New Yorkers familiar with local standup have surely encountered Kumail Nanjiani, because the 31-year-old Pakistan native performs every night of the week. “I’ll write four or five new things and try them,” he says of his regular gigs. “Audiences like those moments where they know you’re doing something for the first time.”
Fortunately, the hard work has paid off: This year, Nanjiani performed on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” acted on “The Colbert Report” and “Saturday Night Live” and plans to make appearances on “Late Show With David Letterman” and Comedy Central’s “Live at Gotham” in August.
“That just gives me impetus to write more,” says Nanjiani, whose friendly stage presence resembles his real-life persona. “I try to be as natural as I can,” he adds. “You can get away with a lot more.”
Nanjiani rarely indulges in stereotype humor. “It can be so dicey and hard to pull off,” he explains, speaking from experience. The comic first obtained significant media exposure for his 2006 one-man show, “Unpronounceable,” which dealt with his Pakistani upbringing and transition into a secular lifestyle. The show did well, but Nanjiani received death threats from angered Pakistani radicals. “Since then, I do take people’s reactions into account more,” he says. “I always considered it to be a personal story, but it’s very political as well.”
After Nanjiani moved from Chicago to Brooklyn in 2007, his career took off. In addition to opening for Zach Galifianakis and Eugene Mirman, he has contributed to Comedy Central’s new series “Michael and Michael Have Issues,” appearing in five of the seven episodes of the first season. Despite his increasingly hectic schedule, Nanjiani says he never passes up an invitation to perform in the area. “I do it for myself,” he explains, “but it’s validated by other people liking it.”
“When I’m not doing a joke, I’ll just stand there quietly. The illusion of standup is that it isn’t prepared, but when you’re doing a long bit, they know that you wrote it. When you just hang out between jokes, that’s something that has never happened before and will never happen again.”