Nish Kumar’s family still can’t believe he’s a comic, even though it’s where he gets most of his material from, as Jay Richardson finds out.
[Comedian Nish Kumar. Picture: Idil Sukan]
Nish Kumar is suffering “fairly serious stomach problems” when we meet in a café in London’s Soho. You wouldn’t know it from his appetite for discussing comedy, and the fact that instead of struggling home afterwards, he’s off to a gig in Brighton. Stand-up, he confesses, is “like an addiction”.
Speaking of which, Kumar’s father probably wishes that Michael Fassbender’s sex addiction in Shame, the explicit film the pair ill-advisedly saw at the cinema together, had remained their awkward secret instead of inspiring one of the stand-out routines in Who Is Nish Kumar?, his indiscreet offspring’s assured solo debut at the Fringe.
That 2012 hour was also the first time Mr and Mrs Kumar witnessed their 27-year-old son doing stand-up. “They really had no idea the extent to which it was about them,” the Croydon-born comic smiles. His parents had seen him performing sketches at Durham University and with Tom Neenan as The Gentlemen of Leisure. The “culture-obsessed” double act gave an official tour of the British Museum earlier this year: “two bell-ends standing next to the Rosetta Stone, this birthplace of linguistic translation, being idiots … The Culture Show presented by the Chuckle Brothers,” Kumar laughs. “Not really my thing,” declared his mother.
Given that he illustrates a Buffy the Vampire Slayer anecdote with the phrase “Proustian wank”, their “quite academic kid’s” material was to prove a shock to the Kumars. “I don’t think they realised how small the room was going to be, though they did a pretty good job of hiding,” he recalls. “Not as bad as we feared,” his mother conceded, a quote he considered including on his poster. It didn’t make it in the end, but the publicity for his new show, Nish Kumar is a Comedian, does feature a design recalling his hero Jimi Hendrix. “It was always my dream to be a rock star but sadly I lacked the opportunities and basic talent,” he laments. “Also, I’m a nerd, so it was never going to happen.”
Kumar seems comfortable in himself. An articulate British-Indian geek, who at 17 would go to a Ross Noble show countless times “instead of speaking to girls”, he would read an episode guide for The Simpsons “every day, looking up all the jokes and references. It’s a good thing DVD extras weren’t invented when I was a teenager because I don’t think I’d have left the house,” he smiles. Single for a long time, he recently found a girlfriend, “a patient lady” who works in the comedy industry. Appearing in the Fringe play Wardens, about traffic wardens, he admits it’s “the first time I’ve operated behind the fourth wall. Don’t tell anyone! As far as they know, I’m Rada-trained!”
Yet “something weird happened” after last year’s festival. His show’s poster, of him seemingly deep in thought, was appropriated by a “meme” website and spread across the internet with the title Confused Muslim.
Which was only half-right. “I genuinely sat in front of my computer screen for an hour not comprehending,” he recalls. Eventually he realised that one of his reviews, featuring the words “confused” and “Muslim”, meant that if you searched for those terms on Google Images, his face appeared, “alongside a litany of more legitimately Islamic-looking men”. This was the beginning of this year’s further exploration of his identity. “What was offensive to me about that?” he speculates. “Because it’s difficult for me to unpack. I’m not offended that someone would think I’m a Muslim. Am I offended that people don’t recognise me?”
With an “ethnically ambiguous face”, discussing potentially sensitive subjects like race and religion, he says he is prepared “for questions about being an Asian comedian because it’s part of my act”. Even suggestions that he’ll do well in Leicester “because it’s full of Indians” – “I’m glad you’re reinforcing stereotypes, Mother,” he jokes.
He’s faced the occasional bigoted heckle but, he reasons, “at the Fringe, it’s all very liberal and lefty, so there’s not any anxiety. Sometimes, if I go to small towns around the country, people aren’t racist. They’re just not comfortable enough to know that I know they’re not racist. It creates an odd tension. To be honest, the people coming to see me tend to be nerds. They’re my people. I feel closer to the nerd community than I do the Asian. If they’re Asian nerds, well, that’s lovely!”
He dismisses the notion that US comedy is more comfortable discussing race, and says: “I’ve never felt hemmed in here”, although Kumar admits that growing up, he found “black American comedians like Chris Rock closer to my experience”. Mostly, he took inspiration from Jewish-American comedy. “There just weren’t that many Indian comedians on television, nor even Indian stand-ups,” he recalls.
“Inder Manocha was very funny but pretty much the only one, and certainly not on television at the time. So I was seeking the closest thing.” He points to the influence of Woody Allen on British-Indian sketch show Goodness Gracious Me. “I adore Woody Allen and Larry David,” he enthuses. “That tradition is so familiar to me – overbearing mothers, the constant pressure to be a professional and do your family proud.”
His family still can’t believe he’s a comic: “It’s just so outside their frame of reference.” Although his cousin, Rajeev Ravindranathan, is a stand-up in Bangalore. “His parents seem to be more relaxed about it there.” He wonders to what extent pride in a traditional profession is “an Indian mentality and to what extent it’s an immigrant mentality. Because if you look at a lot of Asian stereotypes in this country, you would assume that India hasn’t produced any poetry, art or music in the last 2,000 years. And that’s very much not the case.”
Ravindranathan, who was in the highest grossing Bollywood film of all time, the comedy 3 Idiots, is hoping to bring Kumar over to perform in India, where English-language stand-up is increasingly popular. “Obviously it’s not a money-making exercise. I’m not going to sell out stadiums like [Indian-Canadian comedian] Russell Peters. But I’ll be interested to see what happens, because my act is very British.”
He sees himself playing Bangalore (where most of his family is), Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad, but really wants to perform in Kerala, on the south coast, because it’s where his parents come from. “A fascinating place,” he explains. “They’ve consistently elected a Marxist government and there’s a matrilineal system of inheritance, so women’s rights are in a very different place compared to the north.” Before that, he’s planning a brief UK tour and will appear in the second series of Comedy Central’s Alternative Comedy Experience, curated by Stewart Lee and recorded at The Stand in Edinburgh last month.
“Television commissioning seems really capricious to me,” he says. “I find it incomprehensible, trying to know what impresses people, so I try not to over-think it and just do the best comedy I can. I filled in for someone at a gig that Stewart was on at, he saw me and 24 hours later I was in the programme. It was really exciting. I told him, ‘I don’t know if they’ll find my act interesting enough’ and he said, ‘don’t do yourself down’. That’s probably why I’m not allowed to promote myself.”
Originally published in The Scotsman