Kumail Nanjiani’s first big break, in which he played the part of himself on Comedy Central’s short-lived Michael & Michael Have Issues, almost didn’t happen. The Pakistani-born comedian, who moved to the States to attend Grinnell College in Iowa and practiced comedy in Chicago until 2007, was tapped to write for Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black’s new series after touring with them as part of a Stella reunion tour. “When I got the writing job, they also said they wanted the writers to be actors, but Comedy Central didn’t know me so I had to audition four times to play the part of myself,” Nanjiani says. “I would go downstairs to the office and see brown men in their twenties holding signs that said kumail. I’m sure I wasn’t the best guy, but Showalter and those guys really pushed for me to be in it. It was a trip.”
If you recognize Nanjiani’s likable mug but can’t place where you’ve seen it, there are multiple ways to fill in that blank. The 33-year-old currently stars on the TNT comedy-drama Franklin & Bash, runs the video-game-centric podcast The Indoor Kids, appeared several times on The Colbert Report, twice stole the scene from Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein on Portlandia and has performed stand-up on Conan, Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. When we speak by phone, he’s exhausted after spending two weeks telling jokes at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival before jetting off to New York for a guest-writing stint on SNL. He appears May 4–6 at UP Comedy Club. “I’m not good at vacations and taking breaks,” he says.
Nanjiani kicked off his career in Chicago, where he practiced stand-up for five years. “Chicago was definitely a great place to start,” he says. It was here that he honed a stand-up persona that leans heavily on nerdy attention to detail around video games, horror movies and relationship jokes. His peers in the scene included recent breakout stars like T.J. Miller, Hannibal Buress and Kyle Kinane. “There was a big emphasis on being original in Chicago that was really good,” Nanjiani says. “It wasn’t just about getting laughs; it was about getting the right laughs.”
Although he moved to New York for its work opportunities, Michael & Michael Have Issues was canceled after its first season. “I thought it was going to last forever,” Nanjiani says. “It really was breaking the rose-colored glasses.” After that gig ended, Nanjiani flew to L.A. for a development deal in which he scripted a show for NBC about a fictional version of himself: The character comes from a conservative family and marries a white woman from North Carolina (not unlike real-life spouse Emily V. Gordon). It didn’t get picked up. “I knew going in that my chances were very small,” he says.
Instead, Nanjiani went back to L.A. in 2010 for pilot season and was cast as agoraphobic science-fiction nerd Pindar Singh on Franklin & Bash. He joins a recent trend of South Asian actors in TV comedies, including 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Whitney and Community, whose defining characteristic is sometimes their ethnicity. “A few years ago when gay characters started popping up, their whole thing was they were gay,” he says. “Now their gayness is no longer their defining trait. We’re in the middle of that now with South Asian people.”
Kumail Nanjiani hits the UP Comedy Club May 4–6.