Kumail Nanjiani’s one-man show, Unpronounceable, plays at 8 p.m. April 11 and April 25 at the UCB Theatre in New York City. (Tickets: $8. Info)
Some reviews of Kumail Nanjiani’s one-man show (which debuted in Chicago under the direction of Paul Provenza, and has moved with him to New York City), while very positive, nevertheless make short shrift of his work by suggesting this is where Nanjiani has relegated all of his jokes about being a Pakistani Muslim. This is far from a dumping ground or a hiding place for hack jokes or stereotypical material that somehow don’t belong in stand-up comedy. Far from it. It’s a very personal and quite poignant work, punctuated by powerful punchlines.
(Photo by TheeErin from 8/24/2007 performance in Chicago)
Growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, Kumail Nanjiani begins at the beginning, explaining his daily rituals and how he first questioned the Koran at age 8. His family followed strict religious traditions, though juxtaposed by the idea that the children would learn English through Hollywood movies. Nanjiani jokes that this was justified as a sort of vaccination, just enough knowledge of Western culture to ultimately resist it. The going wasn’t going to be easy. His dad facing very real threats of terrorism, kidnapping and death because his profession as a Shiite doctor made him a valuable asset in the ongoing battles between Sunnis and Shiites. Nanjiani also talks about the lengths Muslims go to express their faith. Stark images of violent self-flagellation at the ritual mourning of the defeat at Karbala (1,400 years ago) accompany this portion of the program. Nanjiani manages to joke that "it’s kind of like a Pride parade" — yet the imagery prompted one audience member to briefly walk out last month.
He has his own uniquely cultural take on puberty in Pakistan, and the second half of his hourlong performance shifts the focus from his homeland to his (im)migration to America, and specifically, Grinnell College in Iowa. The show’s title comes from a custom official boggled by Nanjiani’s passport (the more things change in American immigration history, the more they stay the same). And, of course, there is the inevitable culture shock, not only because Americans all seemed two inches taller, but also because he still hadn’t ever shaken hands with a girl, or been to a college dance party, and all he had were his Hollywood pop references to guide him or put it all in perspective. He has to figure out whether or not to grow facial hair. His hint: "Shave the mustache. There’s a fine line between Tom Selleck and Saddam Hussein." And he has to figure out how to tell his mother he might not want to agree to an arranged marriage. His college experience ultimately has him asking more personal and philosophical questions, and after a hit song lyric reference you can see coming but still laugh over, he brings us to the present day, with his family close by once again, this time in Hackensack, N.J. "It is the Pakistan of the United States," Nanjiani acknowledges.
Kumail Nanjiani stood out to me the first time I saw and heard him more than a year ago during auditions for Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival, and now that we live in the same city and get to see him repeatedly, I and many other comedians continue to be impressed.