With a Keen Eye and a Razor Wit, Kumail Nanjiani Is Becoming an Inescapable Creative Force

Silicon Valley star shares his creative process, The Big Sick and his take on advertising

Kumail Nanjiani is Adweek's Creative 100 cover star. Photographed by: Marc Royce Prop Styling: Nathan Carden/Jorge Perez Reps Grooming: Sydney Sollod/The Wall Group
Headshot of Katie Richards

Picture your classic Hollywood triple threat. Now, throw it out the window, in the garbage, wherever, and say hello to Kumail Nanjiani—the stand-up comedian who’s redefining what it means to be a modern-day triple threat. Everything about the Silicon Valley star—from his upbringing in Karachi, Pakistan, to his unorthodox love story with now-wife Emily Gordon, which inspired his upcoming film The Big Sick—is intriguing.

In the film, co-written by the couple based heavily on their whirlwind love story, Nanjiani plays a nearly identical version of himself—a Pakistani-American stand-up comedian slash Uber driver who falls for a white woman (played by Zoe Kazan), something his parents are wholly against. Nanjiani keeps the budding romance a secret until a twist of fate comes his way just as the relationship waters get choppy and Emily is placed in a medically induced coma (and yes, that did in fact happen in real life).

See? Not your typical rom-com from a not-so-typical comedian.

When he’s not performing his latest stand-up routine, Nanjiani plays Dinesh on HBO’s tech comedy Silicon Valley and has dipped his toes in the world of podcasting. Now, he can add starring in and writing his first major film, for which Amazon Studios ponied up a whopping $12 million after it screened at Sundance, to his list of accomplishments.

Adweek caught up with Nanjiani, Adweek’s Creative 100 cover star for 2017, at the tail end of the first leg of his current comedy tour with Big Sick co-stars Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler and Ray Romano. He told us about his creative process, starring alongside Snoop Dogg and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in an Old Navy campaign, and what he hopes to accomplish next.

Adweek: Your first major film comes out at the end of the month. Are you excited?
Kumail Nanjiani: I feel a lot of different ways. Most importantly, I guess, I feel happy with the movie itself. Beyond that, you can’t really control people’s reactions or how it does at the box office. So, it’s a little nerve-wracking trying to guess if people are going to go see it or not. The most important thing, though, is that I feel happy with the thing that we did.

What was the best part about making this movie?
I genuinely loved the whole thing so much, especially once we had financing for the movie, did the casting, and knew we were going to make the movie. Me, Emily, Mike [Showalter], Barry [Mendel] and Judd [Apatow] would just hang out all day and talk about making the movie. All day every day, Emily and I were writing and rewriting the movie. Just to see it get better and better with each draft was really exciting. Then shooting the actual movie, I loved working with Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. They’re both legends, and I’ve been a fan of them for so long. To get to work with people of that caliber was just such a thrill. It was so fun! We would take weekends off, and on Sundays I would start losing it. I would be like, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s shoot some more!” I loved just being in Williamsburg, rehearsing on the weekends and shooting during the week. I loved the feeling of everybody working toward one common goal. It really felt like the entire crew, just everybody, was really invested in making a good movie.

I laughed a lot and shed a few tears when I saw it.
Yeah, definitely. The good thing was that all of us, everyone involved, we really were trying to make the best movie. Everybody got the tone, so it wasn’t like there were big disagreements about the kind of movie we wanted to make. That would have been way tougher. The fact that we all knew the kind of movie we wanted to make made all the discussions much more constructive. There would be times when Emily would say, “I don’t think there should be a joke here,” and sometimes I would disagree with her, but we just sort of had to talk about each little thing. Even if we did disagree, the conversation always made for a better movie.

You work on so many different projects simultaneously. How do they all tie together?
I see them all fitting together because they are all things that I like doing. I did a podcast about The X-Files, and that to me was just like, “Oh, I really love The X-Files.” … And then with the other stuff, that just truly comes from stuff I like doing. Acting on Silicon Valley, acting on Portlandia or doing stand-up—to me, that’s all comedy, and I love writing and performing comedy. Those all fit together in a little more obvious way. This movie was a little different because it’s a comedy but it’s the first time I’ve ever had to do any sort of dramatic performance at all. That was the first thing in a while that felt like I was going out of my comfort zone.

How did you prepare for that leap?
Well, I took acting classes for the first time. I think it was after Season 2 of Silicon Valley, I started taking acting classes knowing there was a chance we may get to make this movie. I wanted to be ready for it. Making a movie is so hard, and there are just so many things that can go wrong, that this was just a part of it that I didn’t want to feel nervous about.

Nanjiani’s first major film comes out this month.
Photographed by: Marc Royce Prop Styling: Nathan Carden/Jorge Perez Reps Grooming: Sydney Sollod/The Wall Group

Walk me through your creative process. Does it differ project to project?
For me, it’s very hard to switch between things. If I could change one thing about the way I write, it would be that I wish I could work on a couple of different things at the same time. Emily really can do that. She can write an article for The New York Times and then write the movie. For me, when I write, I get obsessed with the one thing that I’m working on, and I can only think about that. If you look at my notebook from the year leading up to shooting, there were notes just about the movie—little thoughts and ideas. Even while we were editing it, I would take down notes. I would get an idea, like maybe we can lose this, or go right to this, or “Oh, this is how we can make this joke funny in editing.” That’s how I write. I kind of, for good or for bad, get consumed by whatever the primary thing is and I can’t really do anything else.

Did your writing process change since you were working with your wife and not on a solo project like stand-up?
Emily has a really, really good work ethic, so she just writes a lot. She writes a lot of different stuff, you know? She writes so fast that it made me write super fast, too, and made me feel not so precious about certain things. I would write a scene, she would write a different scene, and then we would swap and rewrite each other’s work. Then we would swap again and rewrite again. By the time we sent it to the director or the producers, it was like the third or fourth draft. That was actually a really great process. We had the master scripts, and we would get notes, divvy it up, swap, swap, put it back in the script, and send it in. It was a very quick way to get something polished.

When you do get stuck in the creative process, where do you turn for inspiration?
Leading up to shooting the movie, and even editing the movie, I decided to watch a lot of great movies. Classic movies. Some of my favorite movies, but also classics that I had never seen. Movies people are always like, “Oh my god, you haven’t seen that movie?” I considered watching those movies part of my job during filming. I had never seen Tootsie, or Kramer vs. Kramer, or Terms of Endearment. So I watched a ton of movies, and I would also listen to commentary for these movies. That was truly inspiring. These things don’t magically come up. It takes a lot of work, a lot of thought and a lot of consideration. To hear these people, these legendary filmmakers, talking about the drastic vision that you’re considering right now … it’s really inspiring.

Comedy seems like a brutal field to thrive in. Do you ever find it hard to be creative as a comedian?
It’s been challenging recently because I’ve been working on the movie so much and then doing the promotion of the movie. It has been a little tricky to go back to writing stand-up. I’m actually starting to go back to it right now. I just now have a couple of jokes from the movie that I did on the tour. The thing with comedy is, stuff happens to you every day and you try to find material anywhere. I try to go from the things that are interesting to me and write from that. I don’t really wait for a joke to come to me. I usually think, “Oh, this is interesting. What’s a funny way to talk about it on stage?” As long as there are things that are interesting, there should be material to be generated. But I’ve been so consumed by this movie that I haven’t been focusing on that side much. Stand-up is easier because there isn’t pressure to write any kind of thing. You just have to have something funny onstage. That’s all it takes. It could be a two-minute thing. It could be a 10-minute thing. There aren’t really any parameters. Writing a script or a pilot for a TV show, I think, is tougher because there’s a lot more structure to that.

Who are your creative idols?
I look at those people who always have a new hour of stand-up every year. I always think that’s really, really awesome. I think of Amy Schumer. She’s doing new stand-up every year, and she does movies and stuff. I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know how she can write a movie, and then act in a movie, and write stand-up, and perform stand-up. Like I said, I don’t multitask well. I always envy the people who can kind of switch careers seamlessly.

What’s your take on actors and comedians doing ad campaigns?
It’s tricky, right? You have to sell something or create awareness for something and give people information while being interesting or funny. I like funny ads because I think of it as a little 30-second sketch or a 30-second movie. I did an ad for Old Navy with Snoop Dogg and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and I loved doing that. While getting to act with those people was fun, the ad also turned out really well. It’s really funny, and it was cool. I did an ad, but it was a really funny, creative, awesome thing that I’m really proud of.

What was it like on set for that campaign?
I knew Julia Louis-Dreyfus a little bit, but I’m also a big fan of hers. I think she’s one of the best comedic actors working today. She’s truly, truly amazing, and has been for decades, so I was really thrilled to be able to work with her. Then Snoop Dogg, he’s a legend. Are you kidding? So I was really excited for that. The process for that was really fun, too, because they had a premise [for the ad] but they were just kind of like, “OK, improvise.” So we improvised quite a lot, and it was a really big production. It was maybe the biggest production I’ve ever been a part of. It was so fun to just pitch ideas to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and have her pitch ideas to me.

Your Silicon Valley co-stars have done a bunch of ads. T.J. Miller did Shock Top ads for Super Bowl 50. Thomas Middleditch is doing Verizon ads. Would you do a campaign at that scale?
Yeah, I would love to. For me, it is important that it’s a product that I actually can get behind. I wouldn’t want to just do it for something that I don’t feel like I would be excited about promoting. It seems very easy with advertising to suddenly become overexposed because you can’t really control how much they are going to show it. I’d love to do a big campaign, but I wouldn’t want to do a bunch of different things at the same time. I don’t want people to get sick of me. I’m sure some people are already sick of seeing my face. I don’t want to add to that.

Any campaigns recently catch your eye?
I like Thomas Middleditch in the Verizon ads now, and T.J. [Miller] is in those Mucinex commercials, or the commercial for Slim Jim where he’s the blue genie. I just gravitate toward the funny ads. It’s always cool when you see someone in an ad and you’re like, “Whoa, who is that? That person is really funny. Why is that person really funny?” And then you start seeing them in TV shows and movies. I remember I saw Danny Pudi in an ad, and I thought he was really funny. I remember watching it over and over. Then he was on Community and a show called Powerless. That’s always fun to see, because that’s generally where a lot of comedic actors get their break.

Are there any brands you’d want to work with?
I love video games, so if anything ever came up in the video game world, that would be exciting to me. I just got the chance to do some video-game voices for my favorite franchises recently, so I would say I would take it as it comes but in the world of video games. That’s just something I would be excited to work in because I’m such a huge, huge fan and I play them all the time.

The production values around video game ads have gotten pretty substantial.
Yeah, for sure, and they get pretty big names, too. Like the Broad City girls did one, and then Joel McHale, he did one. The production value is huge.

You have close to 1.5 million Twitter followers. How has social media helped you further your career?
Well, it’s a very easy and direct way to connect with your audience, unfiltered. Originally I thought of Twitter as a way to do advertising, where I was on Twitter and I would make jokes and stuff, and every now and I then I would promote a show that I had. It really was like the TV program would be the funny joke, and the advertising would be like, “Hey, I’m coming through Philadelphia. Come see the show!” It really, really helped. I could directly reach my audience, and it really changed my touring. So did The Indoor Kids [podcast], actually, when Emily and I would do it. We would tour, and like 70 percent of people would come because of our podcast. We had a direct connection with the audience. This was before Silicon Valley. I think it’s just a great way to directly connect with your audience. I even like talking about what video game I’m playing or what movies I’m watching. There are so many different aspects in a comedian’s career, and I think Twitter is definitely a pretty big one. We have a movie coming out now, and it’s great that I have like a million and a half followers on Twitter that I can spread the word to directly.

You can also be pretty vocal on Twitter. Do you ever feel the need to censor yourself?
I kind of just present my thoughts and feeling to the world as they are. Sometimes it’s thoughtful; sometimes it’s not thoughtful. Sometimes it’s helpful; sometimes it’s not. For good or bad, I just kind of have my phone on me all the time. If I think of something, I just tweet it. I don’t really put a ton of thought into it.

What advice would you give to young people trying to break into comedy or film?
I think you just have to do it. It’s easier and harder than it’s ever been. It’s harder because there are a lot of people vying for attention, but it’s also easier because there are so many outlets. You can make a video on YouTube and reach an audience really directly by shooting stuff on your phone and it can look really, really good. You just have to do it. You just have to get on stage and do stand-up. That’s really all there is to it. It’s not like a mystical, magical process. The process is just doing it. I think sometimes people build it up too much in their heads. They think they have to wait for some kind of inspiration. I don’t think that’s right. I think you just have to do it. There’s no magic bullet.

What’s next for you?
I would love to ideally act in a movie that I didn’t write. Just be an actor in a movie, something really, really good that I would be excited about. Then I would love to keep writing movies. Then eventually I would love to start directing, too, but not for a few years. I’m still really enjoying writing and acting.

Get to know the rest of Adweek’s Creative 100 for 2017:
15 Chief Creative Officers
18 Executive Creative Directors and Group Creative Directors
22 Creative Directors and Associate Creative Directors
14 Art Directors and Copywriters
10 Global Creative Leaders
12 Digital Innovators
10 Branded Content Masters
10 Artists and Authors
11 Celebrities and Influencers
• Cover Story: How Kumail Nanjiani Is Becoming an Inescapable Creative Force

This story first appeared in the June 12, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@ktjrichards katie.richards@adweek.com Katie Richards is a staff writer for Adweek.