Comedian Kumail Nanjiani On HBO's 'Silicon Valley'
Some comics are launching a new startup — a fictional one for HBO’s new comedy, “Silicon Valley.”
It’s a half hour live action series that lampoons, well, the startup cult of Silicon Valley. The show, which premieres on Sunday is written and directed by Mike Judge, who was also behind “Beavis and Butt-head,” “Office Space” and “King of the Hill.”
The San Francisco Chronicle is calling it not only one of the best shows of the season, but the “best tech show yet” and “a Silicon Valley rarity: a startup that’s a sure thing.”
We speak with one of the stars, Pakistani American comedian Kumail Nanjiani. Nanjiani has been showing up all over the place — late night TV, “Portlandia,” “Franklin & Bash” and Comedy Central.
Nanjiani tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson about his character on the new series and about coming to America from Pakistan and going from studying philosophy and computer science to becoming a stand-up comedian.
Interview Highlights: Kumail Nanjiani
On his character in HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’
“This guy’s a really good programmer, so that makes him arrogant, because of his skills in a very specific world. And then I take that arrogance and apply it to every other aspect of his life that he’s not good at. So I think that guy’s funny ’cause he’s arrogant — about everything, about how he thinks he is with the ladies. He’s not good with the ladies. You know, all that stuff. He thinks he’s cool. He’s not cool. He’s only good at programming.”
On Silicon Valley and startup culture
“These people basically control our lives in so many ways. I mean, you look down at you phone, all of these apps are made by people over there and we really have no idea how that whole area’s set up. It really is about power and money. It’s really fascinating, but they’re sort of coded in this ‘Oh, we just want to make the world a better place and if we make a billions of dollar on the way, then that’s alright.’ … What’s interesting is that a lot of these guys have a lot of money, but they don’t really know how to party. So they’re sort of partying in their own world. They’re approximating what they think partying is. You know, the first scene of the episode, you’re at a really, really big ostentatious party, but you sort of see that it doesn’t quite work.”
On double majoring in philosophy and computer science
“I studied philosophy because I, you know, really wanted a high-paying job, and I studied computer science because it was my passion. Or is it the other way around? I can never remember. Yeah, I did computer science because I thought, you know, that’s what everyone was doing at the time, and everyone was getting jobs on it, and I was like ‘Alright, I’ll do this, I’ll get a job, I’ll be able to stay in the U.S.’ And then I studied philosophy because it was something I really liked doing, and then on graduation I was like, well one I’m no good at and one nobody really wants me to do. Actually my philosophy degree led me to this huge existential crisis about what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.”
On what it was like going from Pakistan to Iowa
“It was hundreds of things. I’d never shaken hands with a woman before; that was weird. My jaw hurt from talking English all the time because I was making, you know, these sounds that I wasn’t used to making all day every day. I mean, it was interesting in so many ways but also I’m glad that I did go to Iowa so there weren’t that many people around so it wasn’t completely overwhelming. I mean, I’d seen America in movies, you know, but you never really see Iowa in the movies very much.”
- Comedy Central: Video clips of Kumail Nanjiani
- New York Times profile on Kumail Nanjiani
- Emily V. Gordon on working with her husband, Kumail Nanjiani
- BuzzFeed: The 13 Best Kumail Nanjiani Tweets
- Kumail Nanjiani, comedian and one of the stars of the new HBO series “Silicon Valley.” He tweets @kumailn.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW.
And this Sunday, HBO is debuting a new half-hour sitcom called "Silicon Valley" about a group of techies living in a house together and trying to make it big with a startup.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) If you want to live here, you've got to deliver, like Steve.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) Jobs or Wozniak? Steve Jobs are Steve Wozniak?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Oh, I heard you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) Which one?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Jobs.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) Jobs is a poser. He didn't even write code.
HOBSON: The series was written and directed by Mike Judge, who also brought us "Beavis and Butt-Head" and "Office Space." One of the stars is a comedian who is starting to show up all over the place. His name is Kumail Nanjiani. He's a Pakistani-American. He has appeared on late-night TV, "Portlandia," "Franklin & Bash" and Comedy Central. And he joins us now from NPR West in Culver City. Kumail, welcome. And tell us about the character you play in "Silicon Valley."
KUMAIL NANJIANI: You know, this guy is a really good programmer. So that makes him arrogant because of his skills in a very specific world. And then I take that arrogance and apply it to every other aspect of his life that he's not good at. So I think that guy is funny because he's arrogant about...
HOBSON: About everything.
NANJIANI: ...about everything, about how he thinks he is with the ladies. He's not good with the ladies. You know, all that stuff he thinks he's cool. He is not cool. He's only good at programming.
HOBSON: One of the things about this show and, I guess, about telling the story of Silicon Valley in general is that there is this disconnect in the startup world where people are making billions of dollars in some cases, but then deny that it's about money at all.
NANJIANI: Yeah. It's a really interesting world. I mean, the way that Silicon Valley is set up is so fascinating. I had no idea. I mean, these people basically control our lives in so many ways. I mean, you look down at your phone, all of these apps are made by people over there. And we really have no idea how that whole area is set up.
It really is about power and money. It's really fascinating. But they're sort of quoted in this, are we just want to make the world a better place? And if we make billions of dollars on the way, well then, that's great.
HOBSON: And there's a little partying it seems like as well, at least in your version of it.
NANJIANI: Well, what's interesting is that a lot of these guys have a lot of money, but they don't really know how to party. So they're sort of partying in their own way, or they're approximating what they think partying is. You know, the first scene of the episode, you're at a really, really big ostentatious party, but you sort of see that it doesn't quite work.
HOBSON: And I think Eric Schmidt - the real Eric Schmidt of Google is in that scene, no?
NANJIANI: Yeah. I think so. I mean, there is a lot of - they actually got a lot of actual, like, big guys to be on the show. I had no idea who any of them were. But when you talk to them, you were like, oh, you're clearly important, but I don't know exactly why. I'm sure you run my life in a way that I do not understand.
HOBSON: Well, how much do you use all of these sites? You have talked about in your standup act some technology and your use of it. But are you immersed in the world of Silicon Valley in your daily life?
NANJIANI: It's one of those weird things where I did study computer science in school. And then gradually over the years, I've become more and more of a technophobe. You know, I look at my phone and I know it can do a million things. I do three things with it.
Already, I think I spend too much time on my phone, so I don't want to learn about more awesome stuff that my phone's doing, you know? I mean, the other day - just yesterday, I saw my mother-in-law doing a crossword puzzle while talking to Siri and asking Siri of all the clues.
And I was like, but that kind of defeats the purpose of a crossword puzzle. But that's how it's become. She was like, well, I won't Google it. But if I can talk to someone and that someone can tell me, then it's fine. So I feel like technology is working to sort of remove that veneer of, you know, you're talking with the computer. It's trying to become more personable, but that's when it starts getting scary to me.
HOBSON: By the way, you say you studied computer science. You also studied philosophy, right?
NANJIANI: I did. I was a double major.
HOBSON: Does that come into play at all in this?
NANJIANI: Well, I studied philosophy because I, you know, really wanted a high-paying job. And I studied computer science because it was my passion - or is it the other way around. I can never remember. Yeah, I did computer science because I thought, you know, that's what everyone was doing at the time, and everyone was getting jobs on it.
And I was like, all right, I'll do this. I'll get a job. I'll be able to stay in the U.S. And then I studied philosophy because it was something I really like doing. And then on graduation, I was like, well, one I'm no good at and one nobody really wants me to do. Actually, my philosophy degree led me to this huge existential crisis about what I'm going to do with the rest of my life.
HOBSON: Hmm. At which point you did what?
NANJIANI: I started doing comedy.
HOBSON: Well, let's talk about that, Kumail Nanjiani, because you talk about something that is pretty unique about you among American comics, and that is that you come from Pakistan. Let's listen to one bit that you do in your standup routine. This is talking about a birthday party that you had when you were a kid.
(SOUNDBITE OF STANDUP ROUTINE)
NANJIANI: Most birthdays in Pakistan, a monkey shows up. All right, the fact that you just accepted that was racist. But it also does happen. But the fact that it makes sense to you, the fact that you guys were like, oh, you're in Pakistan. They have monkeys at their birthdays. That's how they do things. Racist. You guys are accurate racists.
HOBSON: Which goes over very well with an American audience there. But what was the transition like for you to come from Pakistan to Iowa?
NANJIANI: I mean, it was, you know, hundreds of things. I'd never shaken hands with a woman before. That was weird. My jaw hurt from talking English all the time because I was making, you know, these sounds that I wasn't used to making all day every day. I mean, it was interesting in so many ways, but also, I'm glad that I did go to Iowa because there weren't that many people around so it wasn't completely overwhelming. I mean, I'd seen American movies, you know, but you never really see Iowa in the movies very much. So I thought all the...
HOBSON: "Bridges of Madison County," I think.
NANJIANI: OK. I give that one a solid miss. But there's "Field of Dreams." That's the only one I know. And I was like, well, there's ghosts in that movie. None of that's real.
HOBSON: While we're talking movies, by the way, I hear that your favorite film is "Four Weddings and a Funeral?"
NANJIANI: OK, it's up there. It's one of the movies I've seen the most. It came at a very - I'm already getting defensive about it. No, I love that movie, and I've seen it...
HOBSON: You've seen it 100 times.
NANJIANI: I've seen it many, many, many, many times.
HOBSON: What comes up in that category? What comes in second?
NANJIANI: Now I'm going to say "Casablanca" because I don't want to sound stupid. But I think "Four Weddings" was a fantastic movie. Actually, the two movies I've seen the most in my life are "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Casablanca." I've seen those movies more than any other movies. And then "Groundhog Day" is one of my favorites, "Ghostbusters" is one of my favorites. I...
HOBSON: Two movies with Bill Murray. Are you a big fan?
NANJIANI: Oh, yeah. I'm a big Bill Murray fan. I mean, he's the best. And I almost ran over him with my car once.
NANJIANI: Yeah. I was in SoHo a couple years ago. My wife was driving. And this guy stumbled into the street, and my wife started yelling at him. She was like, get out of the street, old man, and I was like, stop yelling at Bill Murray. And she looked, it's Bill Murray just sort of walking around. We almost killed Bill Murray.
HOBSON: Kumail Nanjiani, what should we know about you that we don't?
NANJIANI: Oh, man. I - every day is a struggle to not just eat desserts for every meal. That's something I live with every single day of my life. The first thing I wake up in the morning, I go, I have to make sure that I don't just eat desserts every day. It's a real struggle. It sounds funny, maybe, but it feels serious.
HOBSON: Comedian Kumail Nanjiani. He is one of the stars of HBO's new show "Silicon Valley" which premieres this Sunday. And, you know, we have a lot of people on the show and sometimes I get an email from a listener later that says, why did you bring that person on the show or the music that I went out and bought was not very good. I can tell you right now, I've seen the first two episodes of "Silicon Valley," and it's very funny. Kumail Nanjiani, thank you so much for joining us.
NANJIANI: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
HOBSON: And HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I still can't believe he almost ran over Bill Murray. I'm Jeremy Hobson.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
But that whole dessert thing, it is serious. Get up every day and...
HOBSON: You got to have it every day.
YOUNG: ...try not to eat them. I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.