Kumail Nanjiani could easily be “that guy.” He could be the Pakistani guy, joking about his otherness in America, his life growing up as a Muslim in Karachi. He could be the videogame guy, playing off his excellent podcast, The Indoor Kids, which caters to the thriving crossover crowd of gaming and alt-comedy nerds. But he’s not. He can weave those themes into his act without it feeling shticky; Beta Male dips into his childhood in Pakistan, his conflicted emotions about Call Of Duty, and plenty else with easygoing confidence.
This is Nanjiani’s first album and hour-long special (it premiered on Comedy Central on July 20), which is a little surprising considering many of his contemporaries (Kyle Kinane, Hannibal Buress, Pete Holmes) all recently released their second albums. Like all first albums, Beta Male has years of material—including some of Nanjiani’s best bits—to draw on, like his incredulousness over a new drug cocktail called “Cheese” (“It’s Tylenol PM and heroin, so really it’s heroin”) or his terror at riding the ancient Cyclone roller coaster in Coney Island.
Beta Male never feels like it’s just jumping through all of Nanjiani’s A material, though. He weaves everything together smoothly, spending most of the first half of the set on his childhood in Pakistan and most of the second half on his adulthood. The focus is tightly on him: His family is mostly in the background (though his mother’s failed attempt to comfort him after watching The Ugly Duckling are hilariously revealing), and there’s nothing about relationships or his wife, Emily Gordon (co-host on The Indoor Kids and co-producer of his upcoming Comedy Central show, The Meltdown).
Listeners won’t really miss them, because Nanjiani is an excellent observational comic. He’s pretty versatile too, doing just as well with whimsical nonsense (the many methods a cat tries to sneak into his house) and real-life memories. The album’s closing bit, about Nanjiani and his roommates trying to deal with mysterious attic footsteps, is not that spectacular in and of itself—Nanjiani admits as much in the telling—but that it doesn’t matter. His storytelling skill makes an anticlimactic ending strong enough to close what’s been an already-strong hour.
Nanjiani definitely acknowledges his background; one of Beta Male’s strongest bits sees him fantasizing about a comeback to a white dude who shouted “Hey Kumar, where’s Harold?” at him, and there’s a great piece of crowd work with a fellow Pakistani in the audience, but it never feels preachy or strained. For all his fury at real-life racism, Nanjiani acknowledges that the best he can do as a comeback is to someday be famous enough to embody the stereotype that guy imagines. “What am I gonna be like, ‘Oh, I’m Kumar? Well you’re the main guy in most movies that come out!’”
Despite his unusual name and distinct accent, Nanjiani has so far avoided such pigeonholing, and Beta Male continues that trend, cementing his status as one the best stand-ups working today.