Nish Kumar Thinks You're Destroying Yourselves
The BBC comedian explains his anger, humour and politics during his long nationwide tour.
Nish Kumar by Alexander McLuckie
Within approximately two minutes of walking onto the stage, Nish Kumar is already yelling at his audience. “What the fuck happened to this fucking country,” he screams, to a wave of applause and appreciative laughter. “Seriously, what the fuck happened?!”
For years, the now 33-year-old comedian tried to hide the fact he was “really fucking angry” during his performances, but recently he has all but given up. Even in the show Nish toured before this one, he opened with a bit about how much he loves Prince and David Bowie. Why? “So the crowd would think I was nice, and then I could scream at them.” This show, he says, laughing, is just the screaming.
It’s 5PM on Sunday evening, and Nish has just finished his soundcheck at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, where in a couple of hours he’ll discuss Donald Trump, Brexit and Louis CK (he’s not a fan), before moving onto a routine about how white violence and non-white violence are treated differently, and finally a section on civic responsibility to round things off. He promises me there will be some laughs.
“There’s a fear when you’re a comedian of just being hectoring, so you do try to fight against that,” says Nish. “When you talk about things like social equality on stage, you’re portrayed as an emotional person disregarding reason, so in the past whenever I’d talk about politics I’d say ‘the facts say this’; ’it’s not just that austerity is punishing people, cuts to public services also throttle economic growth’.” Add to that the fact that “when you’re a brown dude people just say you have a chip on your shoulder”, and Nish was careful – as much as possible – to appear measured and calm when performing. “But I feel like I’m not as worried about people knowing I’m angry anymore,” he says, “because I am.”
The last 18 months have been the biggest of Nish’s career so far: his satirical BBC TV news show The Mash Report was commissioned and has already run for two seasons, he’s appeared on the likes of Peston and Question Time, and for the next three months he’s touring his show – It’s in Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves – at large venues up and down the UK. So when we take a seat together in the stalls of the 1,738-capacity arts space, he’s quick to point out that, despite the success, his brand of political comedy still doesn’t always go down so well.
While performing at London’s Comedy Store in 2017, a gig descended into chaos when a member of the audience brazenly walked up to the tech box and unplugged his microphone. “When Brexit came up it was clear this group of 30 people clearly weren’t happy. There was some to-and-fro, although it wasn’t exactly the level of debate you’d get in a West Wing episode.” According to Nish, the exchange went something like this:
Angry Brexit people: You’re a cunt.
Nish Kumar: I think Brexit is a bag of shit.
Angry Brexit People: You’re a fucking cunt.
Nish Kumar (sings): I think Brexit is a bag of shit
Angry Brexit People: You’re a fucking cunt.
Nish Kumar (sings 'Sweet Caroline' by Neil Diamond)
Angry Brexit People (unplugging Nish’s microphone at the tech box): You, sir, are cunt.
The Nish Kumar: Unplugged set wasn’t an isolated incident. A year previously, on the night of the referendum result, someone shouted “go home” at him while performing at the very same place.
Sadly, being yelled at by racists wasn’t a novelty. Born and raised in what was then “rough and dull” Croydon by Indian parents, Nish didn’t encounter much racism in his early years. “The only incident at primary school was one kid called me a paki,” he says. “I told my mum and she said: ‘he’s half-Indian, I think he’s going through some stuff’, and in retrospect he really was.” The way Nish sees it, this allowed them to introduce him to the concept of racism in a way that “wasn’t too damaging”.
At secondary school in Orpington, Kent, it was somewhat more prevalent. The street racism was a shock, says Nish. “When you’re walking down the street and a kid shouts ‘paki’ it does start to get to you.” But this was the late 90s, and Goodness Gracious Me was on television, and as Nish puts it “there was a sense that racism was bad, and you didn’t have to stand for it.” He felt emboldened to say fuck you, I’m not going to take that. He got in more fights than he should have, given his frame and capacity for winning fights.
Like many young, British Asians, Nish remembers 9/11 as a turning point, the tone of public debate quickly shifting. He recalling being called Osama on the bus, and thinking: 'this isn’t going to turn out well.' “Thankfully by the time 9/11 happened I was already 16,” he says thoughtfully. “By that age I’d already built a sense of identity which they couldn’t take away from me. I had too much confidence to be cowed.” Then the 7/7 bombings happened. And then it was the financial crash. “In the 90s immigration and diversity were cool, people felt multiculturalism was possible,” he adds. “From that point on it was increasingly acceptable to be hostile to immigrants. I feel sorry for young brown kids today. Now it’s much harder to feel confident.”
School introduced Nish to racism, but also to comedy. He liked sports (but was useless), so ended up at debating club, where he quickly realised he had an ability to both make points and people laugh. He’s halfway through telling me about his debauched student days (more debating, comedy club, a bit of reading and a lot of drinking) when he decides it’s time to eat. We’ve been chatting for 45 minutes already – it’s well past 6PM. And that only means one thing whenever Nish is gigging: Nando's O’Clock. Yes, potentially 40 Nando's over gigs on this tour before the end of March. And yes, he’ll have the usual: half a chicken, hot, a large super grain salad and hummus and pita on the side. His tour manager asks if I also want one, and it seems rude to refuse.
In the summer of 2012, he performed his first ever solo Edinburgh Fringe Show. He went back in 2013 and received an impressive array of glowing reviews. By the time he’d finished his fifth consecutive Edinburgh run in 2016, TV and radio had already come knocking: a stint as a Radio 4 show already under his belt, another to come. Nish’s biggest break so far came in 2017, when the BBC approached him to present a late-night satirical news show for TV.
“The BBC announced they wanted to do a show like it,” Nish tells me, as we head back to the stage to take photos. “They wanted someone more famous to host the pilot”. But the other options in mind said no, so they got Nish. A show like this has never really succeeded before in Britain, so there was an assumption on set that it wouldn’t get commissioned: “we couldn’t believe it when it got picked up.” The first few episodes received a mixed reaction, but soon the show quickly found its voice, and it was funny. “I am incredibly proud of the 12 we did last year,” Nish adds, Alex, the photographer waiting, “but we benefited greatly at first from years of lowered expectations.”
Not everyone has been won around by The Mash Report. “The primetime BBC 'comedy' that's like a party political broadcast for Jeremy Corbyn,” reads one Daily Mail headline from December last year; bastion of BBC impartiality Andrew Neil described it as "self satisfied, self adulatory, unchallenged left-wing propaganda” and a "pathetic imitation” of The Daily Show in the States. “It’s always nice to hear from the fans!” Nish retorts.
“Seriously though what struck me was that [Neil] said what we do could ‘never happen on a politics show’ – what’s really funny about doing a comedy show at the BBC is you are subject to more scrutiny than people like Boris Johnson, who constantly make unverified claims.” Take, Nish suggests, Diane Abbott recently being wrongly slapped down by presenter Fiona Bruce who got her facts wrong, or Boris Johnson denying that he talked about Turkey during the EU referendum which is, quite literally a bare-faced lie. “If I said something that wasn’t a punchline that was untrue a BBC lawyer would, quite rightly, pull me up on it,” he says. “Why the fuck is a comedian subject to more scrutiny than one of the most prominent politicians in the country? We’ve got our priorities all over the shop.”
And what of the accusation the show has a left-wing bias? “I don’t think at the moment there is really space for an ‘all lives matter’ comedy show,” he replies, speaking carefully. “The news cycle is so polarised and comedy is going to reflect that… The brutal truth is we have a right-wing government, and the overwhelming support for the biggest constitutional shift in a generation has come from the right as well. I’m afraid it’s unavoidable that political comedy is going to come out left wing.”
By now we’re both sat backstage, we’re both eating Nando's, and we once again start talking about being angry. Nish is thinking back to our conversation earlier. It’s actually not just that he can’t hide his anger anymore, he reflects, but he also doesn’t want to, either.
“During the Brexit campaign there was a deficit of outrage,” he says, lips covered in chicken marinade. “The breaking point poster was so egregious, and they got away with it. The escalating rhetoric? I don’t care with they say: the way that [Labour MP Jo Cox’s murderer] Thomas Mair opted to express himself – you cannot get away from the fact that man who was radicalised. And where did that come from? As soon as you start tracing the route of that rhetoric you end up fucking livid.”
“I might have been lucky to grow up in the 90s, but I think, actually, we started getting complacent about prejudice. We thought we had killed prejudice, and if you were still talking about it you were just going on too much.” Nish says he, like lots of comics from minority backgrounds, really didn’t want to be identified as ‘the Asian comedian’. “We wanted to transcend race and not conform.” Now, he says, he doesn’t care what people call him; he just wants people to see he’s raging so they can’t ignore what’s going on.
“We all thought the fight was won, but now we know it wasn’t,” he says, putting his suit on ready – despite all this – to get people laughing. “So, it’s time to redraw the battle lines and go again. I think that’s where I am at the moment.”
Nish Kumar's 'It's In Your Nature To Destroy Yourselves' is touring nationwide until April.