‘People Felt Okay with Yelling Racist Stuff at Me’: Kumail Nanjiani on Starting His Stand-Up Career Right Before 9/11
The origin story of countless comedians begins with them graduating college and immediately dedicating their lives to the grueling world of open-mics and bringer shows. It’s a harrowing task to crawl out of those trenches and into comedy superstardom — now imagine starting that quest as a Pakistani-born Muslim American mere months before the 9/11 attacks. That’s what Kumail Nanjiani faced when he began his comedy career in 2001, and it’s part of what makes his journey so impressive — and so daunting.
With the Nanjiani-starring series Welcome to Chippendales coming to a close, the actor and comedian took time to reflect on his performance as Somen “Steve” Banerjee, the real-life proprietor of the all-male strip show who followed his ambition to a grisly end. Nanjiani told The Guardian that, in order to play the complicated and corrupted character, he needed to find a personal connection to the kind of powerful determination that would compel a person to commit acts as unthinkable as those done by Banerjee in the late 1980s.
Apparently, the experience of being a Muslim comedian who performed at amateur shows in the wake of the largest terrorist attack in American history was all Nanjiani needed to understand what it would take to perpetrate multiple murder plots — he just had to take the phrase “Comedian kills racist heckler” literally. “Even though Steve is so far removed from my life, you can’t judge a character when you’re playing them; you have to find a point of connection,” Nanjiani explained. “Mine was that I understand what it feels like to come to America and try to succeed in an industry that’s not built for our success, to fight against that current every step of the way. That’s how Hollywood is.”
As a brown-skinned Muslim comedian in 2001, Nanjiani faced an uphill battle to win over audiences while deflecting racist attacks from hecklers. He called performing stand-up a “necessary evil,” saying, “I hardly performed before 9/11, and afterwards things suddenly shifted; I found being on stage miserable.” Nanjiani struggled to adapt to the shocking normalcy of hateful hecklers, saying, “People felt okay yelling racist stuff at me, and it kept throwing me. I had to pre-write specific comebacks to take control so I wouldn’t lose the rest of the audience.”
Nanjiani’s early experiences with stand-up and the racist vitriol he received from hecklers has been a oft-discussed topic in his work — some of these awful audience interactions were portrayed in his semi-autobiographical film, The Big Sick, which told the real-life story of how he met the parents of Emily Gordon, his now-wife, while she was in a medically induced coma.
But Nanjiani was not easily deterred by asshole audience members. “It would take a lot of effort to not run away before every show but I felt I had no choice,” he told The Guardian. “There was nothing else that I loved that I also felt I could be good at, if I was given the chance.” He continued to work at his craft, eventually landing his debut special on Comedy Central in 2013 with Beta Male as he took bit parts in film and television that slowly grew into recognizable roles such as Dinesh in Silicon Valley.
Today, Nanjiani is a Marvel-level star with a seriously impressive filmography under his belt, and the impact of those early racist hecklers has been relegated to fuel for a starring role in a big-budget Disney+ show. As the poet George Herbert once said, “Living well is the best revenge.”
“But murder for hire works just as well,” Steve Banerjee might add.