Representation in Hollywood
Kumail Nanjiani, stand-up comedian, explains why the diverse experiences within minority groups must be represented.
Lena Waithe, Writer & Actor
Kumail Nanjiani, Actor & Comedian
LENA WAITHE: It definitely took awhile to really land on my feet, while I was trying to find my voice as a writer.
So, I don't know. It's true. It wasn't that bumpy, but there were definitely times where it got to be frustrating, where I thought, well, how much longer do I have to wait until someone really pays attention to my voice, what I'm trying to say?
But, it does, it takes time. You have to really find your niche. You have to find your thing, and just keep working at it until, finally, you write something that people take notice of.
LENA WAITHE: I love telling stories. I love writing dialogue. I love creating characters. I love the whole process. I think of it like being an athlete. It's like you don't become Steph Curry, or Michael Jordan, or LeBron James by just doing just enough. You know, it's always about going the extra mile, doing extra practices when everybody else is resting. That's how I really view what I do. I'm never going to be afraid to keep going, even when nobody else believes. I think that's what sort of really guided me through my time when I was sort of coming up and it continues to guide me now.
LENA WAITHE: Mentorship is a big part of my brand, and I think because I can't say I want to change the industry and not be a mentor. It's just really important that I convey how important it is to study the craft, because that's really all that matters.
Yes, there's politics and there's other things that come into play. But if you know your craft really well, it's the one thing that no one can take away from you.
LENA WAITHE: The best advice I've ever gotten is just to be great. Gina Bythewood said that if anybody ever has questions of like how to be in the business, how to make it in the business, how to succeed, how to do well, is to be great. So, if you're really focusing on always being great, and not as a mantra necessarily, but really just giving everything your all and being super focused, it's hard to fail when you're always striving for greatness.
LENA WAITHE: I went to New York to sit with Al and Aziz and all the other writers just to, like, talk story ideas. In the midst of just having a conversation, Alan asked how I came out, and I proceeded to tell them, not thinking that it was that interesting. And I got back to my hotel, and they were like, they both called me and said, we want to do an episode about that.
But Aziz was like, you have to help write it, because it's so specific, and it's your story, and I can't write that by myself. So it was really just a beautiful, perfect storm. I was very open about my experiences, and we-- I was trying to make it funny, because that's what we like to do, but without taking away from story or belittling anything in it.
So when people reacted to it the way they did, it was icing on the cake, because we had already had so much fun making the episode. I felt, you know, really humbled by all of it. Because there's a lot of me's out there, and I think they felt really represented with the episode, which I'm really proud of.
LENA WAITHE: When you're an artist and you're making whatever it is you're making, I think the mission is to walk to it as vulnerable as possible, so that somebody will be able to connect to it.
LENA WAITHE: I grew up on the south side of Chicago. I was in a house full of women. It was my mother, my grandmother, my older sister, my aunt come by a lot. There was a similar thing that they all had, which was a lot of strength, a lot of pride, a lot of integrity, and a nice amount of sass and swag, too. I know a lot of kids watch television, but I really felt like I was immersed in it. I watched, like, "A Different World," "The Cosby Show," "Saved By the Bell," "The Fresh Prince." Even though they were multicam sitcom characters, they still felt very honest and real. And I just kind of got lost in all of those different kind of worlds.
LENA WAITHE: Getting a chance to work for all these talented black women, who were just sort of playing hacky sack with me for a couple years, just being the most excited person on set, and having a really great attitude and there being nothing that I would say no to doing, it was really the beginning of my life in scripted television.
LENA WAITHE: I went to New York to talk story ideas with Allen and Aziz and some of the other writers. And in the midst of just having a conversation, Alan asked how I came out. And I proceeded to tell them not thinking it was that interesting. And I got back to my hotel, and they both called me and said, we want to do an episode about that. And Aziz was like, you have to help write it, because it's so specific. And it's your story, and I can't write that by myself.
DENISE: I'm gay.
- You what?
DENISE: I'm gay. I've always been gay, but I'm still the same person. I'm still your daughter.
LENA WAITHE: Telling the coming out story, I had to step in my mother's shoes as well. And I think it actually gave me a greater understanding of what it's like to be come out to. It was about telling an honest story about two people who are trying to figure something out. And I think that's what most coming out stories are. I really wanted people to see the love more than the fear or confusion, and I think they really got it.
LENA WAITHE: My LGBQTIA family, I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different, those are our superpowers. Every day when you walk out the door, put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world, because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren't in it. I do think the things that make me different are my superpowers, because there is no "Thanksgiving" episode if I wasn't born black, gay, and female.
LENA WAITHE: "The Chi" is about being black and human on the south side of Chicago. It's not about drugs. Nobody's singing or rapping. I was more interested in the middle class, the working class community, because that's what I'm from. When you're a working class person with a dream, it's like a pressure cooker, because every day is a choice to fight the good fight, to chase the dream. I know we're not perfect, but we're not all bad either. There's always these demons that we're wrestling with, and I wanted to show that in a real way. So that way people start to care about these communities and these people that make them up.
I think there's a lot of storytellers that don't look like the storytellers of yesteryear. A lot of young, black, queer, different people that have never been a part of the culture in a mainstream way. That's the way I want to change the business is by helping to usher in new voices. There's still a lot of others who haven't been included yet. And so until everyone is in the room, I think we still have work to do.
LENA WAITHE: I do consider myself a feminist. I've never felt like there was anything I couldn't do because I was a girl or anything like that. I believe that women should be treated like any man on this planet, and it's really about equality.
LENA WAITHE: I don't know if I believe in failures. I think everything is a learning moment, and it's something to grow from. If you have a career where you never fail, it's kind of boring. So I think at some point you've got to take a swing, and do something crazy.
Even if you fall down on your face, it is about the experience. It's about growing as an artist. So I think risks should always be taken. And I think that there's really no such thing as a failure.
LENA WAITHE: All these things about me that make me unique are the reasons why I'm sitting here right now. And so for me, I really am grateful to all the things that sort of make me an other, because I stand out a little bit more.
Everybody has different things that make them other. It doesn't always mean you're a person of color. You're not always a part of the queer community. You're not always female. But whatever that thing is, I think it is to be embraced, because it gives you a unique perspective and a different vantage point than everyone else.
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.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Yeah, I think wherever you're raised you're sort of fed these ideas about how boys should be and how girls should be.
I remember when I was a teenager trying to learn how to walk like a man, I remember practicing and being like, I have to figure out how to walk, because I can't just walk. I have to walk like a man.
In my head, it was like, walk with the minimal amount of flair. You just have to like, get from one place to the other. That's how men walk.
You don't realize how much of that comes from messaging you've gotten from TV shows and movies and just the people around you and just the way that society is set up and all of that.
It's a little surprising, you know, when you sort of start thinking about this stuff and you realize how insidious. It can be.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: I don't think it's my job to represent my people well. I think it's my job to represent my people as being complicated and as being people.
And I think that's the only way that we can have this massive population feel represented. There's no one story that can do the job of encapsulating a-- such a width of experience.
That's what our job is-- is to portray the complications. Not try and smooth them over for some sort of perceived societal good.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Be yourself. Understand yourself and what it is about you that makes you different or unique or special, and be aware of that.
Especially kids coming into this business. It's a very, very difficult business, and a lot of it is dependent on other people's approval, unfortunately.
And so I think what you have to do is understand your self-worth and focus on it, and believe in yourself, and know that what you have is worth pursuing.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Obviously, there are certain things that have happened in our industry that have come to light, that are very obvious bad things. But this is stuff that had been happening, that hadn't been talked about. Now it's being talked about. And these conversations are difficult, but I hope that it leads us ultimately, to a place where people are more aware of what they're doing and more cognizant of other people.
So I hope these are growing pains. That this leads to some sort of breakthrough.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: I've just noticed a lot more ways in which women are discounted in this industry, you know?
Like Emily and I will play this game. If we have a meeting or we're working on something, she'll say an idea. It won't get a reaction. I'll repeat what she said. It will get a positive reaction.
So there are just a lot of different quiet ways in which I feel like women are treated unfairly in our business, and if I had to guess, I would guess in every business.
I think women get interrupted more. I think women get talked over more. I think women get shouted down more.
But I think we're sort of taught to be a certain way, and it's very hard to put a magnifying glass on yourself and understand the ways in which you perpetuate the problem.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Seeing social media through Emily's eyes, right? How different it is for her than it is for me.
We had a podcast about video games, which is considered traditionally a nerdy guy's realm, right? And there's this sense that geek girls have to justify their fan-- have to defend and have to prove that they're legit.
If Emily misspeaks, she hears about it on Twitter. If I misspeak, Emily hears about it on Twitter. If she says something wrong, people will correct her. Like, "Um, actually--" and if I say something wrong, people will remember it as Emily having said something wrong, and they would correct her. So she'd be like, I didn't say that. Kumail said that.
It was so mind-blowing to me. The stuff the women have to deal with constantly, all day, every day. It's-- it's overwhelming and it's like heroic to have to put up with this stuff. Sucks.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: There's so many, like, TV writer's rooms, where it's just a bunch of dudes trying to guess what a woman would do. Well, then get a few women writers in there. It's so helpful. I told Emily, I was like, I think you have a superpower in this industry, in that you can write complicated, realistic, funny female characters. I mean, that's like a superpower.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: The hardest part of doing stand-up 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. I should just leave.
And it's very intimidating, you know? Entering stand-up's very, very scary because there's a click already of all the people who know each other-- mostly dudes-- and they're all friends, and they all know each other. And so you really have to win over this group.
And I think that's pretty similar probably in every stand-up scene. When you go up, you kind of have to win over every crowd from zero.