In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
Kumail Nanjiani has been a key player in Los Angeles’ stand-up and podcasting community for a while now. He released his excellent album, Beta Male, last July, and has hosted The Indoor Kids podcast with his wife, Emily Gordon, since 2011. He’s only gotten busier and more in demand over the past year, hosting recap podcast The X-Files Files and starring on HBO’s Silicon Valley. And he’s added yet another project to his ambitious stack: translating his weekly L.A. comedy show, The Meltdown, into a weekly series, The Meltdown With Jonah And Kumail, for Comedy Central. The first episode premieres Wednesday, July 23.
Kumail Nanjiani: The worst job I ever had was an office job that I had for six years, and that’s nothing against the people who I was surrounded by, because they were wonderful people. But I worked at the University Of Chicago, and there was just the drudgery of it—getting up every day at 8 a.m., going to work 9 to 5 and doing the same thing every day. It was really devastating for my soul. It was really tough, but then there was one period where I was working for sort of two different bosses at the same time, and they didn’t really talk to each other. So I would tell each one that I had projects for the other one that I was working on. Those were pretty great days. That lasted a few months, actually. It was so stupid. They work in the same office building. I knew it was going to fucking come crashing down on me. And then they talked one day, and it all came crashing down. I got reprimanded; I got a letter in my file. So I think if you go back to the University Of Chicago, you’ll see that there is a reprimand letter in my file.
Another time, my boss left early. She said she had a dentist appointment but she was wearing a suit, so I think it was another interview. Whatever. I left work early, too, and was waiting for the bus, and I thought I saw her drive by. She was very scary. And then she called the office to check, and I was gone, and I got another letter in my thing because she asked me if I was at work and I said yes, and I wasn’t. I lied. And that did not go over well either.
The A.V. Club: It sounds like they were pretty lenient, though. You would’ve been fired other places for pulling that scam for three months.
KN: Yeah, I guess so. Because the thing was, I was really nice. Everyone liked me personally, so people around me would get fired all the time. People who were doing their jobs way more than I was were getting fired all the time because they had shitty attitudes or their shorts had stains on them. But other than the actual work, I was the perfect employee. I was never rude. I was nice. I think people just felt bad firing me. I had that job for five years, and I felt really guilty the entire time because I knew someone else should be doing my job. But my work visa was tied to the University Of Chicago, so if I got fired, I would be deported. The stakes could not be higher, and I was still engaging in shenanigans.
AVC: Did you leave that job because you left Chicago?
KN: When I was moving to New York, I quit that job and they were devastated. And I was like, “No, you shouldn’t be devastated. This is a cause for celebration, you guys. You’ll see when I leave how terrible I was.” I bet whenever they got the next person, they were like, “Oh, this is what it could have been the whole time?”
KN: I’m from a family of doctors, and I think they really wanted me to be a doctor. I even sort of assumed I would be a doctor. But then I think, if I remember correctly, when I was a kid, my dad asked me, “Do you want to be a doctor?” and I was like, “No,” and he accepted that and he was okay with it. I could see that he was upset, but he was like, “Well, you do whatever you want to do.” And then my younger brother, who—so, I was the good kid. I got good grades and stuff and my brother, who’s very smart, just didn’t give a shit about school. So my dad was like, “Maybe he’ll be the doctor.” And there was one time one of my cousins got hurt in the bathroom. He was doing something, and he cut his leg open and there was blood on the floor. My brother came and was just looking at the blood, and my dad was like, “Oh, yeah. He clearly wants to be a doctor,” looking at him looking at the blood. And I thought, “Either that or a serial killer, Dad. One of those two.” So yeah. He’s not a doctor either. That’s what they wanted me to be. But I will tell you they certainly didn’t think I would end up being what I am: a podcast personality.
AVC: They couldn’t have even imagined that five years ago, let alone 20.
KN: Oh no, totally not. They really have no way into my life. It really doesn’t make sense to them what I do. And it really shouldn’t. It’s a crazy, weird thing.
AVC: What kind of doctor do you think you would have been if you had been a doctor?
KN: Oh, God. It’s so much pressure being a doctor. There was a time when I thought I’d be a psychiatrist, and my dad is a psychiatrist. So I thought I’d be a psychiatrist because I don’t think you can kill someone by fucking up. Actually I don’t know. Maybe those pills do stuff. This is getting dark. But then I remember when I was a kid, my dad’s patients would call. I remember I was a kid and somehow this one person had gotten my dad’s phone number. And they called and I answered the phone and I was a little kid and they were like, “Hey, is your dad home?” And I was like, “No, he’s not home.” And he was like, “Oh, because I want to kill myself and I want to see how many sleeping pills I should take. So could you ask him that when he comes in?” I was like, all right, not becoming a psychiatrist either. Stakes are too high. That was a weird conversation with my dad. “Hey, two-part question. How many sleeping pills?”
AVC: “Call your patient.”
KN: Yeah, that’s what I should have said. “Just take one and see how it goes.”
KN: I’m getting overwhelmed just thinking about this question. Honestly, I would love to be friends with Fox Mulder on The X-Files. That’s almost a little too obvious, but that would be my answer. I’d love to hang out with him. I’d love to talk about UFOs. I feel like he would let me call him Fox. I know that he’s picky about that, but I feel like we could have that sort of connection.
KN: I never really got into game shows. The easiest one is Wheel Of Fortune because you just have to know words, and for the most part everyone knows words. So I think I’d be okay at that. I’d be horrible at Jeopardy!, so not that. What was the one where it’s with kids but there’s some sort of gauntlet that you have to go through?
AVC: Double Dare?
KN: Yeah, I’d be great at Double Dare, but as a grown-up—kicking the shit out of kids.
AVC: Could you take on other grown-ups?
KN: No, I don’t want to take on other grown-ups. Kids. It’s going to be like when they lie and some high school basketball player is actually 22. I’m going to be like that. I’m going to be a scandal.
AVC: You’d be an old-looking 13-year-old.
KN: Yeah, puberty hit really early. I would say about over 20 years ago.
KN: I think they would probably say that I’m a little ambitious. I’ve been called that. That to me isn’t necessarily a negative thing. For instance, Marc Maron, on that episode of Doug Loves Movies, was like, “You’re so ambitious.” And I was like, “What’s wrong with that? Aren’t we all ambitious? What are we doing here?”
AVC: That’s definitely only an insult to certain people.
KN: Thank you. Calling me the opposite of lazy, which I believe would be complacent, that’s an insult. Ambitious. That’s great. Thomas Jefferson was ambitious, I think. I don’t know. I don’t know why that was the first example I came up with.
KN: I like a ton of different sandwiches. I say it wouldn’t be a sandwich, but that you could Kumailify the sandwich, and that would be putting a ton of hot peppers on it. I love spicy food, and I love jalapeños and habaneros, and it would be a regular sandwich. But you would just Kumailify that, and then it would be with a ton of hot peppers and probably some Sriracha, although I think the flavor is so strong that sometimes it can overwhelm what’s in the sandwich. Maybe I’m taking this question too seriously. But, yeah, just a ton of hot peppers.
I always get super spicy stuff, and then sometimes it kicks me in the ass. Definitely at some Thai restaurants, when you ask for super spicy, you can see in their eyes. They’re going to try and make a point about it. It becomes a weird battle between me and them. And there’s this one place here where I got super spicy and I literally had to leave the table and go sit in the car for 45 minutes just to put my life back together. That was too much. And Emily [Gordon], my wife, always says that there should be a reality show called “Sweating In Restaurants With Kumail,” and it would just be me eating super spicy food at different restaurants. I just get really sweaty and everything is coming out, but it’s so delicious.
KN: I’m sure everyone says this, but I bought a car when I first moved to L.A., and that felt like a big thing. I didn’t know anything about cars, so I literally walked into a car dealership and I said, “I want a red car, and I want to walk out with it right now.” And that’s all I wanted. So I looked at plenty of red cars. I saw which one had the best warranty-to-price ratio, and that’s how I got my 2009 or 2010 Kia Spectra. It’s red.
AVC: How did you decide to go with Kia?
KN: They just had the highest warranty. I don’t know anything about cars, but it just seemed like such a sensible purchase. Their warranty was way more than anybody else’s. It was like five years and 100,000 miles. Something like that. So it just was a very sensible purchase. I was like, why doesn’t everybody just get Kias? And it’s been a great car. And it’s red.
KN: I’ve never done karaoke, and I’m terrified of it. It scares me more than anything. I’m actually in Atlanta working with Luka Jones, who was on Best Friends Forever with Lennon [Parham] and Jess [St. Clair]. He played Lennon’s boyfriend and he was on Up All Night for a few years before that show got canceled, and now he’s on another show. Anyway, he’s a really funny guy, and yesterday we were just on set killing time and we started singing Billy Joel songs. I don’t know how. I told my wife this, and she said, “Were you guys looking at each other when you were doing this?” And I was like, “No, sitting next to each other. Staring straight ahead. Singing ‘Piano Man.’” We were punchy because we were shooting at night. And he looked at me and he said “Are you tone deaf?” And I was like, “I think I might be.” So I think that’s what it is. I think I’m tone deaf. So I can’t do karaoke.
KN: I haven’t had any bad living situations. But do you know how sometimes you’re like, “there are no bad roommates,” and then you realize you’re the bad roommate? It was like that the summer of my last year in college, and I was just a bad roommate. We weren’t allowed to smoke in the house, so I would get coffee filters and go into my room, close the door, and smoke and ash into coffee filters. And I would spill stuff and just leave it there. I borrowed someone’s pan and made this huge crazy pot of food, and then I just never washed it. It was just there for literally two months and then I had to buy them a new one. All I would eat was—I would go and get frozen hash browns and I would just eat hash browns for three meals a day, every day. That’s all I would eat. And I would smoke a lot of cigarettes. I was going through an existential crisis, and this was the form that it took, so I was definitely the bad roommate.
But I wasn’t a bad guy. Again, it’s sort of like at the job. They liked me as a person. They liked hanging out with me. I was just really bad about stuff. Later—this was in Chicago—we were moving from one house to another, myself and all my roommates. And I set up a show the night of the move, and I was like, “Can you guys just move my stuff for me?” And they looked at me like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” When I look back at me saying that, I’m shocked, and it’s shocking that they did that and I owe them forever. I’m still friends with them, but it’s crazy that I thought that was appropriate behavior.
KN: I’ve never been in a physical fight. I’m confrontational, but I’m super good at apologizing. So if it looks like it’s going to be a fight, I’m like, “I’m so sorry. You’re completely right.”
I don’t think I would ever be in a physical fight. I think if it gets to a point where it’s going to be a physical fight, I’m just going to give up and lie down. I’ve never been punched, I’ve never been kicked. Actually my brother, who’s four years younger—he and I would get into these fights and I would beat the crap out of him. And then I remember one day, I hit him a bunch and he just kept standing back up. And I banged his head against the wall and he just kept standing back up and I was like, “All right, this is the last fight you and I have,” and probably the last fight I ever had. I don’t have that feeling of hurting someone physically. It always bugs me when I get into an altercation with someone and they want to take it physical. It’s like, what the fuck are we doing? This is what separates us from animals—that we can talk. So let’s use that.
AVC: Most people just say kids, old people, or Verne Troyer.
KN: Verne Troyer? He’s like a mixture of both. He’s an old person who’s like a little kid.
Yeah, I don’t want to fight Verne Troyer or kids or old people. It would have to be such a specific situation. I’m sorry I’m not answering the question.
KN: I did this college show a few years ago right when I moved to L.A., so it was probably 2011, 2012, and it was going really well. And afterward, this person came up to me and they gave me a piece of paper, and they were like, “Hey, can I get your autograph in case you become famous?” And I thought that was such a crazy thing to say. So then I said, “Can I get your autograph in case you graduate?” So I got their autograph, and I don’t know where it is, but that’s the most recent memory I have of getting somebody’s autograph.
AVC: So you have some strange kid’s autograph?
KN: Yeah, I have some strange kid’s autograph just because I thought the way they asked was so weird. I think he said “in case you ever make it.” Not “become famous.” “Can I get your autograph in case you ever make it?” and he wasn’t trying to be weird. He just was like, “Oh, no, this is how you deal with human beings.”
AVC: It’s not insulting at all.
KN: No, I was like, “Kid, I made $200 tonight. I’m doing okay.”
AVC: He’s probably showing all his friends now. He’s like, “This guy’s on a couple TV shows. I have his autograph.”
KN: I’m sure he threw it away later that night.
Bonus question from “Weird Al” Yankovic: What’s your favorite marsupial?
KN: Weird Al. He’s probably the best guy in the world, right?
AVC: Yes, probably. His is a possum.
KN: I’m going to Google marsupial. [Pauses.] It’s hard to get out of the kangaroo trap, right? They’re fucking kangaroos and they have little babies in their stomachs, so I know it’s sort of a pat, obvious answer, but it’s like the fucking alpha marsupial. And they’re cute, but they’re also vicious. They’ve got so much going on for them.
What’s with the boxing thing? Why is that a thing with kangaroos that they always have boxing gloves? Do you know what I’m talking about?
AVC: I think they used to make them box.
KN: With their hands?
AVC: I guess? I think it was kind of like kickboxing, maybe?
KN: They have been through so much too, kangaroos. What other animal is that dignified and cute? Most of them are one or the other. This has both going for it. They also kind of look like if a T. rex was a marsupial. They have those little hands, and they stand on their hind legs. I’m falling in love more and more with kangaroos every second right now.
KN: All things being equal—diet, nothing else matters—what’s your perfect breakfast?
AVC: So, no consequences?
KN: Oh, yeah. It’s going to go right through.