Kumail Nanjiani, Actor & Comedian
Kumail Nanjiani can squeeze laughter out of anything from start-up culture in HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” to his future wife’s coma — the true story that inspired “The Big Sick,” one of the standout films of 2017. But behind the laughs, he also has a sharp take on gender and race in America.
Kumail Nanjiani, Actor & Comedian
Russell Wilson, Super Bowl Champion Quarterback
Joe Biden, 47th Vice President of the United States
KUMAIL NANJIANI: I think the most important thing that we could do right now is to listen to women. We've been talking for fucking centuries. I think it's time for us to shut up and listen.
I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. Pretty typical family. Mom, dad, and one brother. I watched a lot of Indian movies as a kid, Bollywood movies, but also a lot of Hollywood movies, a lot of them. I really loved "Ghostbusters", and I was like, that's a pretty good job if you can get it, saving New York from ghosts.
The transition was very difficult initially. I was super shy in Karachi, so I never really felt confident in myself or anything. And it wasn't until I came to America and was sort of on my own, and was forced to interact with people and be genuinely social, that I started coming out of my shell and being funny and kind of feeling like a person.
I mean, the hardest part of doing standup is going up on stage. It's so, so scary in the beginning. I remember I'd go and sign up for these open mics and then kind of, before I went up, be like, should I just leave? I should just leave.
You know, when I was younger, I had this list of, like, the perfect woman will have these qualities. And then you grow up and you realize that stuff doesn't matter. What matters is a real connection and all of that. And then with Emily, got the real connection, but also all that stuff that was on shallow teenage Jumail's list. She has that too. So really kind of perfect.
We found this place perfect for a comedy show behind this comic book store called The Meltdown. We kind of hit the ground running. Like the first show we did, I think we had 30 or 40 people there, which is huge. Then eventually we sold out every single week.
I think of how scary it was for me starting comedy in Chicago, and then how much scarier it would have been if I was a woman starting comedy there because it really was such a boys club. And it was very aggressive. It was very locker room.
We wanted Meltdown to feel very inclusive. Emily focused on having a diverse lineup. She wanted to have different points of view on the show, and she wanted to have a lot of female comics on the show, too. We wanted it to be a good comedy show, but also a good place to just hang out for comedians, and that's sort of what it became.
At no point did it feel like here's the big break, because it went from doing standup with these people to then writing for a show, then to being on a small show in a small part, then having a small part in a slightly bigger show. I was lucky that I was ready for each little step. And it wasn't until I went back and looked, and I was like, oh, I guess that show was kind of a big deal.
The movie is called "The Big Sick", and it's based on the real life experience that Emily and I had when we were first dating, and she got really sick and went into a coma for eight days.
Hi, I'm looking for Emily Gardner.
- She's checked in. We need to put her in a medically induced coma.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Coma.
It's sort of a love story about these two characters meeting, but it's centered on that chunk of time at the hospital. And it's a comedy.
Her notes weren't just notes. It was like another perspective on the whole thing. And I was like, oh, this is not my story, this is our story. I think it would be a very incomplete story if Emily wasn't writing this movie. Her perspective as a woman completely changed the movie.
There's a scene in the movie where Emily and I are first dating and she has to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. And so she's trying to leave to go to a diner nearby to use the bathroom.
EMILY GARDNER: You're being so weird.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: How am I weird? I want to sleep while it's sleep time.
EMILY GARDNER: This is normal. Girls go to get coffee in the middle of the night. Have you never had a girlfriend before? This is what it's like.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Are you OK?
We've had so many women point out that scene, like, all the time, being like, oh my god, that exactly is what happened to me. I've never seen that in a movie.
Even though rom coms are generally seen as targeted towards females, most of them are still from the guy's perspective. It's a bunch of dudes trying to guess what a woman would do. Well, then get a few women writers in there.
Here's the big thing. Having more women writers, more women directors, more women executives, more women in positions of power, you don't just do that to make a more equal society. You do that because the product will be better.
- Whenever I give talks to students and I look in the audience and I see the boys and the girls, I would say the Man Space Program and then I'd ask the kids, "Who wants to be an astronaut?" And most of the boys raise their hands, and then I ask the girls, "Why don't you guys wanna be astronauts?" Well it's the Man Space program and we're not men. It must only be for men. As a kid, I was precocious. I was one of these kids that played football, basketball, and tennis, I loved sports. Always going into the woods and turning over rocks and looking at bugs and things and I remember the summer that my mother gave me a chemistry set and it was one of these age-inappropriate, non-OSHA certified chemistry sets. My parents said, "Leland, you'd be a great astronaut." I'm like, "What, me, astronaut?" When I looked at 1969 and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon I never imagined myself in that world because I didn't see someone that looked like me. I had pulled a hamstring in training camp and signed with Dallas for the next season and injured my leg once again and that was the end of my career. I was at a career fair in Charlottesville, Virginia, and this woman from NASA who was now recruiting to get more people of color at NASA. She came from around the booth, grabbed my arm, she said, "What's your name?" I said, "Leland Melvin." She said, "I've been looking for you." I checked it out and went down, I said, "Wow, I might, I'll give it a shot, see what happens."
- [Announcer] Start. Main engine ignition, three, two, one, lift off of Space Shuttle Atlantis.
- When I got to space, we were going around the planet every 90 minutes, looking out the window, and seeing this beautiful, incredible planet. At that moment, I had this shift, this orbital perspective. If you can take that perspective from space and bring it back down to the planet, you wouldn't have this sexism and racism, all these isms, because people would know that the only way that we're gonna survive is if we all work together as one team. I think lots of times, women and minorities don't see themselves working for an organization like NASA. These figures, we're working there, we're hidden behind the scenes and not shown in the media that they were the ones calculating the trajectories to get John Glenn into space and to get Neil Armstrong to the moon, and they overcame all kinds of discrimination, sexism, all these different things in the workplace. I can empathize because people told me that I couldn't be an astronaut. When I think about innovation and creativity, I think about people thinking that they can do things off this planet, John F. Kennedy said we're gonna send a man to the moon and I always say, change it to send a human because we don't wanna exclude women or other people that are not men. It's imperative so that we do get that most creative, diverse solution that we have our young girls be told at a very early age that they can do or be anything they put their minds to.
- I think when we lift each other up to a equal place, like it's a harmony there. Let everybody feel loved and feel valued, and feel wanted. I was born in Chicago, Illinois. My home and my foundation has been my mother. She really taught me how to love by example, and in some ways could be very disciplinarian, like it made me look at women and know that hey, I see a boss right here. My first entry into writing and music was because of my love for poets like Dr. Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni. And I wrote my first rap when I was 12 years old. And really, that dream just sat in my heart from that moment on, and I wanna be a hip hop artist. Knowing that my mother worked hard for me to be able to get into college, she really barely knew I even rapped. It was a tough back and forth, but my mother saw that I truly was sincere and passionate. She just embraced it, and then we came to an agreement like if things didn't pop off in two years, then I'd go back to school. But I guess she put her prayers in, 'cause I'm still working at it. I wrote this story, a love story, about a woman, but it's really about hip hop evolving to some of the gangster west coast to becoming corporate and losing some of the integrity. And when I'm rapping it in the studio, my boy was listening and frowning the whole time. It was like, sounded like a sappy love song to him and it wasn't supposedly cool to do that, right? I wanted to show that to my friends and in hip hop and especially as black men and we should be able to express love and still be able to be yourself and be respected. Selma was a life changing experience for me. I really started to say, okay, I have to identify things that I wanna see change and start walking towards those things. Seeing Ava Duvernay being our leader and reminding me of my mother, but then to learn about the people of the civil rights movement, the women who would sacrifice their lives so that we could live better lives. Okay, I'm a conscious artist, but what am I doing that's activating a change? And whatever I was doing, I knew I could do more. ♪ When it go down we woman and man up ♪ ♪ They say stay down and we stand up ♪ ♪ Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up ♪ ♪ King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up ♪ ♪ Somewhere in the dream we had an epiphany ♪ ♪ Now we right the wrongs in history ♪ ♪ Glory ♪ I decided to put my creativity and energy towards activism. I just took the idea, how this world is missing the equality that women deserve, so I wrote this for saying, man, if we had women taking over the world, the world would get better. I do wanna put hope and optimism and love out there. What I do in my art is always to honor women and to uplift them, and we as men should be courageous enough to do it. I wanna do that with my music and empower women because I just believe that's the best thing, that's the right thing.
JOE BIDEN: Nothing justifies a man laying a hand on a woman without her consent. It's rape if you cannot give consent. It is assault. It is never, never, never, never justified.
Well, I was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and I won the gene pool. My mother was sweet and gentle, but a backbone like a ramrod. She looks at you, Joey, look at me. Remember, you're defined by your courage and you're redeemed by your loyalty.
And my dad was a man of enormous integrity. He used to say, it's the greatest sin that can be committed, is abuse of power. And the cardinal sin of all sins was for a man to raise his hand to a woman. I mean, for real, he taught us that if we saw something, speak up, speak out, do something.
I commuted every day from Delaware. And right after the accident I realized every time I'd leave, my two boys would worry about, is dad coming back? A decision I made was that whenever my children wanted me, I would stop whatever I was doing and do it, without exception.
And then Jill came along and saved our lives, basically. I mean, I had to ask her five times to marry me. After the fifth time she said OK. And my sister, who's a great friend of hers said, what made you change your mind? And she said, I fell in love with the boys. [LAUGHS]
So every important thing my sons, and later my daughter, ever, ever said to me has been spontaneous, you know? It's like riding down the street in my old Corvette, we stopped on a country road and little Hunter turns me and says, Daddy, I love you more than the whole sky.
I'm not sure what I would have done had my two boys not survived, because I knew I had an obligation to them. But it turns out, my boys ended up raising me.
When I started to write the legislation, I was convinced that we had to get some brave women to come forward and take this out of the shadows. It was the dirty little secret that no one wanted to talk about. There was a young woman at a small Catholic college and she agreed to come and testify. She was a freshman and a guy said, I'll walk you back to the dorm. Can we stop in my dorm? I want to get a coat. And he dragged her into the room and he raped her.
And I'll never forget what she said. She said, I ran home and I stripped down and took a scalding shower. She said, I was sitting on the end of my bed crying and the resident advisor-- the RA-- came in and I told her what happened. And she said, you've been raped. She said, no I wasn't. I knew him. I knew him. It allowed other women to say, wait a minute, why should anybody make me feel badly that I was abused?
When I became vice president, the president asked me is there anything I wanted. And I said, yes, I want to take the Violence Against Women Act and I want to bring it inside the vice president's office. And so we started investigating colleges and a startling number came back-- one in five women dropped off in a college campus are gonna be the victim of sexual violence.
I spoke with over 150 college presidents, which really made them uncomfortable. A lot of them didn't like it. I held a town meeting with tens of thousands of students and I said, if we could do anything to make you feel safer, what would it be? The overwhelming response was get men involved.
There was just an awakening and women are coming forward now who have been victimized, because they give hope and courage to other women. We'll succeed when we change the culture enough that no woman says, what did I do? And we'll have succeeded when no young man says, well, it was my right or I was entitled or she asked for it.
I asked young men to take the pledge that they will intervene if they see something going wrong. It's on everybody to change the culture. And so, as long as there's a breath in me, I'm gonna continue to be engaged in this.