Experiencing an existential crisis is a clichéd rite of passage for your average college student, but the stakes were considerably higher for Pakistani-born comic Kumail Nanjiani. While studying at Iowa’s Grinnell College, Nanjiani went from a fundamentalist Shiite Muslim to an atheist, a transformation he explores in his Paul Provenza-directed one-man show, Unpronounceable. But Nanjiani isn’t going for easy, boy-fundamentalists-sure-are-wacky gags. He examines his faltered faith with respect, inspiring some uneasy laughs in the process. The A.V. Club recently talked to Nanjiani about his audience, how 9/11 affected his stand-up material, and his sympathy for Skeletor.
A.V. Club: Who do you think your audience is?
Kumail Nanjiani: You know, I don’t know. I noticed at the show [last month] that there were older people and younger people: sort of like people who had seen me do stand-up would come, and then older people who’d read about it. It was weird for me because generally I’ve done stand-up. And when I did [variety show A Demon Who Never Appeared!] at the Playground, it was all younger audiences—all 18 through 35 or whatever. So this was the first show I did where a significant portion of the audience was older.
AVC: In the show, people laughed when you explained values and practices of Islam, like the threat of molten lead in your ears for listening to pop music. How much of that do you think stems from people’s discomfort?
KN: I think a lot of it is discomfort. It’s also that it’s such a different world, and thinking that a little boy is hearing things about [self-flagellation] or molten lead in his ears is kind of funny once you’re removed from it. It’s so absurd, getting this little 8-year-old kid to do all these things that are very, very specific and violent punishments. I think some of it is awkward laughter, but some of it is just the juxtaposition of the fantastic and the mundane. It’s weird. The whole religion thing, I grew up with it so much. Obviously I’ve sort of let it go now, but I still feel like other people don’t get to make fun of it. I can talk about it, but those guys don’t get to talk about it. It’s this weird thing. I don’t want them to laugh when I’m just describing it.
AVC: Like the n-word?
KN: Yeah, exactly. I understand the religion so well that I can make fun of it, but they don’t know anything about it. That is something that rankles me a little bit when I’m up there. I don’t want people to get the sense from this that I’m ripping on Islam. It’s just my journey with it.
AVC: Are you worried about a fatwa?
KN: Sure. It’s weird; I’m so far removed from that world, but it’s a real thing. I found this message board where people were talking about the show, and this one guy who hadn’t seen it was like, “Well, hopefully he can stay away from the crazies.” Then this one guy was like, “You better get life insurance.” So I guess it’s weird to think that it could be a real thing, like with Salman Rushdie.
AVC: Did you get life insurance?
KN: No. [Laughs.] I don’t care who I leave money for. I’d already be dead.
AVC: You started doing stand-up right before 9/11, but haven’t done material on your background until now. Why?
KN: I didn’t want to do any of those jokes or talk about my background because it’s such a limited field. You can make the same jokes over and over again—and I hear those jokes over and over again all the time. I knew I didn’t want to do that, but after 9/11 there was a little bit more pressure to talk about this. I knew when I would get on stage I would feel like people were looking at me like, “Why isn’t he saying anything about this? There’s this big elephant in the room that he won’t even mention.” And I’m just talking about chocolate or whatever on stage. Two, three minutes into it I could see that they would get comfortable and just laugh or whatever, but I always felt in the beginning when I got onstage people were like, “All right, let’s talk about this. We’ve got things to discuss.”
AVC: With you.
KN: [Laughs.] Yeah, why did you do this to us?
AVC: How funny is Unpronounceable intended to be?
KN: I wanted it to be funny all the way through, but also, I knew when I was writing it there were some parts where it gets pretty heavy.
AVC: Audience members who were unfamiliar with you before may not assume you’re a stand-up.
KN: That’s another thing that I struggled with, was how to use my stand-up voice in a very different, more theatrical presentation. But stand-up is successful if they laugh. It’s unsuccessful if they don’t laugh. I wanted to have something where laughter wasn’t the only gauge of success. So that was another reason I wanted to do this show: to evoke something other than just laughter.
AVC: You mention in the show only buying the good guy action figures from He-Man so as to only fund their war effort. Since you’ve come to America, how has your perception of “good guys” changed?
KN: Since I came here, the one thing that happens even with war movies or any movies or cartoons that have good guys or bad guys, I realized there’s going to be a clear delineation like that based on where you’re from, which is how all cartoons are like. In He-Man for instance, all the good guys look human, but all the bad guys are like lizards and monsters. There was a clear delineation. I never thought of that. Back then I was like, “Bad guys are bad. Destroy the bad guys.” But when I came here I realized that, being from the “bad guy” part of the world, now when I see a cartoon, all I can think is, “What happened to him? Was his mom mean to him? Why does Skeletor want to control Eternia? Someone sit down and talk to him because he’s got real feelings.” I think coming here has made me more aware of the way pop culture delineates good guys and bad guys in pretty much everything. There’s not a lot of sophistication when it comes to most of these movies. Like Decepticons and Autobots—how can one whole race be bad and they have things on them that look different? Why is one whole race bad?
AVC: Because they’ve got to sell action figures.
KN: I guess. [Laughs.] There’s no Optimus Therapist. The bad guys are all bad, and the good guys are all good.
AVC: You’ve said this show won’t affect your stand-up. What will it have changed?
KN: I’ve gotten a lot more press from it, and more MySpace friends. [Laughs.] I’ve been doing stand-up in the city for five years, but I’ve never gotten this kind of press. I think what it will change is not my stand-up but it will make me more brave or courageous to try things other than stand-up. If you do a sketch, that’s a very short narrative. Stand-up, it’s bit-to-bit, minute-long narratives. This is one long thing, and it’s a lot more complicated to construct. But I think doing this gives me confidence to try other things.