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Kumail Nanjiani ’01 returns to Grinnell

Last Wednesday, Kumail Nanjiani ’01 appeared in Harris to perform stand-up comedy based on his experiences as a student at Grinnell and out in the world since his graduation. Nanjiani has appeared on “The Colbert Report,” “The Late Show with David Letterman” and will soon be on appearing as an agoraphobic lawyer on TNT’s “Franklin and Bash.” The S&B sat down with him after his show to discuss his roots here at Grinnell and his future in comedy and television.

Nanjiani Standup Comedy
Kumail Nanjiani performed Wednesday in Harris - Ben Brewer

You talked about some of this stuff on stage but how does it feel to be back at Grinnell?
It’s very nostalgic, it’s crazy. When I saw the “Grinnell—New Sharon, 1 mile” sign, you know, it takes you back. Grinnell is such a bubble that all these feelings sort of come back. It was the smell at Read [Hall], I was like “Oh my god this is the smell,” and then the science building. Yeah, it’s just very nostalgic, and I first did standup at Bob’s you know. Ten of the most major milestones of my life happened here.

So your first stand-up comedy set was at Bob’s? When was that?
Yeah. 2000, end of 2000, November 2000.

What was your comedy experience here like?
It was great, I mean these shows at Bobs were so good and everybody was so smart and cool. The first time I ever did standup to this day is one of the best sets I’ve ever had. … It sort of doesn’t prepare you for real-world standup where people are loud and obnoxious. Standup here was always great. First time I did standup I did like a half hour, which is unheard of. But it was a great nurturing thing. I’m glad my first time I did standup was in Grinnell because then that sort of gives you confidence and courage to keep doing it beyond Grinnell.

There’s a Grinnell connection I want to bring up. I know you perform at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB) in New York and one of our alums is the co-founder …
Ian Roberts. Yeah I actually met him there and he saw my one man show, where I mentioned Grinnell, and he’s like, ”Oh, you’re from Grinnell!” He does this show called Asscat in L.A. and I’ve sort of done that a few times. Yeah, it’s a great theater. The UCB is like the best comedy theater in the country, L.A. and New York.

Who are some of your favorite comedians?
When I started out it was more like Seinfeld and Woody Allen, but now I like more storyteller types like Patton Oswalt, and Louis C.K. [who] I think is amazing.

What about standup comedy excites you and why do you do it?
Well I think it’s the only thing I’ve found that I’ve actually been good at that I like doing. I like the immediacy of it, I like that you can write something and then try it out that night and get instant feedback and know if it works or if it doesn’t. It’s very quick feedback, it’s very satisfying in that it’s just you—you can kinda do whatever you want, there’s nobody controlling it, you say whatever you want, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to push the envelope or whatever, it just means that I get to control it completely. And there’s no defined thing that standup comedy is, as long as it’s funny it’s standup comedy. It can take all kinds of different forms. It’s a very open medium.

You have a sitcom that you’ve been filming, can you tell us about that?
We’ve filmed one episode and we start filming again next week. It will be on TNT, it will be called Franklin and Bash. Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who was the main guy in “Saved by the Bell”—Zach Morris—he’s in it, Breckin Meyer, Malcolm McDowell. It’s about a lawyer at this law firm and I’m this super genius lawyer who’s also a total germophobe and doesn’t leave his house, whats that called? Agoraphobe. So it’s this really quirky weird character that will be really fun to play.

Why do you like horror movies so much? You mentioned them a lot in your performance.
Yeah, I did. [Laughs] I don’t know, I think horror movies are a good way to have … to sort of get at questions about people and humanity and stuff because you can learn a lot about a person if you put them in extreme situations, and the best horror movies are not about the monsters but about the people and how people would react if put in extreme situations. So I like that they can be a good window into the human condition.

Do you have any Grinnell experiences that stick out as highlights?
It was the first place that I came to from Pakistan and I’m glad that I came here because it is so accepting and it is such a bubble and it was a good way for me to sort of get used to American society. It really was accepting and that really sort of helped me and gave me the confidence to want to stay in the country. People were genuinely curious about Pakistan and they treated me like they treated everybody else. If I had gone to New York or some other big place that might not have been the case, so I’m just really happy that I chose to come here.

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