Hilarious, self-effacing comic Kumail Nanjiani has won Salon's heart and topped our list for the year's sexiest man. Nanjiani, who just released his first stand-up special, "Beta Male," indulged our obsession and talked to us about his comedy, how jealous Pete Holmes is going to be, and whether he identifies as a feminist.
So what’s your reaction to being named Salon’s Sexiest Man of 2013?
I just was surprised. And I assumed it must be a really long list. Does it have like 100 people on it?
Well we only have 10 on the total list. But we pared it down from a much bigger list.
I’m joking, because if I’m on the list then there must be a ton of people on it.
[Laughs] What do you think your parents’ reaction is going to be to this? You mentioned in the email that your mom is going to be embarrassed.
I really hope they have no reaction to this and that they don’t find out! I don’t know how often they’re Googling me these days. But this is something where if they saw it, they’d never bring it up to me. I don’t think that my mom has ever used the “S” word in front of me.
Do you think they’ve seen your most recent stand-up special yet?
Yes, they have seen that, I know, because the last time I visited they kept quoting it to me.
So, they’re generally fans of your work even if you’re somewhat embarrassed by them knowing and saying –
Well, they won’t come out and say it, but then I’ll find an Amazon review that appears that my mom wrote that was really positive. They won’t say it to my face, but I think about [the fact that they watch my work], yeah.
Perhaps most important, how will your No. 1 fan Pete Holmes react?
Is he not on the list?
He was actually not on the list! But don’t tell him that.
Yes! That’s great. He’s going to be very, very happy. But this is something that I can give him shit for.
Speaking of which, you guys give each other a lot of shit. You recently did a segment on “The Pete Holmes Show” about racism from Pete vs. "super-racism" from strangers, like the John Mayer incident in 2009. At some point does it get to you – even the friendly version of racism?
No, for me it is really all about context. So with Pete, he’s never – I know him, I’ve known him for many, many years and the stuff he would say to me he’d never say to anybody else. And I know it is stuff he doesn’t really believe. He just kind of goofs around. We just kind of have our own language, we’ve known each other for so long. This is just part of our language. The Pete stuff doesn’t bother me at all. The John Mayer thing, you know, was slightly weirder. I didn’t know him. You know, when generally people make race-based jokes to me even if they’re not technically racist they’re sort of based on me being Pakistani, or whatever, on Twitter, you know, I block a lot of people who say something weird about my name or something. It does bug me generally, but it is all about context.
Looking at your roles, do you think that you’ve been type-cast at all? At the New Yorker Festival, Aziz Ansari recently said that it’s hard to get movie roles as an Indian guy because roles have to be specifically written to be Indian. Have you encountered anything similar?
It’s changing. I can certainly, certainly see it changing. I’ve found more and more I just go in for parts that are racially sort of vague and if they think you’re the best guy for it they’ll just cast you in it. I just did a part of a guy called Alfred Dalton. I really think it’s changing. I recently auditioned for an HBO show with Mike Judge and I auditioned for these two, like, white parts and I didn’t get those, and then they created a character for me. I really think it’s changing and I can sort of see it changing.
That’s really good to hear, especially in light of recent discussions about diversity on "SNL." A lot of comics I’ve talked to have mentioned that they have to translate their comedy for different audiences; they need to take a broad experience and narrow it down to this white-dominated perspective. As somebody who has crossed different cultures, is that something you have to do with your comedy?
I think, you know, a lot of the business of comedy is taking your personal experiences and making them relatable to other people. And I think the cultural differences that’s just part of it. You know, I have to translate things, I can’t just make a reference to something in Pakistan because they won’t know about it here. But to me that’s not something extra that I have to do, that people who are born and raised here don’t have to do. I think that what you do as a comedian is you take your experiences, you communicate them in a way that everybody can relate to, and those experiences of growing up in Pakistan, or growing up anywhere, or growing up here, growing up in Iowa. And I think for me growing up in Pakistan, I don’t have to do any extra work to sort of translate it. I’ve found that the common humanity of people is the most relatable thing, and even if your stories are very specific about a different place, if you have a relatable core of humanity people will go along with it.
What’s your reception in Pakistan been like?
I don’t know. I haven’t been back since ‘98 and I moved here in ‘97. I don’t know. I sort of hear from my family. I don’t really hear very much from Pakistan. I haven’t seen my name mentioned in any Pakistani publications or anything like that. In India there is a little bit more. I think India is starting to have a big stand-up comedy scene – English stand-up comedy scene – so I have Indian stand-up comedians tweet at me and I’ll see that they have like 40,000 followers or something. I hear from people in India more than I do from Pakistan, honestly.
Does the tension in Pakistan affect what you can and can’t comment on and to what degree --
Yeah, it does affect that. I definitely have to be aware of the kinds of things that I’m saying onstage, certainly. There’s a lot of stuff I would be talking about onstage, I’m not doing because I’m concerned about safety issues.
If you had to give your comedy a theme or a focus – there are some comedians who are more political or some that are activist-y. How would you describe your specific brand of comedy?
I would say I try to make my comedy really personal. I try to tell stories that happened to me, experiences from my life. So that’s what I try to do. It used to be more observational. And that sneaks in every now and then but even then I try to filter it through my own perspective and my own take on it. And I would just say that my comedy is very personal and sometimes political. The thing is that sociological opinions crawl into it because that’s sort of part of who you are as a person. But primarily what I want to try and do is be personal and reveal myself onstage in an interesting or funny way.
What struck me about your comedy is the way you explore race and the way you’ve kind of broadened people's perspectives of what comedy can be. Is that a focus of your comedy?
Well, I don’t really try and do that. It’s not like I try and change people's opinions of what a Pakistani male is like. Maybe that’s a happy side effect that happens. I really don’t try to go into that political agenda or anything. And I do feel guilty about that because I think that people are trying to change the world and they are. What they’re doing, to me, seems to have a more direct result than what I do. So I don’t have any kind of agenda like that. But hopefully when people see me tell funny stories it makes that part of the world a little more relatable to them. You know, every time you see something bad happening over there you just see these videos of these swarms of people, you know, it just seems so alien and different and I hope that seeing me makes them realize that it’s not so different.
As you know, there was a typo in our original email to you. What was your initial reaction to possibly being Salon’s “sexist” man?
Uhh, I would not have gotten on the phone. I honestly would not have even noticed that [typo] and sort of read it out as “sexiest,” which I guess is maybe sort of arrogant. I was like, “Oh Salon’s emailing me? This must be because I’m the sexiest man alive.” I didn’t register that at all.
[Laughs] Speaking of sexism in general, one of the biggest debates in the last year in comedy has been rape jokes: when you can do a rape joke, when you can’t. What is your stance on rape jokes?
It’s hard. I’ve never done a rape joke onstage and I think it’s a very tricky topic. I think if you’re doing it in a respectful manner -- it’s obviously a very serious issue and people have very strong reactions to it. And I think there’s a way, I’m sure, to do a rape joke that is not offensive and not really about mocking the victim or about trivializing the act of rape. I think that is possible, so I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of just joking about rape as bad. I would say it’s a very tricky thing. I don’t know how to do it. I don’t want to be in a position where I sort of – I don’t know – defend myself. It’s a very touchy subject. I can’t honestly right now think of a positive, good rape joke. I can think of bad ones I’ve heard. I don’t want to be the guy to say, “Don’t joke about rape.” But I would say, “It is very hard to do in a way that’s not offensive.”
Especially, with guys it’s really hard, because it’s an experience that ... it happens to a lot of people, but for women it seems to be a consideration. If you’re walking on the street alone at night -- I know my wife has said that she’s a lot more aware of the people around her. And if guys are making jokes about it, they’re making jokes about something that they don’t really have an experience with. That they don’t really have an in as to what that feeling is.
Your wife describes herself as a feminist. Would you identify yourself as a feminist?
Yeah, sure. I mean I’m for all the things that feminists are for, obviously. Men and women should be equal in every single way and nothing would make me happier than if there were as many female comedians as there were male comedians. I don’t know what the numbers are.
Yeah, I would say so. I would consider myself a feminist. I would consider myself someone who truly believes in the equality of the sexes.
OK, this is super-random but it's something I really like asking people: Is there a concept or feeling that you’ve had that there isn’t a word for? And how would you define it?
I am trying to think! Oh man, I told you I would be stuck. Oh this here! There should be a word for it! There should be a word for the feeling that there should be a word for it.
I like it! What would your word be for that?
Let’s go with “despairify.”
A New York Times profile in 2009 wrote about your success like it was guaranteed and predicted your rise to stardom -- and it was correct. Did your success at the time, or even now, seem as obvious to you?
No, I mean nothing is obvious. I’m in constant fear that every job will be my last job. I don’t think of myself as successful. I think of myself as someone who is lucky enough right now to be able to get a good job that he likes doing. Right now I’m very lucky to be getting the opportunities I am. I sort of just take it one job at a time, one project at a time and try to do the best that I can. I don’t really think of it in big-picture terms, terms like" fame" or "success" with a capital “S,” because that can get sort of overwhelming, and I’ve seen people get eaten up by that need to be famous. So it is what it is. Have a job that you like and try to do a good job at that and then move on to the next job.