Kumail Nanjiani is fucking funny.
Let’s say there are different levels of funny. Let’s say it goes: Kind of Funny, and then after that is Pretty Funny, and then after that is Funny, and then after that is Above-Average Funny, and then after that is Very Funny, and on and on like that. If that’s the case, then Kumail Nanjiani lands on the Fucking Funny level, which, I mean, I’m just making all of these levels up as I go right now, but I have to assume that it’s somewhere near the top.
In 2009, Nanjiani was featured in an article written by Eric Konigsberg for The New York Times. The article was titled “It’s Not a Bad Time to Be Funny in the City,” and it was about, in part, the way that the comedy scene in New York had produced several breakout stars in quick succession. A bit into the article, there was a quote from one of Nanjiani’s friends, describing him (and a collection of his recent successes) as such: “No single thing that he’s gotten so far matters on its own. But if you look at him—he’s very funny, been in New York less than two years and already he’s had so much happen and all of it has a pedigree—his success is inevitable.”
It’s a quote that seems especially insightful now, considering that since then Nanjiani has, among other things: costarred on a hit television show for several years (Silicon Valley); written and starred in a movie that has an “Accolades” section on its Wikipedia page that you have to scroll down twice to get to the end of, with one of the accolades being an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (The Big Sick); voiced a tiny alien in a movie that has already grossed over $236 million at the box office this summer (Men in Black: International); is about to open a new movie this weekend (Stuber); and has two movies slated for 2020, one of which is a rom-com he’s starring in with Issa Rae (The Lovebirds, and let me tell you that the way you get my money is to make a rom-com starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae, two of the sharpest and most charming actors working today).
A very good joke in The Big Sick happens about 53 minutes into the movie. By this point, Kumail and Emily (played by Zoe Kazan, who is fantastic) have already gotten into their big fight and broken up and Emily has gotten sick and been placed in a medically induced coma. So Nanjiani is sitting in the hospital cafeteria at a table with Emily’s parents, Beth (played by Holly Hunter, who is fantastic) and Terry (played by Ray Romano, who is fantastic). Terry starts to ramble about his tuna sandwich, and, when he finishes, the three of them are just looking at each other waiting for someone to do something, and it’s all extremely uncomfortable. (Emily’s parents know that Kumail hurt her a great deal during their breakup, which is why there’s an uneasiness there.) And so Terry, in an awkward attempt at breaking the awkwardness, says, “So, uh … 9/11.”
Beth looks at Terry and Kumail looks at Terry and nobody says anything. Terry continues. “No, I mean, I’ve always wanted to have a conversation about it … with … people.” Kumail, who is exceptional in exactly these kinds of situations where he has to work his way through someone else’s bumbling, understands what Terry’s trying to say but lets Terry twist in the wind a bit because of the ridiculousness of the notion, asking back, “You’ve never talked to people about 9/11?” Terry, doing his very best not to mention anything about Kumail being Pakistani American, reframes the question, asking for Kumail’s stance on the attack. Kumail processes what he’s been asked, then sets the bait. “What’s my stance on 9/11? Oh, um … anti.” Terry looks relieved and Beth, who had only been tolerating the conversation anyway, continues to tolerate it. Then Kumail yanks them up out of the water: “It was a tragedy. I mean, we lost 19 of our best guys.” Immediately both Terry and Beth look at Kumail, and when he realizes he may have gone too far, he starts to stumble a bit, hesi-stepping his way through his next couple of sentences as he gathers up the pieces of their suddenly destroyed conversation.
I like when Kumail Nanjiani is uncomfortable in conversations. I like what he does. It comes in three parts. First, he starts to drag his voice some. Normally it’s higher-pitched and a little kinetic, but when he’s leaning into a moment he slows everything down, turns the volume down a bit, then holds onto his words juuuuust long enough to let you know that what he’s thinking right then is way different than what he’s saying. Second, he moves his eyes and head a little more than normal. And lastly, he takes his eyes—normally warm and inviting—and turns them nearly empty, redirecting all the activity up into his eyebrows, which he wields almost like weapons. You can watch him do the whole routine in the trailer for Stuber.
Dave Bautista gets into Nanjiani’s Uber and says he wants to go to Compton. When Nanjiani asks him for a more specific address, Bautista just yells “Compton!” at him. In a lesser-skilled actor’s hands, the line that follows (“Stop yelling neighborhoods. That’s not how Uber works.”) would’ve been serviceable. But with Nanjiani, who, as mentioned, is a master in those situations, it becomes an A+ funny moment. Watch:
It’s great. You watch just those few seconds and it’s like, “Oh. Cool. I get it. I get why so many people love this guy.”
I have not seen Stuber yet because it doesn’t come out until Friday, July 12, but if you happen to be reading this on any day after Friday, July 12, then yes, I have seen Stuber and Kumail Nanjiani was hilarious in it. That’s where we are in all of this: I don’t mind telling you before I’ve seen Stuber that Nanjiani is hilarious in it, because Nanjiani has become an unquestioned net positive in any movie he appears in, small role or big. He was that way in The Big Sick, obviously, because basically everyone in that movie was, but also he was that way as the security guard in Fist Fight and as the tiny alien in Men in Black: International and as Jay in The Lego Ninjago Movie and as the airport guy in Central Intelligence and so on. There’s no time when he’s shown up in something and then afterward you were like, “That would’ve been better without that guy in it.”
Kumail Nanjiani is fucking funny.
Kumail Nanjiani’s success was inevitable.