Every seat, every standing room spot is filled. Even places you would not think people would stand or sit — they are filled, too.
It’s Wednesday night at the performance space here in the back of Hollywood’s Meltdown Comics, where low ceilings and low-hanging light bulbs give it a nautical shanty/basement of your cool friend’s house look. And it is packed to the brim for “The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail,” a weekly stand-up comedy show hosted by comedians Jonah Ray and Kumail Nanjiani.
The show has taken off with gusto since its debut in 2011, when Nanjiani — 36, with long sideburns, active eyebrows and a unique delivery — first moved to Los Angeles from New York. Luckily for fans who cannot make it to a Meltdown show, there are many more opportunities to catch Nanjiani in the coming months; in fact, it might be impossible to miss him. He co-stars in “Silicon Valley,” Mike Judge’s newest high-profile comedy for HBO, which premieres April 6, and he is currently co-producing a Comedy Central version of “The Meltdown,” which will likely launch next fall. He also appears on the current season of IFC’s “Portlandia,” for which he also wrote.
All of these opportunities he considers “dream jobs,” the product of years spent building connections and performing consistently around the country. One opportunity, one scene, would always lead to another.
“I never considered the possibility of this not working out,” he says over breakfast at a Los Angeles cafe last week. “As a defense mechanism or something, I always just thought: ‘What’s next? What do I do next?’ I never thought, ‘What if comedy doesn’t work out?’ ”
Nanjiani’s family was more skeptical at first. Raised in a strictly Muslim household in Karachi, Pakistan, he was introduced to classic American comedies via the video store when his father, a doctor, would bring home a handful of random movies on any given day. He also watched hours of American TV shows, like Mike Judge’s cult classic MTV cartoon “Beavis and Butthead,” which Nanjiani idolized, and more obscure programs that he assumed were hugely popular over here, like the 1990s dramedy “Picket Fences.”
“I remember coming to the U.S. and making lots of ‘Picket Fences’ references because I didn’t know everybody in the country wasn’t watching it,” he says. “People would be like, ‘Why is Kumail so into ‘Picket Fences?’ ”
The plan was always to head west for college, but he did not realize that all of the United States “wasn’t basically the same.” So he and his parents picked Grinnell, a small liberal arts college in Iowa. When he first arrived, his mouth hurt from speaking English so often, as if he had been stretching some brand-new muscle.
It was there he learned stand-up comedy was “a real profession” after he stumbled across one of Jerry Seinfeld’s HBO specials. During his senior year, he worked up the courage to try it out for the first time, performing a thirty-minute set at the campus coffee shop, which was packed with friends and well-wishers. He remembers walking off stage on a high and thinking “I could do Letterman next week.”
But after graduation, the question hung over him: Could he actually try this for a living?
“All my family is doctors and bankers and engineers, and I’m this comedian,” Nanjiani says. The idea seemed exotic and basically impossible. Still, he wanted to try. So he moved to Chicago with some friends, worked a smattering of day jobs and tried open mikes at night.
And it wasn’t always easy. Nanjiani met his wife, Emily Gordon, at a comedy show in Chicago (“she heckled me,” Nanjiani says, not joking.) Gordon, who now produces “Meltdown” and co-hosts the video game podcast The Indoor Kids with Nanjiani, was a source of inspiration and financial support in the early days. She’d accompany him to open mikes — not always the most enjoyable of evenings for a human being to endure — in Chicago and New York.
“My husband has never been lazy, so I wasn’t concerned that it would turn into years of him just sitting in the living room in his underwear eating cereal,” she says. “I wasn’t even slightly worried about it. I was, sometimes, worried about how we’d pay rent, but never about his work ethic.”
At first, Nanjiani very consciously decided that he didn’t want to be “the funny foreign guy,” so he avoided talking about race and his upbringing. “After 9/11, I saw a lot of comedians doing stuff about racial stereotypes,” he remembers. “But the comedy I loved wasn’t that.”
Eventually, however, he felt a push to bring his past into his comedy, and he filtered that urge through “Unpronounceable,” a one-person show that examined his transition from his Muslim upbringing in Pakistan to his current life as an atheist living in the United States. The show — which he initially produced in Chicago in the mid-2000s — scored him representation and brought him to New York City. It also spurred a “long conversation” with his parents, who were by then living in New Jersey, starting a new life themselves.
“The show was definitely about my family and I relating to each other — me turning out different from what they thought,” he said. “That’s something universal — wanting your parents’ approval, how much that means to us. I think it’s a rich vein for comedy.”
That communication divide remains rich. After Nanjiani’s first hour-long stand-up special, “Beta Male,” which featured stories about culture shock and moving to Brooklyn, aired in summer 2013 alongside ones culled from “Unpronounceable,” Nanjiani’s father texted him during the final credits. He simply said, “Saw your program” — with no period.
He has never heard direct praise from his mother or father, though he recently stumbled across a glowing review his mother had written about “Beta Male” on Amazon, and he texted her his thanks. His mother’s response?
“Saw Prisoners. Good.” A reference to the film, “Prisoners.”
“I know they’re proud of me,” he says. “It’s just not in that ‘Western’ way. This whole world is so outside their reality. It’s such a crazy thing that I’m doing.”
Nanjiani had moved to Los Angeles in 2011 for a regular role on TNT’s “Franklin and Bash,” which he recently gave up for the more high-profile part on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” a new comedy about young programmers living together and brushing up against big money in the California tech enclave.
The process of auditioning for Mike Judge, an early idol, was daunting. But Judge was a fast fan from Nanjiani’s audition, even re-tailoring a smaller role specifically for him, with bits of the comedian’s own history thrown in.
“When I was casting, I was looking for actors who you could believe were really intelligent programmers but were also able to play the comedy of it all,” Judge says. “I thought he was fantastic.”
Completely by chance, Nanjiani is joined on “Silicon Valley” by actors and comedians he has been friends with for years. When he was starting out in Chicago, he met TJ Miller and Thomas Middleditch, and he has known Martin Starr since he moved to Los Angeles. The immediate camaraderie added to the ensemble nature of the show, though they faced a very rough patch when a key cast member, Christopher Evan Welch, passed away from cancer halfway through the process.
“We had been shooting, and we’d all bonded so much,” Nanjiani said. “[Welch] was so amazing on the show. It suddenly felt vulgar trying to be funny. But I remember my wife said to me: ‘All you can do is your job and do it well. So he can be part of something good.’ ”
Back at Meltdown, the show is punctuated by surprise appearances from stand-ups Anthony Jeselnik, Hannibal Buress and Zach Galifianakis, the last of whom Nanjiani once opened for on a Midwest tour. This is a space Nanjiani has poured much of his own time (and money) into improving since its inception. It was recently renamed the NerdMelt Showroom after Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist Industries made it a full-time theater.
At one point in the night, Nanjiani asks whether anyone in the audience speaks Hindi, and a big crowd standing toward the back starts to cheer.
“Wow, really?” Nanjiani says, surprised. Though he is obviously extremely comfortable onstage in this room he calls home, occasionally he is thrown off guard. But that does not last long. He quickly moves on, telling a story about using a bidet for the first time.
“My life will forever be divided into two parts: before I ever used a bidet and the Age of Enlightenment,” he says, and the group in the back laughs, along with everyone else.