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Comedian Nish Kumar
Do garlands wilt and die on the shoulders of icons when their reputations are disputed? As women speak out with reports of their abuse, this is the question artists have had to face in the wake of #MeToo: is it possible to separate a life’s work from past indiscretions, or are they so tightly woven that one facilitates the other? The music streaming platform Spotify announced this week that it is now possible to mute all appearances of R-Kelly, but how does one mute the influence such individuals might have had on one’s work?
This is one question posed by the comedian and broadcaster Nish Kumar in his new show ‘It’s In Your Nature To Destroy Yourselves’, as revelations about Louis C. K. shook the stand-up circuit (and the wider world). Last January, a bit by Rachel Parris — Kumar’s co-presenter on the satirical TV show The Mash Report — received over 33 million views in two days for demolishing the feigned confusion over what actually constitutes sexual harassment, and the ridiculous notion that feminism had over-reached into the liberties of well-meaning men. Despite more whimsical appearances on Alex Horne’s Taskmaster, Mock the Week, and Joel & Nish vs. the World, Kumar’s politically engaged stand-up takes a similarly progressive line through the subjects of sex and gender, Brexit (somewhat unavoidably), and race. Born in Tooting, London, Kumar has Keralan heritage, and we began our conversation by discussing one of his first routines about his experiences of racist abuse in Britain.
‘One of my earliest gigs, maybe my fifth ever gig, is on YouTube. I did a Chortle student comedian competition in 2007, and that I think is still online.
I’d been doing comedy, but as part of a sketch group at university. I’d performed at the Edinburgh Fringe by then, but when we went back for our final year, my friend Ed Gamble, who you will know from every episode of Mock the Week from the last two years, and Tom Neenan, who’s a brilliant character comedian and who works with me on The Mash Report, set up a stand-up night at university and they forced me to do five minutes. And so that was it, my first routine was about a man racially abusing me from a car with a wind-down window. So, he slowed down next to me, and I had to sort of stop and wait for him to wind down the window, in order for him to racially abuse me’.
¶ The compound-embarrassment of having to wait to be attacked...
‘The premise of the bit was that I’m so polite, I will even pause to expedite my own racial abuse!’
¶ Was it hard to get on stage the first time? You said you were ‘forced’.
‘Well, I think Tom and Ed had a sense that I could do it, because I’ve always loved stand-up. When we were doing the sketch stuff, there wasn’t really any scope for it, but Ed was always just like,”I think you have this instinct that you want to be a stand-up”. They were both keen to explore a different way of performing that we weren’t able to do through the revue. Ed, by that point, had already done a handful of stand-up gigs and was already moving towards that side of his career. Tom had done a couple as well, so they were both up and running, but they had this sense that I wanted to do it, which was smart of them. I just wasn’t really able to admit that I wanted to do it till then’.
¶ How much do you feel taking a humanities degree at Durham helped you start out in comedy? Whether that be developing a sense of structure, or feeding a burgeoning interest in words.
‘To be completely honest with you, my degree became ‘Writing and Performing Edinburgh Sketch Shows’. In my first year, I just got drunk the whole time, which was… fun. But then in my second year… I can’t really believe how seriously we used to take doing the revue. We approached it with the rigour of professionals, even though we in every sense a long way away from that tag. It consumed my entire life for two years, and obviously, I’m so grateful that it did. In a funny way, I had a way more vocational experience at university than 90% of people I know. Look, I’m a man who loves to mount and subsequently ride a high horse, but I feel very, very strongly that as university gets more and more expensive, it is going to box out people who aren’t from incredibly wealthy backgrounds. There’s no way I would have a career in comedy without my time at university. And it would be a real shame if that opportunity was taken away from other people’.
¶ Perhaps that membrane between hobby or obsession and career is one now, with the fee increase, at the forefront of universities’ and students’ priorities. It never occurred to you to write or perform stand-up before then?
‘When I was in school, I used to be in the debating society, and I enjoyed writing funny debating speeches; when I did stand-up it just made sense of everything that had happened to me up to that point. Then it was five years of reality setting in’.
¶ You had an office job for a while which — so I’ve read — didn’t work out so well for you.
‘I’ve had so many office jobs! I graduated in 2007 and I stopped working full time in 2012 and worked part-time for another year. So I was only able to be in comedy full-time in 2013’.
¶ You aren’t exclusively a satirist, of course, but much of your output is political. With regard to your material, how did you balance the more quotidian lifestyle with a thorough investment in politics?
‘Listen, there was a real up-swinging in the quality of my material when I stopped having a day job — I think that would be fair to say. I remember my dad saying at the time, ‘What will you write about now that you’re not working in an office?’ I was like, ‘Now I’m free to think about stuff!’ When I was temping it was tricky: you finish work at 5 o’clock and then just pile out of the office. The people I’m most grateful to in many ways are the various people that I worked with who covered for me when I was late, or had to leave early, or was there, but just doing a shit job. Those are the people that I feel a limitless gratitude towards’.
¶ I must preface this question by asking: do you read any below-the-line comments on anything you write, or criticisms of your work?
‘Yeah… I kind of do. I’m not sure it’s the most healthy thing to do emotionally, but you do end up reading stuff that’s written. If you read good stuff, you also have to read the bad stuff — none of it, or all of it. And because I’m so relentlessly narcissistic, I just know that I’ll end up reading anything good that’s written about me. So I think it’s good as a corrective to also read bad stuff. As for the ‘below-the-line’ thing, because of Twitter, there isn’t really that option to just say “well, I just won’t engage with the below-the-line comments”, because they arrive in your inbox’.
¶ Trolls exist all over, and left-of-centre commentators tend to suffer quite badly from online abuse. I was wondering, particularly following your appearance on Question Time, what your reaction was to the response online?
‘It gets easier and easier the more you do it, because I think you become slightly inured to it. In the first couple of TV things where I talked about politics, the reaction was a bit surprising and bracing. But the more you do it, the less angry they get, because as soon as it’s announced that you’re on something like Question Time, they’re like ‘Oh that idiot, I hate him!’ But then afterward they don’t really react, because they’re like ‘well, he just said more of the stuff I didn’t like’.
When you have friends who are women in comedy, whether they’re cisgendered or trans women or women of colour, and you see the absolutely appalling abuse that they’re on the end of, you’re suddenly like, “Ah, I’m fine!”. I think to myself, actually, it’s gross for me to complain about this, because, all I need to do is be tagged in a tweet with a couple of female comedians, and I get a little window into what they’re putting up with. It's not just people saying they’re not funny, they’re putting up with creepily sexual dudes. And then women of colour have it even worse’.
¶ Diane Abbott being the prime example…
‘Oh, my God! The first time I did ‘Have I Got News for You’, Diane Abbott a guest as well, and oh man, it gives you a completely different perspective. That was just in 2015, but at least now there’s a wider awareness of the abuse that exists online. She’s given a couple of interviews talking about the fact that her staff don’t like even letting her go out on her own for lunch because of the very specific death threats she’s received. After appearing with her on HIGNFY I saw the abuse that she routinely has to put up with and it was heinous, really appalling’.
¶ What’s it like to ‘look behind the curtain’ with politicians? Do you see cracks in the suit, for example, or massive intelligence that doesn’t come across when in the public eye?
‘It sort of depends. You do come away with some sympathy for them because you see the limitations that are placed on them by the requirements of their job. It’s funny because sometimes, after Question Time, people who are trying to compliment me will say things like, ‘you were just speaking your mind and it’s really amazing that some people do that. If only the politicians could say that!’ But I’m like, “they literally can not do that”. I’m a comedian, who answers to no one. I don’t have to carry a message, I’m not responsible to anyone for what I’m saying. In that regard, you do have some sympathy for them. The flip-side of that is you meet Dominic Raab, and he says “Nice to meet you, Nish”, to Gina Miller’s brother in the green room, and you think, “Oh, my God. Oh. My. God!”’
¶ You’ve said in the past you were reluctant to go on Question Time because you felt you were taking the place of someone who could really hold our politicians to account. But on the other hand, you’re a free agent, someone that offers a ‘chaos of possibilities’ in terms of what you could say…
‘Yeah, I know what you mean. I’ve done it twice this year, and I’m still not convinced that I’m comfortable with it. I mean, look, the real story is that I said no to it for a long time, and then (whilst drunk) watched an episode of it which featured people I disliked, and thought, “I can’t be angry about a lack of representation (particularly the lack of ethnic minorities) if they’re asking me to do it, and I’m saying ‘no’”. So, somehow, the combination of alcohol and a burning sense of responsibility for my community resulted in me agreeing.
But I sometimes worry that my mere presence trivialises the entire conversation. So the way I deal with that is to prep for it like I’m preparing for my end of year exams. I try and make sure that I’m across everything, and I really don’t want to go on there and seem like I don’t know what I’m talking about. The second time I did it, there was a part of me that wanted to be part of Dimbleby's last season, because I liked him when we did it last time. It would have been fun to be on his “farewell tour”. Everyone who works on the show is really nice, and my experience of them is that they are trying to get the show to represent a broad range of perspectives. But they also sometimes make decisions that I don’t understand. Like, for example, having someone like Jordan Peterson on there. The guy just seems like a crank, you may as well have someone yelling on a street corner for all the “intellectual rigour” of his ideas, “eating beef to promote masculinity” or whatever the hell he’s talking about now’.
¶ He’s given a real chronic slickness to oldschool misogyny, hasn’t he?
‘Absolutely. Those guys are presenting dangerous ideas in a very polished way. And that is extremely dangerous’.
¶ I’ve seen you compère as much as I’ve seen you on the bill — in fact, you picked on my friend and I for looking like 100 Club cronies. How useful/enjoyable has compèring been in your career in comedy?
‘Compèring is completely about being reactive, and it’s something I used to do a lot. It’s one of the ways that I started doing a lot of gigs on the circuit, and it increases the amount of work that’s available to you, because often it’s not something people like doing. I think it improved me as a comedian because it forced me to be really present on stage. It got me out of my head, loosened me up, and also helped narrow the gap between what I’m like in real life and what I’m like on stage. That isn’t something you have to do as a comedian, but it’s certainly helped me in my career. I don’t get the chance to do it all that often anymore, but I do enjoy doing it.
I like fucking around with the audience. There are a couple of gigs, like the 100 Club gig, or the Union Chapel that I will sort of habitually compère at, and it is fun to just have to go into the audience with nothing and try and pull something out. But there are also administrative concerns. As a compère, you do have to say things like “everybody give me a cheer!”, you have to introduce volume and noise into the room. You also have to lay out the parameters of the gig, because otherwise, people feel inhibited to laugh, and they won’t relax into it. Sometimes it feels like you’re patronising adults, but if you don’t tell people not to talk to each other or look at their phones, they will do it’.
¶ Your new tour is called ‘It’s In Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves’ — a reference to Terminator 2?
¶ Film references abound in The Mash Report and in many of your stand-up routines. You’re something of a cinephile, aren’t you?
‘A friend of mine watched one of my old shows on Netflix and said, “my first take away from this is this is a man who likes films too much”. It’s really soaked into me. Also, I’m absolutely a child of The Simpsons, and so that pop culture texture, that ceaseless dropping of references to films, is just part of the way that I interact with people’.
¶ I suppose if you’re doing political commentary it gives the material a degree of currency, something accessible for an audience to latch on to.
‘Totally, and to be honest with you, that is just the way that my friends and I talk to each other. It does just seep in. We do have to start policing it now, because you’re like “we can’t do another fucking Iron Man reference!” I absolutely stand by the first two Terminator films, I think they’re incredible. There is a bit where the Terminator says, “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves”, to John Connor about the human race, and that quote has been rattling around in my head since late 2016. When it came to naming the new tour, I just thought I would definitely call it that’.’
¶ Without giving anything away, what was the locus of this tour?
‘It’s a direct response to everything that’s been happening in the past couple of years. And it’s about Brexit and Trump completely… knocking our confidence. I think a lot of us were probably complacent about where we were in Britain and America and those shocks opened our eyes to the reality of what’s actually going on. So it’s a bit about that. It’s also about where you take refuge from stress. I always took refuge in comedy, but felt I had the rug pulled from underneath me. It turned out that lots of the people that I admired were not great men. The consequence of the #MeToo movement is like, “Ah shit, all these people we invested heavily in, have turned out to let us down”.
There’s also a chunk about race and racism. I thought what Raheem Sterling said over the weekend was absolutely fascinating. About when he was playing football and two guys were screaming racist abuse at him, and people were expecting him to be angry at them. But he gave this really considered response where he said, “Yeah, that’s not great, but the real problem is that people have been casually racist to me in the press for ages”. For some reason, he’s a particular focal point for a kind of print media-based dog whistle racism, and the idea that these things don’t simply happen in isolation is really fascinating. For me, I’m trying to trace that back to a time where I was racially profiled at an airport and how there’s no point in being angry with the guy who’s doing it, but you have to look at the system that’s created that atmosphere… It doesn’t sound terribly fun when I describe it, but it is funny!’
¶ You mentioned Louis CK and your disappointment, disgust even, in male comedy heroes. It is the refrain, amongst others, in Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’ — do you think Gadsby’s work, as a crowning example, is emblematic of a change in the culture?
‘Yeah, I really hope it is. And I know people are more consciously trying to put things in place, because we have no HR department in comedy. So when there’s inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, there isn’t really anyone to consult. The comedy industry is just waking up to the fact that this is going on. It’s only recently that we’ve become part of the actors' unions and things like that. What Hannah Gadsby said the other day, about how she’s fed up of hearing from ‘good men’ was really interesting. That “good men” are able to keep moving the goalposts. Because they identify themselves as good, their behaviour is unimpeachable. And that’s the reckoning really, isn’t it? Because, in the old days, there were sexist monsters who were... sexist monsters; but now there are sexist monsters who still think of themselves as being the good guys. I thought ‘Nannette’ was just a superb piece of work, as well — it’s a really brilliant hour of stand-up’.
¶ Does identifying brilliance in others help you with your own comedy?
‘I mean, when I was a kid, I loved Chris Rock a lot. And now, I particularly love a group of comedians that you could probably guess at. I love Hannah Gadsby, I love Bridget Christie, Stewart Lee, John Oliver, and Andy Zaltzman. They’re probably the comedians that you would guess from watching my act that I really loved. But the thing I love about comedy is that, something that is called a ‘Stand Up Comedy Special’ could be Stewart Lee, whose last special for the BBC was fucking great, but it could also be Maria Bamford, doing ‘Old Baby’ to like six people behind her friend’s house, you know? I saw her live in Montreal a couple of years ago and it was one of those things where, a lot of the time, you only realise that you've seen something momentous in retrospect. I remember texting my girlfriend and saying “I think that was... maybe the best stand-up show I’ve ever seen”. So aside from the satirists, I do like more off-kilter stuff as well.
I really enjoyed Hari Kondabolu’s last special, I thought that was great, and there were a couple of really great sketch shows I saw in Edinburgh this year — Lazy Susan’s sketch show was extraordinary. That was a sort of mix of the two: there were slightly surreal sketches and characters, but it was also quite pointed about #MeToo. It was another great example of female comedians using comedy to hit back’.
¶ Nish Kumar’s new stand-up tour It’s in Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves comes to The Lowry in Salford on 24 February, The Echo Arena in Liverpool on 3 March, to the Hackney Empire in London on (Brexit Day) 29 March 2019.