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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Interview: Nish Kumar – “A snapshot of what I’m interested in”

Emma Leech talks politics, publicity and publishing with comic Nish Kumar

Over the past three years, comedian Nish Kumar has had quite the change of scene. Despite performing at the Edinburgh Fringe festival since he was a student, it was only recently that Nish gave up temping in offices to pursue comedy full-time. The motivation? “A burning desire to not have a real job.” Now, he is a regular face on nation comedy TV shows and about to embark on his fifth solo tour. Nish attributes his success to persistent flyering and the support of his fellow Fringe performers.

As a member of the Durham Revue, Nish’s comedy career started early and blossomed thanks to the support network this group provided him. “One of the advantages of starting at university and joining a group like that is that you really rely on the emotional support of your friends and your friendship group. We were really lucky we got along well with our counterparts in Oxford and Cambridge so we were able to form a little gang and provide moral support for each other because it is a really intense and quite gruelling month.” Nish is quite the veteran of the Fringe by now and tells me how to get noticed. “You’ve got to be prepared to start flyering. That was how [I] sold tickets in 2006 to 2009; just from getting out on the streets and handing out flyers and that still does work. That is still the most effective way of shifting tickets in Edinburgh because the fringe is unique in that there are people just walking around who are looking for shows to see and looking for someone to sell their show to them.”

Nowadays, after becoming a full time comedian in 2013, Nish is well-known enough not to have to trudge the Royal Mile for hours on end, waving flyers in the faces of strangers but his gratitude to the festival is clear. “I wouldn’t have a career without the Fringe, just in terms of what it’s done for me professionally but also in terms of improving me as a performer.” More recently, his prestigious nominations prove how far he has come. He tells me how “satisfying” it is to have begun as one comedian flyering amongst thousands to having his face plastered on big posters around the city. “It’s very gratifying to have seen the whole process of Edinburgh from the beginning to, I don’t know what the end of it is, but to at least come to a point where I am selling tickets and not having to flyer for myself and getting good reviews and being nominated for awards.”

Nish is about to start his fifth solo tour, Actions Speak Louder Than Words. Unless you Shout the Words Real Loud. The theme of the show is overtly political, touching on topics such as gentrification and colonisation. Each show will change as the political climate evolves over the coming weeks and Nish is no stranger to political stand-up but he feels this time may be different due to the “toxic dialogue that is hanging over us as a country.” He tells me that never before has speaking about politics seemed so “loaded” and that although his audiences know his reputation, there is always a risk when performing comedy about politics. “Cut to three months later and I’ve been beaten up 15 times,” he jokes.

The difficulty of bringing together serious political issues and comedy is also at the forefront of his mind but, as a satirical comic, it is something he is used to. “You want to undermine powerful people. What you don’t want to do is find yourself undermining the vulnerable.”  This is his second overtly political show, however, so he clearly knows what he is doing. “I did half a history degree at university so I’m trying to make use of it,” he quips, but his interest in social injustice and making a difference in the real world is evident. For example, he tells me how proud he is to have contributed to Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant, a book which was crowd-funded and written to combat the “fairly mono-cultural” world of publishing.

As well as being a stand-up, Nish also hosts the radio show Newsjack for BBC Radio 4Extra. This is a refreshing take on the satirical format as all the sketches and one-liners are selected through an open-submission process. This allows for anyone to try their hand at comedy writing, but crucially, allows new writers to get a foot in the satirical door. “Having done it over two years, four series, there are people who started just submitting sketches in my first series who are now working on things like The Now Show and The News Quiz. The system works, it really great.” Each writer featured on the programme is paid and given writing credits. Nish writes a weekly monologue and introduces each sketch but it is clear that he has a genuine passion for the format. “There is no better way really to find comedy writers than just asking them to send stuff in.”

Nish is playing the Oxford Glee on 27th November. The show, which he calls, “a snapshot of what I’m interested in,” promises to be an interesting and entertaining investigation into the past and present of our society.

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