I can’t pronounce that,’ or ‘How do you pronounce that?’ Just—‘Nope, sorry.’ ”

The comic, 29, tells this and other East-meets-West tales in his aptly titled solo show, Unpronounceable, Friday 28 at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. At times, the monologue is funny; at other times it’s incisive and harrowing. But Nanjiani is most adept during the moments its both: He has that rare ability to make painful material hilarious. Interestingly, that wasn’t his initial intention.

Two things happened during Nanjiani’s senior year in college. First, he decided to make a career out of jokes. Second, September 11. After that, the easiest way to get work was on “niche” tours with other Muslim comedians. “That was not the comedy I wanted to do,” Nanjiani explains. “Woody Allen is obviously a very ‘Jewish’ comedian, but his stuff is relatable, on a very human level, to everyone. That’s what I aim for.”

Instead, Nanjiani moved to Chicago, where he performed with the group Blerds, founded a monthly sketch-horror show and wrote observational jokes of the Jerry Seinfeld “what’s the deal with?” variety, but with a hip, wordy twist—instead of bits about cab drivers, he talked about video games and dildos. In just a few years, Nanjiani had become one of the most respected stand-ups in the city. “He’d established himself as a strong comic,” says Chris Ritter, artistic director of the Lakeshore Theatre in Chicago. “But he needed to do stuff that was more honest.” Ritter proposed that, instead of working autobiographical jokes into his set, Nanjiani should write an all-new one-man show.

The original run of Unpronounceable, at the Lakeshore, was directed by Paul Provenza and was a sell-out success. So Nanjiani set his sights higher, understanding that, “you really need to move to New York or L.A. to throw your hat in the ring [as a comic].” A longtime Woody Allen fan, he says his decision was easy.

The first act details his Pakistani childhood, praying five times a day and fasting during Ramadan. Nanjiani often uses Western pop-cultural references to explain the traditions of Islam. “Pigs to Muslims are like water to Gremlins,” he says. He contextualizes the constant threat of Sunni-Shiite conflicts by declaring his childhood love for He-Man and Skeletor figurines: “I had a real connection to cartoonish fights to the death for control of the universe.”

In the second act, Nanjiani moves to “the lion’s den”—Grinnell, Iowa—where he witnesses snow, alcohol and dance parties: “There’s a spot on the floor where people shake around? Why?!? What do the winners get?” As a freshman he still prays—or tries to, considering his roommate’s active sex life. But he also studies philosophy, which leads to a 2am existential crisis, the timing of which he admits is clichéd: “But that’s just when they happen! I didn’t pick it. If I had, I would have chosen, like, an hour after lunchtime, when you’re all energized and ready to tackle an epiphany.”

It’s the kind of realization most Westerners are never in a position to experience. Unpronounceable will teach you a thing or two about Islam and Pakistani culture; it will also make you appreciate the ideological freedoms New Yorkers take for granted (a guy sitting in front of us guffawed in shock at each mention of religious zealotry). But if you catch Nanjiani’s stand-up sets instead of his solo show this week, expect the clever jokes to be about Atari, not Karachi. - Time Out New York


"Kumail Nanjiani: Unpronounceable - Recommended Pick"

As a Pakistani-American comedian, Kumail Nanjiani naturally didn't want want to do all Pakistani and Muslim-related material. The danger of hanging all your jokes on being Muslim or a woman or gay is that it becomes one note very quickly-- and no one wants to hit the same tired note over and over again. So Nanjiani purposefully eliminated all ethnic material from his stand-up-- though he revisits all of that self-banned material, along with issues of identity and humor, in his hilarious one man show. - The Onion


Discography

Still working on that hot first release.

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Bio

Kumail Nanjiani is leading the latest Chicago invasion of comedians in NYC. He's opened national theatre shows for Zack Galifianakis, Stella and Arj Barker. A native of Pakistan, he went to college in Iowa and then cut his teeth on comedy stages in Chicago, where he was one of the founding members of the Blerds collective. His Chicago comedy experience culminated with his triumphant one-man show "Unpronounceable" at the Lakeshore Theater and continued in the New York run at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. He recently won Best Male Stand-Up Comedian and Best One Person Show with the ECNY (Emerging Comics of NY) awards. He’s been seen on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live and Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. This summer, he can be seen at the Bonnaroo Festival, All Points West Festival and the Great American Comedy Festival.