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For Comedian Kumail Nanjiani, Getting Personal Is Complicated

Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Nanjiani moved to the U.S. for college. "I have a very conflicted relationship to where I'm from ..." he says. "It's still a struggle to negotiate some of it."

17:59

Other segments from the episode on June 10, 2015

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 10, 2015: Interview with Pete Docter; Interview with Kumail Nanjiani

Transcript

June 10, 2015

Guests: Pete Docter - Kumail Nanjiani

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Pete Docter directed the new Disney Pixar animated film "Inside Out" as well as the animated films "Monsters, Inc." and "Up." "Inside Out" imagines what goes on in a child's mind that is ruled by competing emotions. When the film begins, an 11-year-old girl named Riley is uprooted from her home in Minnesota because her father has started a new company in San Francisco. This usually joyful girl becomes sad and angry because she is forced to leave her home, her school, her friends and the hockey team she loves. Much of the film takes place inside her head, where there's a control room operated by five characters who personify her primary emotions. Joy is voiced by Amy Poehler, Anger by Lewis Black, Fear by Bill Hader, Disgust by Mindy Kaling and Sadness by Phyllis Smith. In this flashback scene, Riley is in her high chair at the kitchen table with her parents. Her father, voiced by Kyle MacLachlan, is feeding her broccoli. The five emotions in her mind's headquarters are figuring out how to deal with this dreadful food.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INSIDE OUT")

KYLE MACLACHLAN: (As Dad) Here we go. All right, open.

AMY POEHLER: (As Joy) This looks new.

BILL HADER: (As Fear) Think it's safe?

PHYLLIS SMITH: (As Sadness) What is it?

MINDY KALING: (As Disgust) OK, caution. There is a dangerous smell, people. Hold on, what is that?

POEHLER: (As Joy) This is Disgust. She basically keeps Riley from being poisoned, physically and socially.

KALING: (As Disgust) That is not really colored or shaped like a dinosaur. Hold on, guys. It's broccoli.

KAITLYN DIAS: (As Riley) Yucky.

KALING: (As Disgust) Well, I just saved our lives. Yeah, you're welcome.

MACLACHLAN: (As Dad) Riley, if you don't eat your dinner, you're not going to get any dessert.

LEWIS BLACK: (As Anger) Wait, did he just say we couldn't have dessert?

POEHLER: (As Joy) That's Anger. He cares very deeply about things being fair,

BLACK: (As Anger) So that's how you want to play it, old man? No dessert? Oh, sure. We'll eat our dinner right after you eat this.

DIAS: (As Riley, crying).

MACLACHLAN: (As Dad) Riley, Riley, here comes an airplane (imitating airplane sound).

BLACK: (As Anger) Oh, airplane. We got an airplane, everybody.

MACLACHLAN: (As Dad, imitating airplane sound).

GROSS: And, of course, the airplane is the spoon that the father's feeding into the child's mouth. Pete Docter, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the film. I know the film was...

PETE DOCTER: Thank you.

GROSS: I know the film was inspired in part by being the parent of a daughter who was 11 at the time you were thinking of making the film. What kind of mood changes were you seeing in your daughter - competing emotions that she was obviously experiencing - that you were trying to decode that helped lead to the movie?

DOCTER: Yeah, well, we were lucky in the case of our daughter. She was pretty tame compared to some stories I've heard. But she definitely went from being kind of a goofy, high energy, little kid to being much more kind of quiet and laid-back. And, you know, I sort of realized the days of playing with dolls and trains on the floor were over. And that's kind of what led into this movie.

GROSS: What gave you the idea of personifying five emotions - joy, anger, sadness, fear and disgust - and having them at the controls in the control room of the child's brain?

DOCTER: Yeah, we called it headquarters, which is where they work. And the idea kind of started with me just thinking about what would be fun to see in animation, you know? What have I not seen that we could do...

GROSS: I'm going to stop you for a second. I just - I shouldn't tell you this 'cause it shows how stupid I am. I just got the joke of headquarters 'cause it's, like - in the film, it's, like, they're at headquarters. And, of course, it's, like, the headquarters of the brain. But, right, it's headquarters - got it. Thank you.

DOCTER: Right (laughter).

GROSS: I hope your audiences are smarter than I was with that one.

DOCTER: There's a lot of layers in this movie, too.

GROSS: Yeah.

DOCTER: Yeah, we - I was just thinking about, like, OK, I've seen a lot of movies about all these different subjects, including - for some reason, I got thinking about the human body and realizing, well, I've seen, like, traveling through the bloodstream and into the, you know, stomach and things. Well, what if we did this in the mind as opposed to the brain? So instead of blood vessels and dendrites, what if it was consciousness and dream production? And that would allow us to have characters that represent emotions. And that felt like, man, that's exactly what animation does best - strong, opinionated, caricatured personalities. And that just got me excited.

GROSS: You boiled it down to joy, anger, sadness, fear and disgust. It seems to me if you were Jewish, and perhaps Catholic, guilt would have been a character.

DOCTER: (Laughter) I'm not actually sure if guilt is an emotion. In fact, that was - at the very beginning of this process, we realized, man, we really don't know very much about the subject. So we better do some research and we started looking around online. We found some scientists think that there are basically three emotions. Others went up to 27. Others had 16. Some were in the middle. So we were kind of left with no definitive answer to our basic question - how many are there? Dr. Paul Ekman, who worked in San Francisco - still does - which is where Pixar Animation Studios is. He had, early in his career, identified six. That felt like a nice, manageable number of guys to design and write for. It was anger, fear, sadness, disgust, joy and surprise. And as I was sort of doodling, I was thinking, surprise and fear - probably fairly similar, so let's just lose surprise. And that left us with five.

GROSS: So part of what Paul Ekman does is, like, decode facial expressions to try to understand what a person is feeling and how it's expressed.

DOCTER: Yes.

GROSS: Did you study his decoding of faces expressing emotion?

DOCTER: Well, that's actually how I got to know his work because back on "Toy Story" I was a supervising animator on the first "Toy Story" and read about his work in identifying these basic facial expressions. It was interesting 'cause he said there are so many muscles in the face that could be used in combination with each other that just are not. And that's because basic human emotion is sort of hardwired into us as people. And so he - some of his early work was traveling to Papua, New Guinea, to find tribes that had no outside contact at all, show them photographs of expressions and tell them stories and say, OK, if your mother died, what kind of face would you make? And he found that they identified the same expressions that we would here in the United States. And so it's fairly worldwide. That was pretty fascinating and a little revolutionary at that time, apparently.

GROSS: Describe how you drew Joy, who's voiced by Amy Poehler.

DOCTER: Joy we thought of as kind of an explosion or a spark. You know, she's like an outwardly directed person who's just always moving, and she's full of energy. And even the way she looks - if you look at her up close - and this is true of all the emotions in the film. We wanted them to look not like little people. So they're not made of skin or flesh. They're made out of energy. And so they have these tiny little particles that sort of roil and move and - that we felt was a good way of representing that.

GROSS: And Mindy Kaling is the voice of Disgust. And I've been trying to imagine what it was like for her to get the call saying, we'd like you to personify disgust.

DOCTER: Yeah. I know she (laughter) - we kind of worried about that one. We did say, OK, it's disgust - she's disgusted. She's not disgusting. And that kind of assuaged her fears a little bit. But she came in. We gave her a pitch. She was actually pretty key to decoding some elements of the story. We were really wrestling with these two different themes of growing up and then embracing sadness, which we felt were kind of separate. But I don't know. I had an intuition that they could somehow be connected. I pitched her the story. And as I turned around - 'cause I was pitching kind of off some visuals on the computer - I turn around and she's crying. And I thought, oh, no, what? Did she get, like, a bad text or something? You know, she was - really responded emotionally. And she said, I'm sorry. I just think it's really beautiful that you guys are making a story that tells kids that it's difficult to grow up and it's OK to be sad about it. And that - we were like, quick, write that down, you know, 'cause that was really what we were trying to say.

GROSS: It is the kind of moral of the story that if you cut off sadness, you're not going to feel anything when you're sad. And that that's the worst thing of all. And that sadness is the way to be able to communicate what you're really feeling with other people.

DOCTER: Yeah. One of the other experts we consulted with - this guy named Dacher Keltner. He was big on sadness as a community bonding - I think is the word he used. It's, like, you know, if you're sad, it's a way of connecting with other people. And we - a lot of times we sort of feel embarrassed by being sad, and we go off by ourselves to hide and cry by ourselves. But, really, it's a way of re-establishing relationship.

GROSS: Well, people have discouraged us from being sad. It's, like, oh, smile. Oh, cheer up. And I think it's often that way with children. I know when I was a child and I wasn't smiling and I was walking down the street, there would always be a stranger coming up to me saying, come on, smile. And I thought, like, get out of my face, you know (laughter)? Like, leave me alone. But...

DOCTER: It is one of those weird social things. You're right. Even as parents we say, oh, don't be sad. You know, come here, we'll distract you with some ice cream or something. And I don't know if that's always the best thing. But it's certainly - you understand why people do it.

GROSS: So did you imagine, when you were making this film, psychologists and parents using the film to explain to children what their own emotions were and to tell - to help tell children, like, it's OK to be sad. Tantrums aren't very helpful (laughter). We know you have anger, but, you know, you have to kind of mix that with the other emotions.

DOCTER: Well, not really...

GROSS: So did you think of this as a kind of, like, teaching film?

DOCTER: (Laughter) No. In fact, I know, like, for a lot of people that's kind of a bad word, right? You don't want to have a lecture. We were really - as I said, the thing that attracted me to it was the fun and the chance to take people places that everyone was sort of familiar with on one level, but had never seen visualized. You know, things that we get to explore in the film, like why songs get stuck in your head and long-term memory and what was that weird dream I had last night? Where did that come from? You know, so this was our chance to really bring all that stuff to life and explore it in a fun way. However, as we went into it, I was really, at certain points, almost felt like I couldn't move forward because I really wanted to make sure that the science was as correct as it could be because, you know, I think - I don't know. You just don't want to make a film that scientists go to and roll their eyes at, you know?

On the other hand, this is the mind. There's a lot of different ways to kind of slice that and look at it, so it was a tricky film to balance. In the end, I think you're right. There are - we've already had discussions with people who feel as though the film has really helped them. There's one story that's pretty amazing. A guy who we work with - and we had screened the film for our friends and family along the way just to make sure it was working and it wasn't too complex, you know, especially for younger kids. Luckily, they not only got it, but this guy came back the next day and he said, I got to tell you this story. My son has been taking swimming lessons. And he's been afraid to dive off the diving board. It's just too high, and he's scared, so he hasn't been able to do it. Yesterday, after seeing the film, we went to lessons, and he dove off the diving board. And everybody said, yeah, that's great. How did you do it? And he said, well, I just felt like fear had been driving, and I asked him to step aside. And for us, we were sort of blown away. Not only did he get the film, but it was actually making an impact in his life. That was, like, the ultimate receipt.

GROSS: That's really lovely. If you're just joining us, my guest is Pete Docter, and he directed and co-wrote the new Pixar Disney movie "Inside Out." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Pete Docter. He directed and co-wrote the new Disney Pixar movie "Inside Out." And it's an animated film that goes into the mind of an 11-year-old child where Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness are all at headquarters - the control room in her brain - kind of competing to control her emotions. And it also imagines what goes on in your mind when you're making a memory, storing the memory, deleting a memory. And that's - that must have been a very challenging part for you because, like, the brain is really a lot of neurons and electricity (laughter) and electrical currents and stuff. And it's not like there's a storage room with memories in it. But, of course, you create a storage room with memories. And the memories - each memory is, like, an image encased in a glass-like ball that can be broken if you're not careful. It can roll away. It can - things can happen to it. You have to be careful with your memories.

DOCTER: That's right.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about figuring out - if you're trying to kind of make an analogy or a metaphor out of memory, how are you going to do it so that children and adults will both not only comprehend it but feel like it's accurate in some metaphorical way?

DOCTER: Yeah. The way real memories work, from what we understand, is really complex (laughter). And it's an interconnection of different things and redundancy in the brain. So the idea of a memory existing as a little snow globe - the way we represent it in the film - is actually not scientifically accurate at all. However, for story reasons, we needed to represent them in certain ways. One of the things that sort of blew me away that I had didn't know when we started is that memories are completely susceptible to change. And this is, you know, one of the many reasons why certain people are trying to get it taken out - eyewitness testimony in court cases because it's very unreliable. Every time you recall a memory, you're basically making another copy of it and, at that same point, it is susceptible to new changes and adaptations. So, you know, if you remember from when you were, you know, in second grade and there was Christmas and you got a present from your grandfather, and your mom was wearing a red dress, that may or may not all have happened. It might have been introduced slowly over the course of the years as you recall this memory over and over. So that was a very cool but complex idea that we thought about representing in the film but could not find a way to make it work. We actually needed the memory - if you see the film - as a very different kind of a plot device of revealing some information to our main character. So we chose to represent it as these sort of beautiful, little snow globes, which kind of weirdly that's the way we think of memories - at least most of the folks that we talked to. You think of these memories as being very pure and absolute and unchanging. That's not actually real life.

GROSS: Yes. And that's why in your film if Sadness touches one of the memories, the memory turns blue and is forever changed by the sadness it's been touched by...

DOCTER: Yeah, well, now people...

GROSS: ...Which gets to exactly what you're talking about, that memories change over time as we recall them.

DOCTER: Though that actually is scientifically accurate. If you were feeling sad right now and you recall a sad memory - or a very happy memory from the past, it will be tinged with more sadness based on your current feeling. So we felt like that was actually on solid scientific ground (laughter).

GROSS: There is sadness in this story in "Inside Out" because the 11-year-old girl is forced to move from her home in Minnesota. Her father - I think her father has a startup, and it's in San Francisco. So the family, you know, this 11-year-old and her mother and father have to move to San Francisco. And she's leaving behind the house that she loves, the little lake she loves to skate on, her hockey team, her friends. And she - they move to San Francisco. The house is kind of, you know, run-down. And she's just, like, so sad at having left everything behind. And I think that's such a scary thought for a parent. You know, that the parent is making the change that has to be made, but it's going to create such sadness in the child.

DOCTER: Yeah. Yeah, we were looking for a way to represent adulthood and the passing into adulthood. And I think, for me, personally, and a lot of the folks that I work with, childhood is kind of a sacred, special kind of point in time that has a real joy and purity to it. And we sort of long on a daily basis to reach back and kind of grab onto that in some way. So this idea of moving seemed like a good way to sort of represent that metaphorically. It also is something for me personally. When I was in fifth grade - so about 11 - my folks moved us to Denmark. And so not only did I have all new friends and all new surroundings, I didn't even understand what they were talking about, which was very difficult and kind of started me, I think, on my path to animation. It was a lot easier to draw people than to talk and interact with them, so...

GROSS: Why did your family move to Denmark?

DOCTER: My father was working on his Ph.D. on Danish choral music - the Danish choral music of Carl Nielsen - so over there to do research.

GROSS: So were you very sad?

DOCTER: I remember kind of falling into this melancholy of - yeah - and Denmark, as a country, there's not a lot of sun. I think there's, like, statistically, like, 20 days a year that are sunny. The rest of the time it's cloudy. And it kind of has that feeling, for me, in being in fifth grade - of course, it's very beautiful. You go back now and I see it in a totally different light. But at the time, it was kind of a dark - I remember kind of feeling as though I was walking in slow motion a little bit. I think in part because that's the age when you're suddenly aware of all the social responsibilities and connections and wait, am I wearing the right clothes? Is this cool? Did I say the wrong thing? You know, up to that point you just kind of blissfully go through your life and things are relatively simple it seems.

GROSS: Did you adapt?

DOCTER: Yeah, I think by the end - I mean, weirdly, like - I remember coming home with splitting headaches for maybe three weeks where I guess my brain was trying to figure out what they were talking about. And by the end of the year I was fairly fluent, although, of course, it's all gone now (laughter). So, you know, I think by the end of the time, if we had stayed longer, I probably would have been fine. Then we moved back to Minnesota and then I was out of step with those kids, so it was kind of a double whammy.

GROSS: In the movie, it's the father's job - the father's new startup - that takes the family to San Francisco and makes 11-year-old Riley say goodbye to everybody, you know, all the friends she loves and the school she knows and everything. And in your life it was your father's doctoral work in Denmark that took you away from your home. You're a father now. And I'm sure you relate to the father as well as to the child in the film. The father who has to move the family away and also the father, who, as soon as they get to their new home, his cellphone rings and it's like OK, the backer for his startup, who he was supposed to meet with later in the week, is there now. And so he's got to leave right away to get off to this meeting. And the child feels totally abandoned by Daddy. Do you feel kind of weird when in the past when your kids were young and you had to say goodbye to them or not say hello to them because you had to do your animation meeting or whatever, that here you were - are working really hard to do wonderful entertainment for children and that's why you can't be with your children?

DOCTER: Yeah, to bring families together I need to go away.

GROSS: Exactly.

DOCTER: Goodbye kids.

(LAUGHTER)

DOCTER: Well, we try to - we definitely try to have a balance. And I think things have gotten a lot better at Pixar. When we did "Toy Story," that was an all hands on deck situation that really was time intensive. Since then we've tried to regulate things so that you at least get to go home at night and not have to pull all-nighters and see them on weekends and things. So, you know, like everything in life, it's a balance.

GROSS: My guest is Pete Docter, the director and co-writer of the new Disney Pixar animated film "Inside Out." After we take a short break, I'll talk more with Docter, and we'll hear from comic Kumail Nanjiani, one of the stars of the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Pete Docter, who directed and co-wrote the new Disney Pixar animated film "Inside out." He also directed "Monsters, Inc." and "Up." Much of "Inside Out" takes place inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl; a mind ruled by five competing emotions - joy, anger, fear, sadness and disgust. Sadness takes on a more prominent role after the family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco and the girl misses her old home and her friends. So I've read that there was a point in which you were supposed to show part of the film to John Lasseter, the founder of Pixar, but you had nothing you really wanted to show him yet. So you described what you were planning to do, but you had nothing to show and you felt like a real failure at that point.

DOCTER: Yeah.

GROSS: So how did you handle that emotionally? Like, what got you through that feeling of maybe this isn't going to work?

DOCTER: Well, the film initially - we had decided to pair joy with fear because I don't know about you - for me fear was a major motivator in junior high. So we thought there's probably some good stuff there - some good humor and identifiable stuff. As the film went on, we had developed all these great scenes that were really funny, but in the third act, it wasn't adding up to anything. And, you know, you want Joy, now having learned her lesson, to go back to headquarters to do something that she would never have been able to do in the first act, but what exactly is that? I don't know. And at this time, we had spent almost three years working on the film. And I knew that there was an upcoming screening where not only were we going to show it to everybody else at the studio, we also needed to move into production. So there was kind of this really heavy pressure that whatever we were going to show had to be good enough to move into actual production. And yet I was sitting there in editorial going this is not working. I'm a failure. I mean, I've - these other films were flukes. I don't know what I'm doing. I should just quit. What would I miss? I'd miss my house and I'd miss going to work. But I think the thing that I realized I would miss most is probably similar to everybody, which is your friends. And I thought about it and I realized the friends that I feel the deepest connection with are the friends that, yeah, I've had good times with, but they're also people that I've been angry with, that I've had sadness alongside them, I've been scared for them. And it sort of hit me that the very subject matter of the film that I'm dealing with is the key to the most important thing in our lives, and that's our relationships. And so we had done all this research showing the job of each individual emotion, you know, fear keeps you safe. It deals with uncertainty. Anger is about fairness. If it feels that you're getting ripped off or taken advantage of, that's when anger comes up. Sadness deals with loss. And I suddenly had this new revelation. It felt like to me that those are all true, but the real, deeper reason we have emotions is to connect us together. And that felt big to me. And I suddenly had an idea that we needed to get fear out of there and sadness connected with joy. And I ran back. I called producer Jonas Rivera and Ronnie del Carmen, who is our co-director, and we met that Sunday night. And I kind of went through this whole spiel with them, and I was kind of expecting them to sink into their chairs and, you know, bury their hands in their faces 'cause the pressure was pretty great. Instead, they totally lit up. And so the three of us went to John and to Ed and the rest of the - we sort of call it the brain trust, you know, other filmmakers. So the cool thing was they very quickly understood why - and were totally on board - why this new thing was an improvement. And so they got on board and we moved on. It was a scary moment, but it was the right call in the long run.

GROSS: Can I point out that I think the real hero of the story you just told was fear? Because - seriously, it was fear of failure that got you to realize that sadness had to be more of a main character in the movie.

DOCTER: That is true. That is true. Maybe there's another movie in there where fear is the hero.

GROSS: Let's pay our respects to fear.

DOCTER: Yeah.

GROSS: Let's give fear its props.

DOCTER: It's a great motivator.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Pete, you know, you said that, like, fear was such an important motivator when you were in junior high school. Isn't it still?

DOCTER: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. More that I'd probably care to admit (laughter). And in part that's good but then, like any emotion, and this is something we learned from the research as well, there are positive and negative aspects to all of these.

GROSS: Yes. You haven't had a film that failed. But - and I hope you never do. But I always imagine what it's like when I do see a movie that's pretty bad and I think somebody spent years of their life working on this and it's not good. Imagine how they must feel. No one's going to go see it.

DOCTER: Oh, I know and it's...

GROSS: Do you live in fear of that - that someday you'll spend, like, five years making an animated film and it won't be good and that's, like, five years of your life?

DOCTER: Absolutely, you know? But the truth is, at some point, our films - almost every single one of them are really bad. And it's largely hats off to John Lasseter and Ed Catmull who have set up a system whereby they're expecting it. They're expecting us to make mistakes, and they've set up a process that allows us to correct for that and do it again and iterate. So I think that's a real key to the films that we've made.

GROSS: What is that process?

DOCTER: Well, what we do is we have a script, of course, but for us, writing is also like storyboarding. It's drawing. And so we will cut all of those drawings together with music, sound effects and dialogue. And we screen this kind of stick-figure version of the film. So we can sit with Lee Unkrich and Andrew Stanton, and all the other folks, and experience what the film is going to be like. And then we go away into a room and we talk about what worked and what didn't. And then we take all of those findings and we do that whole process again. And it's about a three-month process every screening. And that way we have seven or eight chances at the film before we have to actually build the models, build the sets, do the animation and all of that. So it's a - I think that's a real key to the way we make films.

GROSS: So now that the movie is opening, are you going to see "Inside Out" with audiences and see what the reaction is like in just, like, a theater of random people?

DOCTER: Yeah. Oh, yeah. That's one of the real joys for me is going out and watching it. And usually I'm not watching the screen. I'm kind of sitting and looking off to the side, spying on people to see what they react to' cause it's - as Joe Ranft used to say, you know, animation is like telling a joke and waiting for three years to see if anyone laughs.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's great. Pete Docter, thank you so much for talking with us.

DOCTER: Thank you, it was fun.

GROSS: Pete Docter directed and co-wrote the new Disney Pixar animated film "Inside Out." Coming up, we hear from comic Kumail Nanjiani, one of the stars of the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley." This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley," about a group of computer programmers trying to launch a company, ends its second season Sunday. Our guest is one of its stars, Kumail Nanjiani, who is also a comic. He was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and moved to the U.S. to attend college in Iowa. He stayed in the states, pursuing his career in standup comedy. His 2013 Comedy Central special "Beta Male" is available as an album and can be seen on the Comedy Central website. The second season of his Comedy Central series "The Meltdown With Jonah And Kumail" premieres on June 30.

Our producer Ann Marie Baldonado has been following Nanjiani's career and recorded an interview with him. They started with a clip from earlier in the current season of "Silicon Valley." The employees of the fledgling startup are fighting off competition and a lawsuit from a Google-like company while struggling to raise enough money to stay afloat. Here, Dinesh, played by Kumail Nanjiani, is talking to two other employees, played by Martin Starr and Zach Woods, about their financial problems.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SILICON VALLEY")

KUMAIL NANJIANI: (As Dinesh Chugtai) I just donated $5,000 to my cousin Wajid's Kickstarter campaign. He's trying to get an app called Bro off the ground.

ZACH WOODS: (As Jared Dunn) Bro.

NANJIANI: (As Dinesh Chugtai) It's the messaging app that lets you send the word bro to everyone else who has the app.

MARTIN STARR: (As Bertram Gilfoyle) So it's exactly like the Yo app.

NANJIANI: (As Dinesh Chugtai) Yes, but less original.

STARR: (As Bertram Gilfoyle) Why don't you just cancel your credit card? That way Kickstarter can't collect your pledge.

NANJIANI: (As Dinesh Chugtai) Well, I would love to, but he looks up to me. I was always, like, the cool cousin of the family, you know what I mean? So I can't...

STARR: (As Bertram Gilfoyle) Wait, did you just say you were the cool cousin?

NANJIANI: (As Dinesh Chugtai) Yeah.

STARR: (As Bertram Gilfoyle) Please explain.

NANJIANI: (As Dinesh Chugtai) Well, when we were kids, I was the one getting good grades. I was the one who was planning for my future. I would bring gifts for my teachers 'cause they worked so hard, you know, cool stuff. He was always getting in trouble. He got caught smoking opium in the tool shed. He crashed my uncle's motorbike.

STARR: (As Bertram Gilfoyle) And you think you're the cool one.

NANJIANI: (As Dinesh Chugtai) Yeah, it's different in Pakistan.

STARR: (As Bertram Gilfoyle) I've never been, but I know it isn't.

ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: That's a scene from this season of "Silicon Valley." Kumail Nanjiani, welcome to FRESH AIR.

NANJIANI: Thank you for having me.

BALDONADO: Now, I read that you majored in computer science and philosophy when you were in college. Did you ever think that programming or being in the tech world was something that was going to be in your future?

NANJIANI: Yeah, I thought that's what I was going to be doing. And now I'm sort of doing it in a very sideways, not real, fake, fictional way. But yeah, I mean, when I graduated college I sort of assumed my life was going to be working with computers. The problem was I wasn't very good at it and I wasn't interested in it at all. So I, you know, sort of hit 20 and now I have to decide what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. So it was - I was really panicking. And I was lucky that I found comedy when I did.

BALDONADO: You actually host a podcast called "The Indoor Kids" about video games. And on your Comedy Central special "Beta Male" you talk about video games and, in particular, you talk about the game "Call Of Duty," which is, you know, one of those very popular military shooting games. And you said, you know, you're a little bit uncomfortable with those kind of games but you do find them to be fun. And in a recent version of the game, one of the areas, or one of the boards, is called Karachi, the city you grew up in. This also made you uncomfortable, but you still wanted to play it. And here you are talking a little bit about the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "BETA MALE")

NANJIANI: OK, so the language we speak in Pakistan is Urdu. That's the name of the language we speak, Urdu. But all the street signs in Karachi in "Call Of Duty" are in Arabic. Yeah, it's a completely different language.

(LAUGHTER)

NANJIANI: And I know it does not seem like a big deal, but this game took three years to make. If you look at it, the graphics are perfect. You can see individual hair on people's heads. When they run, they sweat. When they run, their shoelaces bounce. All they had to do was Google Pakistan language.

(LAUGHTER)

NANJIANI: They were literally like, what language do they speak in Pakistan? I don't care.

(LAUGHTER)

NANJIANI: I can't get his sideburns even.

(LAUGHTER)

NANJIANI: But it was on sale and I bought it. It's so good - totally worth selling out my people for.

(LAUGHTER)

BALDONADO: That's a scene from the Comedy Central special "Beta Male." Can you talk a little bit more about that conflict? That's such a great clip because, you know, you're talking about a part of popular culture that's kind of sketch in terms of, you know, ethnicity and race. But it's still something that you totally enjoy.

NANJIANI: Yeah, it's sort of about how, you know, people see that part of the world as beginning this one vague, you know, brown patch. People don't realize - I mean, you know, people think Pakistan is Middle East. Pakistan is not Middle East. We don't speak Arabic over there. And I think here it kind of doesn't - the way it's portrayed, it's all portrayed as one mass. I mean, honestly I got really angry about that. And I did that and then that clip got pretty popular and I know people at that company saw it. And the new game - in Karachi, the signs are still in Arabic. So it has not been fixed yet. And it's the easiest thing in the world to fix. But I think it's like, you know, it doesn't really matter because that - nobody cares. And I think I like that clip 'cause it really gets at sort of the tension between representing, you know, a part of the world that maybe needs representation - tension between that and just being a person and doing what I want to do and, you know, whether I have responsibility to humanizing that part of the world or not.

BALDONADO: So you grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. One of the things that you talk about in your Comedy Central special "Beta Male" is how you would sometimes splice - after you discovered porn, you would sometimes record porn onto the middle of popular movies. You know, like splice it in the middle of "Jurassic Park," say. So it's almost like there was a bootleg within a bootleg within a bootleg. It was like a triple smuggle of kind of Western popular culture in there.

NANJIANI: Yeah, yeah, I would do that because, obviously, you know, I couldn't have my parents find out that I had that. But there was this underground sort of network among my friends of - like, we had one kid who, I don't know how, but he just knew how to get these movies. And so he would then lend them to us. Whenever we went to his house, he would have, like, stacks of them, and so we all befriended him. And then I would hook up my two VCRs when my parents were out of the house and movies that I owned - I actually did it to "Jurassic Park" and I did it to "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" as well. And sort of, like, 40 minutes into the movie I would record (laughter) I would record some of the porn. And then I would end with the movie again, and that way I wouldn't have to hide these videos from my parents. God, I hope my dad never watched "Roger Rabbit" when I wasn't around.

BALDONADO: Now, you've said that at the beginning you didn't really want to talk about being Pakistani in your comedy. I think you said you didn't want to be, like, the funny foreign guy. What made you change your mind about that? It seems like in 2009, for example, you had a one-man show called "Unpronounceable." And you did sort of talk about your personal background. What - why did you change your mind to decide you wanted to talk about it in your comedy?

NANJIANI: Well, I realized it was a big part of who I was that I wasn't talking about. I found that a lot of the comedy I'd been doing wasn't very personal. It was more observational. I made a very specific decision to write one show that was going to be very, very personal, that was going to be very different from anything I'd done, that was going to be one story. And I gave myself a few months to write it, and it was really hard, but it was also really, really gratifying. And it actually helped me come to terms with a lot of stuff that had been plaguing me and stuff that had been confusing to me. And it allowed me to articulate a lot of my feelings about, you know, a big part of my life and about where I'm from and stuff.

BALDONADO: Can you discuss some of the things that you addressed in that one-man show?

NANJIANI: I have to be somewhat vague because for various reasons I had to stop performing that show. So I will say, basically, it was about me growing up in Pakistan in a very religious Shiite family. Growing up with that and then coming to America and sort of the culture shock of coming to America and how that made me rethink or re-examine a lot of the stuff that I'd believed. And it's sort of my relationship to where I'm from and how it was affected after I moved to America.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview that FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with comic Kumail Nanjiani, one of the stars of the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview that our producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with comic Kumail Nanjiani, one of the stars of the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley." He grew up in Pakistan, came to the U.S. to attend college and stayed.

BALDONADO: In your comedy you talk about things like discovering your sexuality, discovering porn and, you know, even in parts of "Silicon Valley" there's a lot of blue material. Was that ever a struggle for you, talking about taboo subjects like sexuality or religion, doing it publicly because you did grow up in a very religious environment when you were a kid?

NANJIANI: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that I sort of came to terms with was I believed talking about sexuality is very, very important. And I'm from a part of the world where sexuality is very, very repressed. So that was something I made a conscious decision to talk about more because when I was a little kid, sexuality was demonized and being attracted to someone was a sin. I remember - I talk about this in "Beta Male," and it's actually a story that's from "Unpronounceable" about the first time I saw Cindy Crawford in a Diet Coke commercial and how devastating it was that I was attracted to her. And so this huge experience of being human was something that was demonized. It's a very, very harmful thing. I mean, you've seen in countries where sexuality's repressed that it can be a very, very negative thing. So I made a decision to talk about it more. In the beginning it was uncomfortable for me, but I felt like that suddenly I realized it was OK to talk about. So it was - (laughter) it was kind of thrilling and exciting to discuss it.

BALDONADO: How did your family react to the material that you were doing on stage? Or do they see it?

NANJIANI: Well, we haven't quite talked about it yet (laughter). I knew that there was some stuff, specifically in "Unpronounceable," that they were going to have a reaction to. And when it first came out, I did the show in Chicago and I got reviewed. And, you know, I was - I was happy to see that the reviews were very positive. My parents read some of the reviews and they saw it. They were very upset and they thought that it was going to be this really angry piece where I shun where I'm from and religion and stuff. So I sent them a copy of it and they realized that it's not an angry piece, that a lot of work and thought and, hopefully, craft went into it. So they liked it, but they did ask me to stop performing it. And that is why I stopped performing that show. And I still feel conflicted about it because I really am proud of that show. And I do feel like that show has stuff to say that I think people could get something out of. I don't want to say it's important, but I feel like you don't hear - you don't hear the experience of Muslims. I mean, one of the reasons - I think one of the problems with the way that Islam is portrayed in the world is that people don't really have the image of a lax Muslim. I feel like when people think of Islam they see certain images in their head. They see fanaticism. Unfortunately, that has become the face of Islam. That has become the face of the Muslim. You know, you can think of a non-religious Jewish person. You can think of a lapsed Christian person. But there's really no image of a not-strict Muslim person. But unfortunately, me doing that show, there's actual danger in doing it. I still have family back in Pakistan. I have a very specific last name. I feel like I'm safe over here, but I'm not sure that people back in Pakistan are safe if I talk about this stuff. It's - as you could tell, I have a very conflicted relationship with where I'm from and my identity and all that stuff. And it's still a struggle to negotiate some of it.

BALDONADO: I want to play another clip from your special "Beta Male." And this is about people calling stuff out to you while you're on the street. This is a story from a time when you were visiting Orange County and you're just in California and just walking around, but - and someone calls something out to you. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "BETA MALE")

NANJIANI: I get there. I get out of my car. Ten seconds after I get out of my car - 10 seconds after I get out of my car - this car pulls up. This guy pokes his head out the window, yells at me. He's like, hey, Kumar, where's Harold?

(LAUGHTER)

NANJIANI: And then drives off. Ten f****** seconds, like he'd been waiting in the bushes for weeks. Like, I can't wait for a brown to come to town.

(LAUGHTER)

NANJIANI: I will belittle him with a movie reference. And I got so angry. I thought about it for days. And I was trying to think why do I get angry when someone's racist to me? And I think it's 'cause when somebody's racist to you there are no comebacks. There is nothing I can say to get back at this guy 'cause what am I going to be like? I'm not going to be racist 'cause I'm not racist. And almost everyone who's racist to me is white. And it's very difficult to be racist to white people. Like, what am I going to be like? Oh, I'm Kumar. Well. you're the main character in most movies that come out.

(LAUGHTER)

NANJIANI: Slam.

(LAUGHTER)

BALDONADO: So that's a clip from the Comedy Central special "Beta Male." I just want to share a story. I was listening to "Beta Male" while I was walking home one night. So I was listening to your album and I just heard that part and I was laughing at it. And then - I'm Asian-American and someone at that exact moment yelled out konnichiwa to me. And I thought it was just fitting that that - this is what I was just listening to.

NANJIANI: Oh, my God.

BALDONADO: And I was like - and the thing is when something like that happens what do I - it really is what do you say? What are you going to say? Really or I'm not Japanese - or like - what are you going to say?

NANJIANI: There's nothing.

BALDONADO: So I just thought it was very funny. But at least you get to sort of say...

NANJIANI: Yeah, when someone's racist to you, they win. They've won. There's nothing to be said. You've been compressed into one word. There's nothing to do.

BALDONADO: So I think you're more well-known now than you were when this album came out. Are people calling your name - calling out your name on the street yet?

NANJIANI: (Laughter) Nope, not at least to be racist to me. I - you know, it's also - it's interesting. Just in the few years since then, the representation of, like, brown people on TV has changed quite a bit. And I think that goes a long way because, you know, if there's - the only brown person you know is Kumar from "Harold & Kumar" then that's easy. But if we're represented better then you can't really do that. And I think it's happening a little bit. I actually saw Kal Penn tweeted a few days ago. He said that someone congratulated him on "Silicon Valley." And I was like OK, good. Now you know how it's - how it's been for me for the last 10 years.

BALDONADO: Well, Kumail Nanjiani, thanks for joining us at FRESH AIR.

NANJIANI: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Kumail Nanjiani spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. His HBO series "Silicon Valley" has its season finale this Sunday. The new season of his Comedy Central show, "The Meltdown With Jonah And Kumail," premieres later this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we talk politics. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is expected to announce his presidential run next month and to become a top-tier candidate in the Republican primary. My guest will be New York Times political correspondent Patrick Healy who writes (reading) more than any of his presidential rivals, Walker is a product of a loose network of conservative donors, think tanks and talk radio show hosts. I hope you'll join us.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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