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"I quite like to end up with a setlist that involves a catalogue of human misery..." Nish Kumar on his return to stand-up comedy

image credit: Matt Stronge

With a brand new stand-up tour coming to the UK later this year, including a number of shows in Sussex, we talk to comedian and TV present Nish Kumar about his time on The Mash Report, getting pelted with bread rolls at gigs, and why he always looks forward to playing shows in smaller towns...

So you have a new tour coming up later this year, the show is called Nish, Don’t Kill My Vibe… where did that title come from?

“The title is a jokey reference to two things, one of them being me doing comedy about the news at a time when the news is not particularly fun, the other being a reference to a Kendrick Lamar song. It’s a sort of thematic summation of the comedy I do, but also a play on words referencing that Kendrick tune, which I love.”

Your comedy often features observations on political issues, can we expect more of that on this new tour?

“I’d like to think so. Political, yes, but I guess it’s not just political in terms of party politics, but also things like wealth and equality, or indulging problematic artists. I quite like to end up with a setlist that involves a catalogue of human misery, and then somehow turn that into something that’s a fun night out for people!"

We’ll have had the general election by then, and all the signs seem to point to a change in government - is that something you’re having to keep in the back of your mind as you’re putting the show together?

“Yeah, so what I do is work through it backwards. I tend to do the second half of the show first, because that’s the half that won’t really change. I like to try and keep to a 60-70 minute show that will be pretty much the same night after night. When people have paid £25 for a ticket, you want to be delivering something that’s worked out and has a kind of focus and intent to it, but then also I’ll normally do 20 minutes after the support act in the first half of the show that will change constantly.

“That’s the stuff I’ll write as we get closer to the start of the tour, because with the speed that things have moved at over the last decade – and certainly in the last two-and-a-half years or so - who knows where we’ll be in 12 months? I finished up my last tour around October 2022 and the pace at which things have moved since then is crazy.”

How do you usually prepare material for a live tour? Do you try things out at open mics and things like that?

“Basically, yeah. I go and do loads of gigs in small pub rooms around London where I live, and that’s the only way I can do it, really. I have to be constantly checking in with an audience and the material.”

When you left The Mash Report / Late Night Mash you said in a statement you were stepping down to “spend more time with your emotional problems” – how’s that going?!

“So far, so good. My emotional problems and I have never been closer.”

Was it just a case of wanting to do something different? That you’d taken that as far as you could take it?

“I think so, yeah. You know, we’d obviously had the fallout of the thing with the BBC, then we relocated it to Dave and I thought that having got it set up and done the full series, that would be a good point for me to step away from it. I wanted to do things within the show that the people who made it were either unable or unwilling to let me do, which is their prerogative and their right. So, I thought it was probably best for me to step back from it, we’d left in a pretty good condition and I thought it was probably time for me to mosey off.”

Is there something particularly challenging about creating a political, news-driven satire show in the UK? It’s difficult to name an example that has enjoyed the kind of longevity of American equivalents like The Daily Show….

“I think the truth is that there’s a very boring answer to this, and it’s to do with economics and how much money you can throw at these things. The staffing on those American shows is way higher than we could really afford in this country. The reality with The Mash Report is that we just did it, it went up, and we showed that you could do it and have a really big audience for it.

“As for the reasons behind the decision to cancel it, that’s still something I’m not really clear about. But I think there is also a political climate around the BBC which makes it very difficult for the BBC to do that kind of show, because the truth is that there is an opinion and a point of view behind all those shows that we were trying to emulate, and that definitely rubs a section of the British media up the wrong way. It’s very difficult to do anything if you’ve upset the right-wing press in this country, particularly with the pressure that’s exerted on the BBC.”

Is that partly down to our uniquely weird political culture? There’s a sort of closeness between politics and the media in the UK that you don’t really see to the same extent elsewhere…

“Yeah, and I also think the BBC is in a weird position. It’s under constant pressure, it constantly faces some sort of existential threat. I just wish that it wouldn’t take as seriously the criticisms of people who come to them in bad faith. The Daily Mail isn’t really interested in improving the BBC, they’re not interested in making it better, they’re interested in obliterating it, because they have a commercial interest it not existing, you know? Road Runner is not taking tips from Wile E. Coyote!”

You’ve been doing more of the podcast type stuff over the last year with Pod Save the UK, how are you enjoying doing that?

“It’s been great, I love working with Coco [Khan, co-host] who is a good friend of mine, and working with Crooked Media out in the States is amazing. They’re very happy for us to get on with it and also they are explicitly progressive in their outlook, so there’s not the same pressure around impartiality, which is something that I do think the BBC does – in spite of what’s written about it – take very seriously and work very hard on. And, you know, impartiality is a very good thing in a public broadcaster, but I think it’s been helpful for me to have a bit more freedom to express my opinion in regard to the news.”

Do you miss doing stand-up when you’re busy with TV shows and podcasts?

“Well, I never really stopped doing stand-up. I mean there were points during Mash when I was doing less of it because the week-to-week cycle of doing those shows was quite physically and emotionally demanding. And I do miss doing stand-up while I’m doing that, but I’ve never stopped doing it for any great period of time. The maximum would be six weeks, so I’ve never really had that bigger break from it. Outside of the small issue of the global pandemic."

If you had to pick one or the other, TV or stand-up, which would it be?

“Probably stand-up to be honest. It’s the most distilled form of what I do, it’s the most immediate and it’s the one where you have the most control. Ultimately, your success or failure is completely on your shoulders, if it goes badly, it’s completely fault. But you’re never getting blamed for something that you didn’t have the power to change.”

Is that something you experienced while doing The Mash Report?

“Yeah, I mean some of the stuff to do with Mash wasn’t even really about the show, that’s the insane thing about it. It was a proxy conversation about whether the BBC should exist. And we never made any claims that weren’t true. I think Stewart Lee has talked about this at length; unless something is obviously and very clearly a joke, you can’t just spread falsehoods on the BBC. So it was an interesting thing to read the press, to read all this absolute b****cks, and think: ‘We’re not allowed to make this s**t up! This doesn’t feel fair at all!’”

You’ve got a few shows in Sussex on the tour – Brighton Dome, Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall – have you played any of those venues before?

“I’ve played all of those venues before, yes! I’ve been to all of them, a couple of times in the case of Bexhill and Tunbridge Wells, in the case of Brighton it’s more like a million times. I’ve done so many gigs specifically at the Dome as well, it’s a fantastic venue.”

Do you find attitudes towards your kind of comedy differ as you move around different parts of the country?

“What I will say about that is when you’re doing comedy clubs there can be different vibes to different places, but when you’re touring it’s like you’ve slightly flattened out regional variation in some ways. I mean, there are still things that are specific to each place you go to, but in terms of the way the audience behaves, someone who comes to see my show in Brighton is probably going to get along pretty well with someone who comes to see me in Newcastle, or Dublin, or New York. There’s a kind of international code of comedy nerd-dom that I think in many ways supplants regional variation.”

Is there anywhere you’re particularly looking forward to playing on the new tour?

“I’m always exited to go to the smaller places like Tunbridge Wells and Bexhill, actually, because the people who live in those places are very excited not just to see me, but to be in a room with like-minded people. If you go to places with a big conservative vote, they’re often very excited just to be in a room full of like-minded people in their area, I genuinely think that’s a big part of it. And of course I’m excited to play at the Dome again. Brighton is a really, really great place to do comedy and has historically been very good to me. It’s one of those places where I’ve done so many gigs there, especially when I was starting out, doing open-mic gigs in Brighton, lots of little pub gigs around the city.

“The audiences there are notoriously great and the Dome is a big night. There are some nights on the tour where you’re like ‘That’s a lot of people! That’s a big room!’ Those are the venues you have to be ready for, because they might have seen Nick Cave in that room the night before, you know? They might have seen a sixteen-piece jazz band, and you’re about to turn up there with nothing but your opinions? Well, they’d better be funny.”

Any places you’re dreading? What are the most daunting venues to play?

“To be frank with you – and I’m not going to name them because I don’t want to slag places off – but I have steadily eliminated those places from the touring schedule!”

There was an interview you did with The Guardian a while back where you mentioned that you’d noticed a change in audience behaviour since the pandemic. Are audiences getting a bit more hostile, do you think?

“I don’t think it’s hostile so much as people had slightly forgotten how to behave in crowds, but I think that was just a consequence of the pandemic in the immediate aftermath, and I’d also say that it has sort of evened itself out a bit now.

"I think that there were two things at work; we had all slightly forgotten how to behave in public, and I also think we’d all slightly lost our compass for how much alcohol we could take on! I think that people had very different relationships with drinking during the lockdown. Some of us doubled down and went harder, some people maybe weren’t having as big a night at home as they would have had out with friends beforehand, so were just slightly unable to regulate how much they were drinking. But I do think it has gotten better recently.”

You famously had a bread roll thrown at you during a charity do, of all things…


Are missiles a common problem?

“No, thankfully that was the first and only one. It was a gig for a cricket charity. It’s interesting actually because I think in the south of England cricket is a bit more of a blue-blood, aristocratic sort of sport, and then there’s just loads of Indians and Pakistanis, so it’s sort of an odd mix. Whereas if you go to the north of England the relationship between cricket and class is quite different, I think. It’s more of an egalitarian game in the north. In the south of England rugby and cricket, in particular, seem to denote something. Unless you’re South Asian, in which case your background is sort of irrelevant because you are just born obsessed with cricket. It’s what all your dads watch. It’s what all your mums watch, even. Cricket in South Asian communities does not delineate along gender lines. You want to talk to my aunt about Tendulkar’s batting average? You’ll have a great conversation.”

What’s the best heckle you’ve ever had at a live show?

“I’ll say this: there’s no such thing as a good heckle. When someone is trying to heckle you, they are never funny, it has literally never happened to me that someone has heckled me and I’ve thought ‘wow, you should be up here!’ But when people accidentally say something and they immediately apologise to you, it’s always brilliant. The people who apologise for having said something during your show have always said something funny. It’s weird but it's an absolute cast-iron rule. And the absolute clowns that have weighed in and then afterwards gone ‘You’re welcome’? Those people are, uniformly, f***ing morons."

Would you do more TV stuff if the right opportunity came along?

“I’ve actually been I’ve been doing new series of Hold the Front Page this year with Josh Widdicombe where we go to local newspapers, which is really fun. I guess the standout headline thing from the new series was going to an English-language newspaper in Benidorm that’s produced for the English-speaking community there – which, as I found out, is all of Benidorm, because all of the locals have fled into the mountains. It was nice to also do one down in Devon, where Josh is from, so that sort of added an extra layer to it."

That must be a real eye-opening thing to do, especially given the decline of local news in a lot of areas?

“Yeah, I mean the theme of the show really is celebrating local journalists and local papers, we got to meet really amazing people doing amazing things. I remember when Liz Truss was in her six week tenure, or whatever it was, as Prime Minister, and trying to – in her mind – duck some difficult questions by not doing national press, and instead doing interviews with local radio stations. And I remember thinking: ‘I don’t think she’s in for the afternoon she thinks she is’, because these local journalists are people who are very across the issues that affect their area, and they have a very keen sense of how those issues intersect with national politics. And she just got flame-grilled for the whole afternoon, it was incredible to watch her just getting absolutely Frost-Nixoned again and again and again….”

“That was not surprising to me, even with my admittedly limited experience of encountering local journalists. Somebody asked me if the newspapers were annoyed that we were there, somebody who works in the media, and I said ‘No, of course not, we were paying them to be there. How naïve are you?’ Sometimes the credulity of people who work in the media just staggers me. Very often the papers were glad to have us because it puts attention on what they’re doing and it’s getting them some money, because social media has broken the funding model for newspapers, and that goes as much for nationals as it does for local newspapers. You’re now in a system where the media landscape has fundamentally changed, we were told that it was going to democratise the media and I think a lot of us believed that. But actually, what it has done is concentrate power for an even smaller group of people, it has had the opposite effect. It shouldn’t be Elon Musk’s decision whether videos that are critical about the BJP in India, for example, should appear on a website that is ostensibly designed to broadcast information as widely as possible. Now, suddenly, instead of it being the case that it’s a user-driven, democratised system of information dissemination, it’s actually just down to the decision of one incredibly thin-skinned man.”


Nish's new tour Nish, Don't Kill My Vibe begins in September this year - you can find info on booking and tickets here.

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