A fundamentalist Shiite Muslim from Pakistan walks onto the campus of a small Iowa liberal arts college. Sound like the setup for a joke? It’s actually the backstory of 29-year-old Kumail Nanjiani, who ultimately ended up one of Chicago’s rising standup comic talents.
“Junior year of college, I was starting to realize that religion wasn’t as big a part of my life,” says Nanjiani, who had not so much as shaken a woman’s hand before coming to the United States to attend Grinnell College.
“I needed to define myself by something else. Then one night I saw a friend do an open mic at a coffee shop. My friends told me I should try it.” And he did.
Citing a boom in Middle Eastern comics who joke about misidentification as terrorists, Nanjiani wanted to refrain from political humor and from dramatizing his upbringing. “When you talk about something that narrow, a lot of that material is going to overlap,” he says. So he fashioned an act inspired by Woody Allen’s 1960s standup-absurd “observational stuff,” like his desire to have a unit of measurement named after him, or his antagonism toward the strangers he plays video games against online.
His pop-culture riffs caught the attention of Chris Ritter, the artistic director of the Lakeshore Theatre, who was looking to book more unconventional comedy acts. Ritter commissioned a one-man show, Unpronounceable, which premières July 7th (3175 N. Broadway; 773-472-3492). “He’d established himself a strong comic but needed to do stuff that’s more honest,” says Ritter, whose summer lineup includes Janeane Garofalo, Michael Ian Black, and Arj Barker (for whom Nanjiani opens on July 20th and 21st).
For Nanjiani, the commission means unleashing some deeply personal material. “I grew up in a place where everything has to do with religion. I want to explore what it was like moving here and falling down the rabbit hole.”
What a fall it was, he says, before testing some new fodder about his freshman-year roommate’s sexual quests on the top bunk. “I would be laying there at three in the morning, tired, new to this country, feeling dirty, and thinking that my roommate was going to hell.” His response: “I’d get him up at five in the morning because I had set the alarm so I could pray. That seemed fair.”
Photograph: Hayley Murphy Hair and Makeup: Ashley Bourdon Photo Assistant: Eleni Papadopolou