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Nish Kumar on being a meme, the legacy of Goodness Gracious Me and choosing comedy over law

The comedian reveals his early influences and why Asian families care so much about education.

In September 2012, a publicity shot of a pensive Nish Kumar found its way into the possession of some mischievous members of the far right. The image was subsequently turned into a meme known as the "Confused Muslim" and used to peddle such piercing religious jousting as: “Angry that Christians insulted my prophet. Cannot insult Jesus as he is a prophet too.” Kumar, who was “raised Hindu”, dedicated an entire section of his stand-up routine to responding to the meme, and admits it did leave him a little confused. “I didn’t even know they’d used it until someone shared it on my Facebook page!”

Prior to that, while undertaking comedy’s rites of passage, Kumar was working a series of mundane office jobs, presumably to help perfect his material. He explains: “I got out of university and there was a general panic throughout my family as to what I was going to do. For about six months, I did this job in recruitment and I was just so awful at it. I jumped before I was pushed. It was like being asleep for six months, although truth be told they probably did wish I was asleep because my conscious efforts were that bad. All the while I was working these office jobs, I was still gigging until finally I got enough comedy to make a real go of it.”

Kumar attended Durham University between 2004 and 2007, where officially he read English and History, but “what I really did was comedy.” He performed in the sketch group The Durham Revue, helping him first reach the Edinburgh Fringe. The 31-year-old, though, is quick to point out that he learnt to laugh well before his move to the north-east. So, what’s your origin story? “I was bitten by a radioactive Meera Syal,” he jokes. “No, but seriously, I used to watch a lot of comedy. I think Romesh [Ranganathan] and me are sort of the offspring of Goodness Gracious Me. That was a really seminal moment. I was only a kid at the time that it got big; I was a huge fan of The Simpsons and Red Dwarf, and other shows around then, but Goodness Gracious Me came along and there was this moment where you just thought: ‘Oh right, Asians can do this too.’”

Goodness Gracious Me, widely regarded as the peak of Asian comedy and arguably Asian media as a whole, was a sketch show which addressed serious issues affecting the continent’s British diaspora, including racism, integration versus assimilation, academic expectations and mixed relationships. How much does your ethnicity instruct your material? “I guess you’d have to say that experience informs whatever you do in stand-up. Of course, I’m going to draw on what I’ve grown up with, but the key distinction that I’ll point out is that people like me and Romesh don’t have to mention it. And we don’t have to; because we’ve had those doors kicked open for us by Goodness Gracious Me. They [the cast] kicked the doors open for us by normalising the idea of Asians in mainstream comedy. And they were able to be funny, not just about Asian issues, but also appeal to a wider audience.”

It’s worth noting that while Goodness Gracious Me may have succeeded in lampooning many tropes of being a British Asian, it represented as much a genuine coping mechanism as it did a welcome quirk of concept. The sketch about a father ruing that his son only managed to achieve four As and one B at A-Level is amusing, but it also serves to highlight a very pressurised aspect of many Asians’ upbringings.

Kumar, who comes from a family guilty of their own almost impossibly high standards, believes that this is a cultural phenomenon that has a scale. The moderate side means a little bit of ribbing at a family get together; the more sinister side means a student desperate to pursue arts is discouraged in favour of the notionally more respectable career paths of medicine, accountancy or law. Why do you think those sorts of jobs are put on a pedestal? “I guess from migrants’ perspectives in particular, as in those who have taken the risk to come to England in the first place, they just want some sort of security for their kids. If you’ve come over to England and done whatever job you can, the theory is that the next generation should do something that is indispensable to society. Essentially, if your kids become part of the machinery of the state, they won’t get kicked out.”

In contrast, many Asian families view creative industries as unstable. Kumar concedes that might be the case, but stresses that it’s more important to let people make their own life decisions. Were your family supportive of your career choice? “On the whole, yes. There were some worries for the reasons I’ve said – you know, how was I going to make any money? But there comes a landing point, where you finally get to a stage where you have something to hang your hat on. Then your family see that this is definitely happening and you’re making a success of it. For me, that moment came when I started doing work with Radio 4.” The Asian obsession with education, it seems then, is only rivalled by the Asian urge for one-upmanship – namely the ability to say your son or daughter works for a company other families will have heard of.

The UK’s decision to leave the EU has affected Asians as much as any other ethnicity; overflowing tensions relating to immigration don’t tend to differentiate between Europeans and non-Europeans’ freedom of movement. How much has Brexit become part of your routine? “The Brexit thing is really interesting. It happened in June and by August, lots of people were already doing sets about it. There was a real sense of defiance about it, but gradually it became more about just coping with the stark reality that this is actually happening. The challenge is to keep the audience laughing but constantly recognise the gravity of the situation.” Do you think that comedians have a political responsibility? “No, not at all. The job of a comedian is to make people laugh, but a lot of my interests are in politics so I’m going to use that.”

Has Brexit made the issue of race, any race, more sensitive on stage? Kumar recounts the story of a particularly obnoxious heckler at Soho Theatre: “It’s a real powder keg that you’re walking into. You have to have your own internal barometer of what is too far. I try and consider feelings of people in the audience. What you have to try and do is that when there is something that could be seen as a transgression, you actually have a reason to justify the joke. So I had to address it and stop the show. The rest of the audience got really angry with this guy.”

Kumar has come a long way since his days in The Durham Revue and is currently hosting Radio 4’s Spotlight Tonight on Wednesday nights. He’s performed on Mock the Week and Live at the Apollo, and contributed to last year’s hugely successful essay anthology The Good Immigrant, but is still reminded now and again: “What a great lawyer, I could have been.”

You can listen to Nish Kumar’s full interview with Rohan Banerjee and Hussein Kesvani on the No Country for Brown Men podcast.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear