Kumail Nanjiani has influenced the comedy world with his multicultural perspective.
POP CULTURE KID
Nanjiani was raised Muslim in Karachi, Pakistan. Growing up, he learned about American pop culture through his love for media. In 1997, Nanjiani moved to Iowa to obtain a degree in computer science and philosophy. As a Third Culture Adult studying in the United States, Nanjiani had to adjust to Iowan culture. The climate in the midwest was significantly different than what was shown in TV and movies. However, Nanjiani found that humor was universal and enjoyed participating in local open mics.
After graduating, Nanjiani moved to Chicago and started performing complete comedy routines. At the beginning of his career, he had small roles in shows like “Broad City” and “The Colbert Report.” Nanjiani found success with the HBO original “Silicon Valley.”
Nanjiani’s mainstream break came with his semi-autobiographical dramedy “The Big Sick.” The film, co-written with Nanjiani’s wife Emily V. Gordon, details the early years of the couple’s relationship. While Nanjiani’s parents are arranging a marriage with a Pakistani Muslim woman, Nanjiani was falling for a white American woman. The film found commercial success and was nominated for an Academy Award.
Nanjiani and Gordon did not intend to make a political film. They have both ultimately recognized the fact that the film represents a Pakistani Muslim as its main character is inherently political. The commentary on race and religion, shown in a realistic and casual way, was previously unseen in popular American media.
Nanjiani’s early comedy sets were primarily about learning American pop culture. Nanjiani joked about his experience, “When I got to college, having never set foot in America, I knew more American pop culture references than my friends did.” Given that his adolescence was consumed with images of American influence, Nanjiani’s content was reflective.
After 9/11, Nanjiani’s comedic flow changed as the world had shifted. Islamophobia was extremely present and dangerous. Nanjiani was forced into an uncomfortable, and potentially violent, position as a Muslim public figure. Nanjiani initially tried to maintain his routine. This was very difficult as racial heckling became more prevalent. Eventually, Nanjiani started talking about being a Muslim immigrant during his sets in order to normalize his identity. His current routines are a balance of cultural/political commentary and typical comedy. The monologue from Nanjiani’s SNL episode featured a mashup of his current comedy material.