SO how does that awkward conversation go when you sit your Indian parents down and tell them you want to be a comedian? A “hostile reception” was what Nish Kumar was greeted with, but after storming the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August he has proved to them that it is actually a “viable career.”
The 30-year-old is gearing up to tour the UK later this month with his Scottish show which received rave reviews in the national press. We meet in a bustling coffee shop in Whiteleys shopping centre following his appearance on The Wright Stuff.
Kumar, dressed head to toe in black, explained his show Long word… Long word… Blah blah blah… I’m so clever, which explores whether comedy needs to be politically neutral and was sparked by a comment made by his mum.
“She just said all comedians are leftwing and [the show is] just me examining whether its true. And if it’s true, what does it mean? What’s the status of a leftwing comedian?” he told Eastern Eye.
Following his Fringe appearance, The Guardian described the gig as “an excellent show and unapologetically intelligent”. It won Best International Show at the New Zealand Comedy Festival.
The comic has had a busy few years. In the summer he finished a six-week stint as Radio 4 Extra’s host, taking over from Romesh Ranganathan on Newsjack, and also heads the new autumn series.
Kumar toured India at the end of last year with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow, and was a writer on a series of Sanjeev Bhaskar’s The Kumars.
The Durham university graduate rose to prominence following the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe with his debut solo show Who is Nish Kumar? where he made light of his parents desire for him to become a lawyer.
“If you come from an immigrant family, there is that feeling of you have to do something of value to a society otherwise you won’t be accepted,” he said.
“But I was born here so I anxiety; it’s just the difference between being a first generation and second generation immigrant.
“I was doing a lot of comedy at university, so it wasn’t unduly a surprise, I think on some level, they still expect me at a certain point to give it up and become a lawyer.
“They thought it was a phase, then it went on longer, and they thought: ‘How long is this going to play out? “As soon as I was on Radio 4, it lends a legitimacy to it. You get written about in newspapers they read and they start thinking it is actually a viable career.”
Kumar often mentions his parents, and in his debut sketch he quipped about his mother being an eternal pessimist. But do they mind being the butt of his jokes?
“They were actually weirdly fine with it. I thought that they might have anxiety because for years I was doing stand-up in small clubs and my parents had never seen me.
“When I did the show in Edinburgh, they saw it and it got reviewed. Suddenly the stakes changed and I thought, s*** I’m actually going to have to deal with the consequences of some of the things I’ve said.
“If it’s done with enough love, people are fine with it. I’m always harshest about myself in my shows so everyone else comes out quite well,” Kumar admitted.
Hailing from south London, the self-confessed “loyal Croydon patriot,” believes it is harder for female comedians to progress in the industry than Asian men.
He said: “No-one has ever said to me: ‘I don’t normally find Asians funny but I like you’. But I have female friends who people say that to all the time.
“The nice thing about stand-up is you have much more control and you are producing your own work. The only real judgment comes from audiences. They don’t
care for the most part; I’ve felt audiences couldn’t give a s*** about your race as long as you’re funny.”
Kumar admits comedians his age have been lucky to benefit from “the breakthroughs in comedy which were made by Sanjeev (Bhaskar) and Meera (Syal), and all of those Goodness Gracious Me original lot”.
Because of the strides they made in the 1990s, he doesn’t feel the need to talk about his race, even though he sometimes chooses to. Kumar, who grew up watching the Asian satire, was the studio warm-up act for a one-off 2014 special to mark the 50th anniversary of BBC2.
He also had the opportunity to write on a series of The Kumars, the brainchild of Bhaskar which aired on Sky last year. “They were looking for new writers; what an amazing thing to then be sat there trying to pitch jokes to them. It was nice; they were consciously looking for young Asian comics to be part of that.
“It was a low pressure environment; they are all so great. I was there just learning. Then I did the studio warm-up. What an amazing thing to see the four of them together.”
Nish Kumar’s tour runs from October 21 to December 12. He will also perform at the Brighton Comedy Festival on October 24.