Kumail Nanjiani and Jonah Ray Talk The Meltdown

Comedy Features

For about four years, Kumail Nanjiani and Jonah Ray have been hosting a live comedy show inside Meltdown Comics in the NerdMelt showroom so obviously, my first question to the pair was, “Are you excited for Comic-Con?” That probably wasn’t the best question to ask.

“Yeah. I’m going,” says Ray. “But also, I’m a bit offended that you just assumed that we’d be going. It’s like you’re asking, ‘So you nerds are going, huh?’”

“Yeah – we have a sports conference to go to,” chimes in Nanjiani.

“Yeah, yeah,” adds an assured and confident Ray. “There’s new balls coming out.”

Of course, they are joking. Nanjiani is going to the Just For Last Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, but flying back early to attend the con and Ray will be doing two Nerdist podcast shows and a one-on-one panel with Weird Al Yankovic.

But before Comic-Con happens, the two will be premiering their new show, The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail on Comedy Central on July 23 (that’s today). The show is essentially a TV version of their live show that has gained popularity among comedy cultists, but through a more documentarian-like lens. TV audiences all over the country will not only get to see the likes of Jim Gaffigan, Garfunkel and Oates, Nick Offerman, Marc Maron, Maria Bamford, David Koechner, Neal Brennan, and Moshe Kasher perform stand-up, but you will also give audiences a look at all the fun they have backstage.

After I apologized to them profusely for being presumptuous about them attending Comic-Con, they dished more details about The Meltdown TV show and just how awesome it’s going to be.

Paste: There are many comedy nerds familiar with the Meltdown show and know what it’s all about, but what do you hope that people who aren’t familiar with the comedy world will get out of the show?
Kumail Nanjiani: Obviously, I think they have to like comedy to like this show. It is a comedy show. But I think it’ll give people an insight into what the L.A. comedy scene is like. A big part of the scene is that a lot of us are friends, and we hang out. People get a little bit of sense of that from podcasts, but hopefully, people watch this show and get a sense of the camaraderie, because that’s a big part of this thing.
Jonah Ray: It’s for people that want a more realistic look at how comedy shows really are, as opposed to the very much polished, shot-in-the-theater, with huge cameras and cranes going around, that people are getting used to with other comedy specials and shows.
Nanjiani: I think that’s a good point. We sort of expect a certain kind of show when you see it live, but on TV we’re somehow okay with a pretty artificial experience. We want to do a show where there wasn’t as much of a separation between our live show and the televised show.

Paste: Are there any really huge differences in what the live audience sees and what the TV audience will see?
Nanjiani: No. The TV audience will see a much shorter version. Unfortunately, it’s only a half-hour show. When we do the live show, it’s about an hour. They’ll see less than the live audience sees. Obviously, the live audience doesn’t see all the stuff that’s going on backstage. I think we captured [on TV] the feel of being at the live show pretty well.
Ray: In editing, the parts we took out are the parts you don’t really need. You don’t really need to show someone walking all the way onto the stage and grabbing the mic and getting settled. No one’s going to see a comic on stage and go, “Whoa! Wait! How did he get there?” We just get to the bits and we just have the best chunks of the night. It’s almost like a little greatest hits of whatever happened that night.

Paste: So how and when did you two meet?
Ray: I’d known about Kumail. The first time I’d heard of him was because of the John Mayer situation.
Nanjiani: Is that right? I didn’t know that.
Ray: I had heard about you, but I didn’t really know. I just heard the name. I didn’t know much about you. I was actually opening up for Chris Hardwick at Comic [in New York], and then Kumail came by and did a guest spot. We chatted there. Then, when he came to L.A., we started hanging out. It wasn’t like fireworks. Sorry to say, Kumail – I wasn’t too familiar with your work. [laughs]
Nanjiani: Anyway, I had an altar to Jonah in my house. All his stuff was there. It was really awkward when we first met because I had so much stuff for him to sign for me.
Ray:Oh, sure. Me, too. Me, too.
Nanjiani: I was in Chicago for a long time. but when I was there, I was very aware of the New York and L.A. scenes. They were the big awesome scenes and they still are. I knew a lot of L.A. and New York comedians. Obviously, I knew Comedy Death-Ray, which is now Comedy Bang! Bang!. I knew that you did it all the time. I knew you through just reading your name on the lineups and stuff, and being, like, “Someday, I’ll go there.”
Ray: There is a thing that happens when you’re not in a city and you hear about the show and you see the names of the people that are doing the show. You’re just, like, “Well, they’re there. They’ve got it going on.”

Paste: What was the very first Meltdown show like?
Nanjiani: I remember it being really good. I think that there was a chance that I couldn’t make it that night. Is that right? Or the second one I couldn’t make it. But I remember that we did the show and enough people came that it was, like, “Oh! L.A. just needed another good comedy show.”
Ray: Yeah. I’d been doing a show there at that spot monthly. Then, the Friday before, I was, like, “Hey, everyone that’s been coming to this show, I thank you for that. Me and my friend are going to start doing a show here on Wednesdays every week. If you could do us a favor and then just come to that show.” We were expecting that it was going to take a while to get the show going, but we already had this audience that was ready for this show to be there on that night. When I started in L.A., there was maybe two good book shows a week and maybe one good open mic a night. Everyone went to the same ones. Now, every night of the week, there’s a phenomenal show in the city. It’s pretty incredible.

Paste: What is one of your favorite Meltdown memories?
Nanjiani: I was very excited. I remember it was my birthday and my wife’s birthday the next day. We had back-to-back birthdays. Robin Williams just happened to drop in that night and did a set. I’ve been a massive Robin Williams fan for so long. We were hosting the show. I walked backstage and there was this guy. He was, like, “Hey, I’m Robin.” I was, like, “Yeah! We know who you are.” I asked him if he wanted to go up, and he was, like, “Oh, no, no.]
Ray: [imitating Robin Williams’s deep voice] “No, no, no, no!”
Nanjiani: Yeah. [imitating Robin Williams’s voice in a deeper voice] “No, no!”
Ray:”No, no!” [in an even deeper voice]
Nanjiani: I was, like, “Oh, but just two minutes,” and he had his hat and his jacket off and he’s, like, “All right. I’ll do two minutes.” He’d been shooting [The Crazy Ones] and it had been so stressful for him. So after he went up, he said, “I really needed that, I just needed to do something where I do whatever I wanted with no notes.” That was really cool – hat he just went up and really had a blast doing the show.
Ray: All the people were laughing. You introduced Robin Williams and people think it’s somebody doing a character, but it was, like, “Oh, no. That’s the actual Robin Williams.”
Nanjiani: Yeah. It’s neat. The drop-ins are the really memorable times. I remember one night, Adam Cayton-Holland, an amazing comic from Denver was getting ready to go on. Then, all of a sudden, Daniel Tosh walks in. Daniel Tosh is, like, “Hey, do you mind if I go up next?” We’re like, “Hey, Adam, is that cool?” He’s, like, “Ah, okay. I’ll go up after Daniel Tosh.” Then, Louis C.K. shows up, and Louis is, like, “Hey, can I go next?” We’re like, “Well, Daniel’s going, actually. Want to go after him?” He’s, like, “Yeah, sure. I’ll go after Daniel Tosh.” We have to go back to Adam and go, “Hey, you’re not next. It’s going to be Daniel, then it’s going to be Louis C.K., and then you can go up.” He’s, like, “Ah! Okay. Whatever.” Then, Drew Carey fucking shows up, says, “Hey, can I go up?” Adam was supposed to go up, and then all of a sudden, it’s Daniel Tosh, Louis C.K. and Drew Carey all go up in a row. Then, Adam goes up and he crushes. It was really cool. It’s a weird thing for a comic to be bumped three times by the biggest comics. Then to just go up with that and dominated – It was a great moment to be able to do that.

Paste: How do you think the comedy scene has changed since you guys started? Where do you think it’s going?
Nanjiani: I don’t know specifically, but I know where comedy is right now. At least for us, so many of our friends are doing different TV shows and stuff, I think right now it seems like, more than any other time, comedians are able to do a lot of different kinds of things. They can act in a TV show. Then they can host a comedy show. They can host a podcast. What’s cool about that is nobody’s specialized. All the comedians we know, including us, we’re able to do a lot of different kinds of things. Jonah hosts a podcast about music. I host a podcast about video games and one about the X-Files. You get to do a lot of different kinds of stuff. That’s what’s really cool for us. It’s really cool for comedy fans, too.
Ray: Definitely. From when we started, a lot of stuff has changed. We started at the tail end of, I guess, what people were considering the alt comedy scene. To say that that’s a dead term, that’s like saying there’s no more underground music scene or there’s no more alternative music. There is. It just takes different forms. When we started, there wasn’t podcasts Twitter, or YouTube. You were just kind of throwing stuff into the ether and hoping that it picked up. Now you have a better idea. Promotion is easier. There’s people becoming big successes off of just an online presence. It’s been interesting to see what happens in comedy.
Nanjiani: The distance between performer and audience has really, really changed. You just have a lot more access to people directly. You can actually talk to people one-on-one on Twitter. There’s a better connection to the audience than any other time.
Ray: Our show is very much – we know the people that come every week and we make references to them. A lot of them show up in the TV show. You just see them in the audience. We get to know them, also, just not just from seeing them, but because they tweet about us, at us, about the show, throughout the week. They’re always there to be very supportive. It’s an interesting time for sure.

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