His standup comedy and his new movie, “The Big Sick,” offer portrayals of secular Muslims that American audiences rarely see.
Andrew Marantz in The New Yorker:
In 2009, on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” the comedian Kumail Nanjiani walked onstage, wearing a boxy black suit and a cordless mike, to do a standup set. The band played a few bars of “Born in the U.S.A.,” an allusion, presumably, to the fact that he wasn’t. The first anecdote of Nanjiani’s set fell flat. He stood stiffly, swallowing hard, his hands clasped tightly in front of his chest. Then he told a joke about theme-park attractions with excessively convoluted backstories. “It’s like a story line to a porn movie,” he said. “I really don’t care what all your professions are. I’m just here for the ride.” It wasn’t the cleverest punch line in Nanjiani’s act, but it received a big laugh and a ten-second applause break. He exhaled audibly, relaxing his hands. His next bit was about the Cyclone, the rickety roller coaster on Coney Island. “The Cyclone was made in the year 1927! Let that sink in. They should change the name of that ride to 1927, ’cause that fact is way scarier than any cyclone,” he said. “And the whole thing is made of wood . . . you know, that indestructible substance that nasa uses for its space shuttles.” The bit could have been delivered in the nineteen-sixties, by Woody Allen or Mort Sahl, with one exception: Nanjiani said the ride was “the scariest experience of my life—and I grew up in Pakistan.”
Nanjiani spent his childhood in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city. In 1997, when he was nineteen, he left to attend Grinnell College, a small liberal-arts school in the middle of Iowa. “I thought, from watching TV and stuff, that America was one place,” he told me. “They only show you L.A. and New York. They don’t warn you about Iowa.” When he got to college, he says, “I was super shy, but I learned that my friends thought I was funny.” His senior year, there was an open mike on campus, and his friends urged him to try standup. He performed for thirty-five minutes. “I don’t think I’ve ever done better than that crowd, reaction-wise,” he said. “Of course, it was full of people who knew me. But it gave me an irrational amount of confidence.” After school, he moved to Chicago and started performing. Michael Showalter, a comedian and director who has admired Nanjiani from the beginning, told me, “Anyone who saw him saw how smart and fresh his voice was. The question wasn’t whether he’d be successful, only which direction he’d choose to go in.”