Kumail Nanjiani watched one Hollywood movie a day to prepare for college. Nanjiani's parents insisted from a young age he attend a university in the United States since his native Pakistan was such a turbulent country. And so the family VCR became his window into America.
When Nanjiani applied to Grinnell College in Iowa, he had an idea what American culture would be like—the clothes people would wear, the slang people would speak—thanks to Hollywood. When he arrived at the small liberal arts school in Middle America, his experience proved more intense than the little TV screen back home had depicted. After all, what really could have prepared him for the first time he shook hands with a woman?
Nanjiani was a minority in Pakistan: a Shiite Muslim. His family followed Islam, Pakistan's state religion, and the Koran with care.
“I never really talked to women over there other than my mom or my cousins,” he says. “When I came to school, I had to interact with female students ... it was pretty jarring in the beginning.”
The initial shock of moving to Grinnell resonated throughout Nanjiani's college experience, causing him to take a hard look at the religion he'd followed his whole life. Nanjiani's one-man performance Unpronounceable, which will be in Albuquerque as part of the Revolutions International Theatre Festival, explores his life pre- and post-coming to America through the art of stand-up comedy.
Comedy isn't something Nanjiani set out to do. After being encouraged by friends to give stand-up a try, Nanjiani spent six months writing 20 minutes of material before performing at a local open mic night. Then he moved to Chicago to increase his audience size.
“It wasn't a decision I made to start doing comedy,” he says. “I tried it and I never stopped. I still feel like I'm trying it.”
Unpronounceable is a personal show, Nanjiani says. It's about his parents, pornography and religion. Nanjiani began doing stand-up shortly after 9/11 and didn't want to do the same shtick as other Muslim comics, so the contents of Unpronounceable were not in his usually lineup.
“There was this boom in Arab-American comedians, and I didn't want to get lumped in with that,” he says. “They were all drawing from such a narrow pool of material there was going to be a lot of overlap and it would be hard to do something original.”
Instead, Nanjiani used general topics and shied away from his past to establish himself as a comedian, not an Arab-American or Muslim comedian. Nanjiani worked side jobs in Chicago and built his comedy career for three years before deciding put the unmentionable part of his life on stage.
“I didn't want to do this show before I felt I was ready to do it emotionally and as a performer and writer,” he says. “I wanted to be able to do it justice.”
Nanjiani says Unpronounceable gives a face to the Sunnis and Shiites being talked about in the news, giving a bit of insight into the mind and culture of Muslims.
“I'm always afraid that my problems with Islam are going to be preconceived as my problem with Muslims,” he says. “I don't mean my show to be the example of the people. I love the people and it is my culture.”
But America is home, Nanjiani says. Last week, he got the green card to prove it.