Kumail Nanjiani is an up and coming American comic with a growing reputation, so his arrival at this year’s Fringe has been very much anticipated. Fans of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s Portlandia (a pitch-perfect sketch-show) will recognise him as a bureaucratic phone salesman, a role which showcases his brilliance at improvisation. The Fringe is not entirely detached from this scene, but it’s always exciting to find the best and brightest comedians that America has to offer on the shores of perfidious Albion.
There are, of course, huge differences in aesthetic between American and British stand-up. Perhaps this is platitudinous, but in a very general sense, a British audience will expect a comedian to use an anecdote as a bridge to discussing some wider issue, whereas over the pond it is enough to remould a funny situation into a routine. Both approaches yield, but the latter encounters problems in the context of the Fringe. Nanjiani switched from one story to another with very little in the way of linkage. He talks about his childhood in Pakistan and his later life in America, and there is a clear thread from the former to the latter, but it can only be discovered in retrospect. While the most intriguing comedians at the Fringe usually employ some kind of organising principle to shape their material, Nanjiani’s show just felt like an hour of him talking – amusingly, admittedly – about himself.
Nanjiani deals in situational comedy, and his show consists of a series of anecdotes about his life in America and Pakistan. These vignettes do have the potential to be hilarious, but pretty much every single scenario felt under-utilised. A long story about hearing a burglar in the attic ends when Nanjiani pokes his head, complete with improvised colander helmet, upstairs — only to find that there is no one there. This real life anti-climax doesn’t seem to have any particular narrative purpose, it just hangs awkwardly in the air before Nanjiani changes topic. He’s good at detail, that much is evident, but this stylistic choice often leads to disappointment because of the stories’ ultimate lack of comic clout.
This does not diminish Nanjiani’s abilities as a performer. His ability to evoke place and experience is considerable. His description of an unexpectedly brutal birthday party in Pakistan is so fascinating that it surmounts the need for authorial commentary.
Nanjiani doesn’t use his inherent likeability as a substitute for humour as some comics do, but he make his personality a central part of his act. Perhaps he is a little too lovely. His interaction with the audience (who seemed keen to converse) was a bit lacking; at times he was all but handed material, and he failed to capitalise on it. He could have been bolder with the crowd, but perhaps this was because there were times where a palpable gap seemed to exist between the American comedian on stage and the mostly British audience, which, to his credit, he did attempt to bridge. He more than held their attention in any case and once his set got going in earnest the crowd were rapt.
By and large his show was a success and enjoyable on a number of levels. But when juxtaposed with some of the other comedians at this year’s Fringe (particularly Tony Law’s utterly brilliant new show, which has remained in my head for days and is one of the real highlights of this year’s festival), it feels like he has a little further to go.