Nish Kumar interview: Leftwing Comedy and the BBC

Ahead of his gig at the Lowry, Newsjack host Nish Kumar talks political correctness, leftwing comedy and the many benefits of giving your shows incomprehensible names

Feature by Jon Whiteley | 03 Nov 2015
  • Nish Kumar

Nish Kumar is a clever boy, or so says the blurb for his new show. (“The general conceit of the show [came about] because I kept on lazily describing myself as ‘just a clever boy’ when people ask me what sort of standup I do,” he explains.)

Kumar’s been a rising presence on the national comedy circuit for years now, and more recently turned his upbeat intellect to Radio 4 Extra’s weekly satire mill, Newsjack, which he started hosting back in February this year.

His show, Long Word... Long Word... Blah Blah Blah... I'm So Clever, pushes his clever-boy image to the foreground. “I got offhand comments saying, ‘long word, long word, blah blah, I’m so clever,’ and I sort of slowly realised that that was a funny name for a show and now I’ve really had to live with the consequences of that decision,” he says. With his previous show portentously titled Ruminations on the Nature of Subjectivity, you can’t help but feel that he was inviting this kind of feedback.

The title of the new show is both a savvy comment on dismissive reviewers looking to puncture his intellectual ambitions and a cattle grid to keep out the rabble: “I think if you give your show a bit of a weird title, it helps you find the right people to come see you... I really found that by giving it a weird title, I had better shows and didn’t have to firefight drunk people. So now I think I’ll just give them long-winded, increasingly incomprehensible titles because it seems to be working for me.”

The Rebirth of Leftwing Comedy

As well as being a knowingly clever show, it’s backed up with sharp polemic. “It’s quite political. It’s really about the idea of what being a leftwing comedian means to me. So it’s just sort of about the state of the left in a broader sense but also from the perspective of comedy in the left wing and it’s a pointed defence of political correctness. It’s sort of leftist standup, basically.” It’s no secret that openly political leftist comedy has enjoyed a renaissance since 2010, both at the Fringe and at a regional level, with even lesser-known comics able to tour political shows in a way that would be unthinkable five years ago. Long Word is no exception.

With political correctness being such a big theme in the show, it’s bound to draw ire, especially given that big American names such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock have come out recently saying it’s ruining comedy. Tempting though it is to dismiss this as two middle-aged millionaires lambasting young people for finding different things funny, political correctness – and its censorious effect on comedy – is a debate that keeps getting dragged up.

“I think post-alternative comedy, it’s been great. There’s been less bullies in comedy now and I just think it’s been a good thing,” Kumar says. In America, the debate often centres on college audiences, whose supposed cowardice is pushing comics to self-censor. “I’ve never played in America, so I don’t know what’s going on in their college campuses. I did a gig at a university on Monday and I don’t feel like anyone was particularly censored or constrained by what they could and couldn’t say.”

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Working for the BBC, Kumar is more than familiar with what it looks like to write comedy under strict restrictions. Although it’s constantly under fire for its supposed political bias, the Beeb’s non-partisan obligations create serious work for the creative teams behind their shows. “People who accuse the BBC of bias, and I’m talking about people from the left and the right, have no idea the amount of work that goes into trying to preserve impartiality. They have absolutely no clue. I think it would make people’s head spin.”

This drills all the way down to individual gags and sketches: “It’s constantly people chiming in and going, 'Have we got enough jokes about...?' 'Are we balancing our coverage?’ I can’t speak across departments but in comedy a lot of people are working really hard to make sure that the BBC is maintaining its impartiality and I’m sort of sick of reading thinkpieces and blogs about how biased the BBC is one way or another.” It's clear that when everyone thinks you're biased against them, you're not actually biased at all: “You know, we sort of work hard to make sure that everybody gets a kicking.”

Despite the constraints placed upon the Newsjack team, it’s a burden that Kumar gladly carries. “It’s an open-submissions show, so it’s new writers, and what you don’t want to do is put too many barriers down for new writers. So you don’t want to say, ‘Listen, we’re only going after this party this week,’ or, ‘Your sketch has to have an agenda.’” Comics on the left are often accused of intolerance; of either actively no-platforming rightwing comics, or at the very least dismissing their blue-rosette colleagues. “It just makes for better comedy, I think, in satire if you’re not tubthumping for one particular party.”

Collaborations and Voices

Before breaking into standup, Kumar cut his teeth as a sketch act: first in the Durham Revue, and then as one half of double act The Gentlemen of Leisure, with Tom Neenan. Even though he’s still dipping into sketch through Newsjack, the transition from sketch performer to standup can be a painful one.

Kumar continues to collaborate, though, if not during the initial writing process then in the honing of his standup: “It’s always helped to collaborate with people, because you can learn from other people’s working methods. But what it also gave me was a sort of certain rigorousness in writing because we would always focus on almost every word in the show in sketch shows.” He’s a tight performer, for sure: the thoroughness and precision of a sketch writer is stamped on all his routines.

Standup isn’t about laser precision, though; it's about the unique voice of the comic. “I feel like my standup really needs to come from me, exclusively. But in terms of building a show, I’ve been lucky, I have a lot of nice friends who are very good comedians and it’s a great resource to have them come and do notes.” This sounding board allows him to fine-tune material that is otherwise quite personal. “There’s a group of my mates who’ve been going a similar length of time and we all sort of give quite detailed notes when we go and see people, because you’ll think of things on your own and then sometimes it’s easy to lose perspective on why something’s not working.”

His industriousness is clearly paying off; he's clocked up appearances recently on Comedy Central and Have I Got News for You, with more broadcasts going out during the tour. “And then I’m gonna sleep for two weeks, to be quite frank with you. That’s like, my number one priority.” Well justified, no doubt, especially when you consider how important it is for clever boys to get a good night’s sleep.

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Nish Kumar plays The Lowry, Salford, on 22 Nov, as part of the Long Word tour. You can pick up his Ruminations on the Nature of Subjectivity DVD at the merch table