Having opened his new show at Edinburgh Fringe Festival to rave reviews, winning Best International Show at the New Zealand Comedy Festival, and in his own words, “a clever boy”, Nish Kumar invites Sarah Roberts for a chat about stand-up comedy, crazy audiences and Corbyn’s Kung Fu skills.
So, I wanted to start by talking a little bit about your new show Long Word . . . Long Word . . . Blah Blah Blah . . . I’m So Clever , I was wondering if you could tell our readers a little bit more about that and your inspiration for the show?
The title is a sort of description that I often give of my act; if someone asks me what I do on stage, that is a very quick and easy way of defining it. The show itself is political comedy. My mother called me a left-wing comedian and it’s really an examination of what that means and why people talk about it- it’s an examination of that phrase.
So you say your mum called you a “left-wing comedian”, what made you decide to respond to that with a show about left-wing politics?
I just think it’s interesting. It’s something that people pick up on that there’s a lot of comedians who are left-wing and it’s just trying to examine what it means, and why more comedians are left wing. Does it matter if comedy is not politically neutral and where is the British Left in 2015?
Talking about the British left, do you find there is a difference when you go to areas where there’s more left-wing voters, in the way the audience react to your shows?
No, because I guess the ideal is that people of any political persuasion would be able to watch and enjoy it. What you’re hoping is that it’s comedy that can cross over the political divide. Which by and large it has; I’ve been approached by people who are conservative who have enjoyed the show. I think hopefully it crosses those boundaries.
You talk about your mum a lot in your shows, how did she react when you first told her that you wanted to be a comedian and do stand up as a career?
I think they were sort of surprised. I was quite an academic kid so I think maybe it was a little bit of a surprise for them. But, they’ve got used to it over the years and I think now they enjoy the shows that I do. So they’ve come around to the idea I would say.
What do think you would have done, if you hadn’t been so successful in comedy?
I don’t know. Maybe I’d be in jail, it’s difficult to say.
You also host a show on Radio 4 Extra, called “NewsJack”. Is it different writing comedy for that compared to when you’re writing to perform a live show?
The live show comes together over a period of months, and is then refined and honed. By the time I take it on tour I’ve kind of worked on it and worked it through. The Newsjack stuff we produce has to be written and put out in three days, because it’s topical, you can’t start working on it before Monday. It all has to be written that week, so you have way less time and you have to work quicker and in a more effective way. So it’s a more time-intensive working model.
On Newsjack you have contributing people that ring in and the public can have their say. Do you find it’s different?
It’s actually different from that, the people don’t ring in, they send in material. It’s radio comedies way of finding new writers. So I write a monologue at the top and then the rest of the show is written by new writers and assembled and edited by professional writers and producers. But the sketches are just things that come in from the public. So that’s sort of a different process because it’s much more about performing other people’s material, with the exception of the monologue.
So does that add an element of unpredictability to it? You never quite know what material you’re going to get written in.
Yeah it does and also, because it’s topical, it’s completely dependent on what’s been in the news that week. So it does give an element of unpredictability.
Do you find that also occurs in your shows? Have you ever had any interesting audience reactions during any of your stand-up routines?
Sure, you can never really predict what’s going to happen with an audience. What you try and do is eliminate all the variables. So as long as you’ve done enough previews and enough prep you’ve seen a lot of the different ways that people might react. Hopefully you’re prepared for any of them. But, some people are just insane and you can’t really legislate for that. It’s good because it just keeps you on your toes, you’re alert to anything that might happen in the audience.
Have you ever had any “whoops” moments where you’ve said or done something unintentional and you’ve had to bring it back?
Yeah, a couple of times. I mean, it’s a tricky thing, particularly early in your career you end up in sort of shouting matches with people and then you have to come back round to the rest of the room. The show that I’m touring, it has a sort of political content to it. I’ve found that over the course of learning how to perform it, there are points where you’re going in to some slightly serious areas; it’s very fragile, and you have to be very careful with your approach in to them. If you get something slightly wrong then it can just blow up in your face. So, those mistakes and those bad gigs are all part of the process.
What’s the funniest heckle (or something that an audience member has shouted out at you) that you’ve had?
I don’t know actually. When I was first starting out I did a show with two of the blokes who were in the Inbetweeners and the audience clearly only wanted to see them, and had no interest in seeing us. When I walked out someone just went “eugh, when are the famous people on?” That was it.
Yeah, absolutely delightful.
Do you find that now, because you perform a solo show and people are really there for you, it gives you more freedom with your comedy?
Yeah, definitely. It definitely frees you up because you increasingly have to spend less time ingratiating yourself with the audience and that just means you can get straight into the comedy of it. It’s great.
You’ve described yourself, in other interviews, as having this kind of “minimal persona” on stage. What do you think about comedians that come out and establish a really big personal or are theatrical in their shows?
I think that’s great, I love that. I mean, some of my favourite comedians have a really prominent persona. I spent a lot of this year supporting Milton Jones on tour, and he’s almost sort of playing a character and I love watching that- I think that’s great. That’s the great thing about stand up, that even though at a basic level it seems to be quite a limited art form, because it is just a person speaking into a microphone, that structure is actually very freeing. Because essentially, all the audience is expecting is a person saying funny things, so in that you can go anywhere you want. I find people who do one-liners incredible but you can have someone like Milton who’s performing from such a strange, abstract place. James Acaster who’s doing whole shows where he pretends to be a policeman or makes out that he’s on jury duty, and that’s great; I love watching those people. At the same time, I love watching people where you feel like it just happens to be that someone’s put a microphone and an audience in front of them. But you get the feeling that if the audience and mic weren’t there they would still be doing and saying exactly the same things.
Do you feel that your comedy more fits into the latter, in that you just go out and you’re yourself and you just talk?
Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s not quite there yet, because there’s still an element of me putting up a sort of performance front. But it’s getting there; I feel increasingly like I’m aiming towards a position where I can just walk on stage and start talking and feel like that’s enough. Because you’re always trying to justify the fact that people have paid however much to sit and watch you and I want to get to a point, hopefully, where I can just be in a position where I know I’m going to be entertaining and interesting enough without having to worry about building up. But, like I say, that’s the joy of stand up- you can watch people do so many different things and that’s the beauty of it.
Now that comedy is your full time job and you do a lot of TV Appearances, do you find you have to be more careful about what you include in your routines, in terms of being PC or not being as risky with your comedy?
Well, I feel on TV there are literally things you can and can’t say and that completely depends. So, something like Russell Howard or The Alternative Comedy Experience, which is something on Comedy Central which I’m on, when they’re late night cable shows there aren’t that many restrictions. But, if you want to do something on primetime on a terrestrial channel there are legal restrictions to what you can and can’t say before the watershed and that’s fine. If you’re going out at 8 o’clock on BBC one, there might be children watching so you probably don’t want to be effing and blinding all over the place. Live, I feel all bets are off, I’ve never felt constrained by anything; there’s no policing what you can and can’t say in live comedy gigs, which is what’s great about it. I think sometimes, there’s a slight problem when people see you on TV and they see you not swearing or talking about contentious subject matter, and then they have to adjust when they get into the live shows. But, people make that adjustment pretty quickly.
Because you started performing when you were at Durham University, do you have any tips for anyone at Exeter who is interested in getting into comedy?
Yeah, if you’re interested in comedy and you’re at university now, you have absolutely no excuse for not doing it. It’s a really great place to start, I really believe that, because you’re in a supportive environment with a willing audience, even if they are your friends who you’ve sort of guilted into it. University is a great place to start doing comedy, it really is. You can set stuff up within the uni, you can use your student union as a venue, it’s a really, really good place to start.
Yeah, it’s also cheaper.
Mixing it up a bit now…who do you think would win in a fist fight between David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn and why?
Well, that is an interesting question….Corbyn’s technically a pacifist isn’t he? But at the same time, I reckon Corbyn’s like a guy who’s given up Kung Fu, y’know, in those Kung Fu movies, and he’s like retired from violence because he killed a guy. So I think that if Cameron goaded him enough…
He has an inner dark side.
I think if Corbyn snapped it’d be an absolute massacre. I’m gonna say Corbyn, I think he’s got powers that we don’t know about it.
Kind of like one of those Buddhist monks that’s very controlled but actually can kill you with one finger.
Yeah exactly, because if they weren’t controlled they would kill everyone.
Finally, are there any upcoming projects that you’d like to talk about?
Well, I’ve just done a DVD that’s going on sale fairly soon. But the first place you can buy it will be from me on tour. And another series of NewsJack, more gigs and more touring next year.
What do you think your next round of live shows will be about- any ideas yet?
We’re in that stage where I’ve just done Edinburgh and I’m about to go on tour, and I’m just thinking about what the next subject might be. But I don’t really know yet; watch this space.
You can catch Nish performing Long Word . . . Long Word . . . Blah Blah Blah . . . I’m So Clever across various venues in the UK from October- December, including Exeter’s Bikeshed Theatre this November 2nd. For more info and where to buy tickets visit http://www.nishkumar.co.uk/gigs.php or https://www.ents24.com/uk/tour-dates/nish-kumar.