Q&A with Kumail Nanjiani ’01

Grinnell’s 2017 Commencement Speaker
Katherine Tucker ’16

KT: So how did you hear about Grinnell in the first place? Why did you end up coming here?

KN: Well, I knew I wanted to go to a liberal arts school. And I knew I wanted to go to ... not a big city. Grinnell’s not a big city. And so I kind of went by ranking. I was in Pakistan. I didn’t really have a good sense of what different places were like. And I liked the website, I liked what they offered, and they were ranked really well, and I’d heard really good things. So that’s kind of why I picked it. I didn’t really know what it was going to be like.

KT: First impressions?

KN: Very small, very, very quiet. I was surprised by how not a big city it was. Those were my first impressions. I’d never been in a town that felt like that.

KT: Why come back to give this speech?

KN: I honestly was like, if Grinnell ever asks me, I’ll do it. So when they asked me, I was excited. I felt really honored. And then I got nervous. Like, what am I going to say? There’s so much pressure. So I said yes, and then for a while I just kind of freaked out about it.

KT: In your speech, you talked about finding work that satisfies you. How do you find that thing that you want to keep doing every day? What do you do in the meantime?

KN: I stumbled into stand-up, and I was very lucky that I did. But I think that people have plenty of time to figure out what satisfies them. Until then, just be engaged and keep looking. The world is full of weird, highly specific jobs.

KT: You worked in computers for several years before pursuing comedy full time. Would you still be doing that if comedy hadn’t worked out?

KN: Probably. When I quit my day job and moved to New York to pursue comedy full time, I didn’t have a plan B. That’s the bad and the good of not thinking too far ahead. The good was that I didn’t freak out. I just put myself out there and did it. The bad was, I ran through all my savings, and I didn’t have a job. I had a few pretty intense months. If comedy hadn’t worked out, I think I would be much sadder.

KT: How do you keep people entertained? Do you have any strategies, or are you just a naturally entertaining person?

KN: I’m not a naturally entertaining person. If you’re able to articulate your personal experience, people generally find that engaging. I can’t guess what people will like; I can just do what I want to do as best I can: talk about my experience, and hope that people connect with it.

KT: What has it been like to write and play yourself in The Big Sick?

KN: It’s been challenging, but also really satisfying. I wrote the movie together with my wife, Emily V. Gordon. We had never done anything like this, but we were working with the best people in the world, and they guided us.

This project also made me realize that good work takes a lot of hard work and rewriting. And unlike stand-up, that work happens in a vacuum. Nobody sees your movie until it’s done. If I write a joke and try it, certain parts might work and others might not, but I still presented that story. You can rewrite a joke, but while you’re rewriting, you’re performing it and getting feedback.

KT: Last question. How has Grinnell informed your comedy?

KN: Grinnell showed me that it’s okay to be yourself. As a teenager, I tried to fit into some other person’s version of cool. But at Grinnell, there was such a focus on figuring out who you are, and weird wasn’t bad. I gained a lot of confidence here. Grinnell helped me realize that I don’t have to change to be accepted. 

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