Though we’ve talked to Jonah Ray and Kumail Nanjiani a number of times for The A.V. Club, with a new season of The Meltdown With Jonah And Kumail kicking off tomorrow night on Comedy Central, it seemed like as good a time as any to do it again. Ray’s got more episodes of The Nerdist podcast under his belt this time around, and Nanjiani just came off a great second season of Silicon Valley, after all. But what to ask them? Rather than do all the work ourselves, we instead decided to have them interview each other—after a little prodding from us, at least.
The A.V. Club: When did you two first meet?
Jonah Ray: The first time I remember meeting Kumail, I think, was when I was opening up for [Chris] Hardwick at the Gotham Comedy Club.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah, but I don’t remember meeting Jonah then. I remember meeting Matt Mira. Are you sure you were there, Jonah?
JR: I was, because I remember I brought you up.
KN: No, I thought that was just a house emcee.
JR: No, no. I told you I was a big fan…
KN: That sounds familiar.
JR: That part was a lie, though. I said that so I could just disarm you and you would be like, “This guy is a fan; I should be nice to him.” It was just a way to get you to be nice to me.
KN: Was I nice?
JR: You were dismissive.
KN: That sounds like me.
JR: When did you meet me then?
AVC: Or when do you remember meeting him, at least?
KN: Oh, years later. I think it was year three of doing Meltdown.
No, I think I probably met you at a party in L.A. after I had moved to L.A.
JR: Well you also came to a taping of Web Soup when I was working there.
KN: Yeah, but you weren’t there, though.
JR: Yeah, I was. I worked every episode, so I was there.
KN: Maybe it wasn’t me.
JR: Yeah it was. I think that’s when we exchanged numbers and were like, “Maybe we should hang out sometime.”
KN: Oh yeah, Web Soup. Chris Hardwick hosted that!
Okay. I remember that. We exchanged numbers and were like, “We should hang out.” I put you in my phone as “Do Not Answer.”
JR: Yeah that was funny, especially when you told me that’s what you were doing.
KN: I couldn’t remember how to spell answer at the time.
JR: Yeah. Then I put you in my phone as “Future Best Friend” and you laughed too hard at that.
KN: I think we started doing the show pretty soon after I moved to L.A., right? I moved here, in 200—what are we in, year five? We’ve been doing this show for about five years in October.
JR: So it was about five years ago that you moved out here.
KN: Yeah, I moved here in summer of 2010, I believe.
JR: It was for Franklin & Bash, the life-changing television event. When did that start? Let’s look that up because that’s a good indication of when you moved out here.
KN: Well, I did the pilot in 2009 and I think it got picked up the end of summer and I moved here in 2010 because we started doing the show in 2010.
JR: I base most of my years on that. It’s like an A.D/B.C. kind of thing.
KN: With me or Franklin & Bash? How many episodes have you seen?
JR: What? Dude, the catalog; I’m into it.
KN: Which one is your favorite?
JR: Basically the ones where it’s just you guys and you’re just doing it and you’re always on the computer. I don’t know. What’s the one where you had to go do the thing and the thing couldn’t get done and so you did the thing?
KN: Yeah, that was actually a really good one. Wow, I guess you really do know the show.
JR: That one was my favorite.
KN: That was a strong episode for my character. What was my character’s name again?
JR: Uh, Dinesh.
KN: No. [Laughs.] It was Pindar, but that’s okay.
JR: That’s racist.
But yeah, so we were hanging out a few times with my then-girlfriend now-wife and you and Emily [V. Gordon] and we were getting dinner and you two said you had to take off to go check out a possible venue for a comedy show you wanted to start doing.
KN: Yeah, because when I moved to L.A., it didn’t feel like there were enough live shows at the time and in New York, there were so many shows that I was like, “Oh, this will be good. When I’m not doing Franklin & Bash, I’d love to host a show and I can have a show every week, a good show that I could do. Emily produced Pete Holmes’ show in New York, a show called Punch Up Your Life, and so she was like, “I’ll produce it and you host it,” and then we were sort of looking at a bunch of venues and you were going, “Why would you go to that place? That place is horrible.”
JR: It was a place where people would always try to put on shows and they would always fail because it was such a bad venue.
KN: We really, really wanted a space where you could be like, “Oh, we could have a really, really great show here.” There are so many spaces where people do shows and you’re like, “Oh, in this space it’s not possible to have a great show.” But Emily wanted a space that could be amazing, and I’d seen the back of Meltdown Comics once when I visited years ago—I just walked into the comic bookstore and Ed Salazar was there. That was the night Salazar was wearing hipster glasses. Jonah, do you remember that period?
JR: [Laughs.] I do remember that.
KN: And I had met him at some other show and he said, “Come check out this show,” and I went back there and it was like this magical land. It was awesome, it looked fucking fantastic and a couple of years later when Jonah mentioned that space again, I said, “Oh, yeah. That would be a great space for the show.”
JR: I had been doing a monthly show there with me and Ed Salazar.
KN: Was this when he was wearing glasses?
JR: He wore glasses here and there, I think. Or it could have been me. Maybe you met me.
KN: Nope! I didn’t meet you until after I moved here.
JR: Yeah, that’s true. Well, I don’t know. I was doing shows there and I wanted it to be weekly, but I was working a lot on Web Soup and I just didn’t have the time or energy to book a show every week. Plus, I wanted it to be good, because a lot of guys start a weekly show and they just kind of slack on the booking and it goes nowhere, but when I was talking to Emily and Kumail, they were into making a really good show. So I said, “What if you do it here weekly?”
AVC: Did you guys know that you liked the same stuff? How did you know the show would work?
JR: We didn’t.
KN: Yeah, it was a massive risk. But we were like, “Hey, if this sucks, it’ll go away in a month!” There were really no stakes to it.
We liked each other, we were friends. I don’t think either of us ever thought us hosting the show would be a problem or an issue. We figured we liked the same stuff and liked each other’s comedy, so that part of it wasn’t worrying to me. The part that was worrying to me was doing it in a space that, at that time, wasn’t perfect. The room itself wasn’t good, the sound system wasn’t perfect. The lights weren’t perfect, the soundboard was in the middle of the room, there were pillars in weird spots and we had to find an audience. I knew that we knew enough funny people to put on the show and I knew that we were going to have fun hosting it, but I just didn’t know how we were going to get people to come to it.
AVC: It’s still kind of a weird space and you can see that on the show. People are really packed in to a little space.
KN: What works about it is that it is a weird space, but it’s a really good space for comedy. Physically, that place is such a good room for shows that all the weirdness of it just adds to it rather than detracts from it.
JR: Low ceilings are a huge plus for a comedy show because it holds in all the energy and laughter from the audience. Reactions feel bigger in a small space.
AVC: You’ve also had people do things on the show that aren’t necessarily conceptual, but they aren’t just straight stand-up sets. Those things work better in that space as well.
KN: If I remember correctly, Jonah was like, “Let’s do a boring, normal presentation of a show,” and I was like, “No, we’ve got to do backstage stuff and cooler stuff.” Am I remembering that correctly, Jonah? I was the one that was like, “We need to keep it interesting and fun,” and I believe the phrase I used was that it should be a “documentary of the night.” I believe that’s how I convinced Jonah, who was like, “We need to create the next Premium Blend.”
JR: This, right now, is Kumail testing my lack of ego. He’s waiting for me to just say, “Yeah!”
KN: “Documentary of the night” was Jonah’s phrase and it describes the show really well.
AVC: You should both just say it was all Emily.
KN: Honestly, we can both agree that Emily is the reason that the show is still going on. We would have given up. I don’t know how we would have booked it. I don’t know what my day looks like when I wake up in the morning and she has to plan the show months in advance.
Jonah, talk about the feel of the show. I derailed from that a little bit.
JR: We just wanted to showcase what shows were like for us the past 10-plus years of going to comedy shows. We didn’t go to see comedy in theaters or arenas or anything like that. We were going to bars and coffee shops and bookstores. The comedy I came up with and—Kumail, in New York, you went to weird places. Back rooms of bars and whatnot, and we wanted to showcase what comedy has been like for a lot of people for a long time now, like 15 years.
KN: Performing and watching.
JR: Exactly. It’s a different type of crowd. To do a show in a club or a theater space, that’s not the shows we were doing so why would we showcase our shows in that context? That was the big idea of it.
KN: Our big thing was that we weren’t going to move the show to a bigger space; it has to happen in that space because that, really, is what makes the show special is that space and the fact that it’s behind a comic book store and all that. I think that changes people’s expectations of what a comedy show should be as opposed to going to a big theater space or something like that.
JR: We have the TV taping come to us as opposed to us going to where the TV taping happens.
KN: Jonah, when did you first think of doing it as a TV show?
JR: I think we joked around about it without any serious intent of, “If we turned it into a show, oh, would it be a narrative, would it be a show about us putting on a show?”
KN: We did! I remember at one point we were going to do a Larry Sanders kind of thing because Mike Rosenstein, who is a producer on the show and works for Red Hour, which is Ben Stiller’s production company that produces the show, he was the one coming to the show and saying, “Hey, we should do a TV show. We should do a Meltdown TV show.” And, initially, my reaction was, “That sounds really stupid, get out of the green room, why are you here?”
JR: Get your big beard out of here.
KN: Yeah, get your big beard out of here. But the more we talked, I was the one initially that said we should do a scripted, backstage thing. I was just a little scared of doing a normal stand-up show because I don’t think I like any of those showcase stand-up shows.
JR: You had the best line about it. You said, “Never once have I floated above the audience from one side of the room to another while watching a comic perform then turned around to see someone’s face while they’re laughing.”
KN: Yeah, exactly, because that’s always the camera shot we see. So I was a little resistant to doing it because I didn’t see how we could do it right and I had never seen it done the way that I had liked. But then we talked a lot in the beginning. I keep forgetting that we talked a lot about what the show should be and now, when I watch the show, it seems so natural. It seems like such an easy, not obvious in a bad way but obvious in a good way to do Meltdown on TV. It’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s how you would do it.” But it took us a long time to arrive at that.”
JR: We were a bit hesitant of doing just another stand-up show because there are stand-up shows on TV all the time and we were more interested, at that time, in like making a narrative and making it a show about a show. It seemed so much more original to us at the time and it seemed much more exciting than to do it as a documentary-style stand-up show.
KN: One of the other things we had pitched, especially to Comedy Central—who, by the way, has been amazing to work with—but I knew how shows like Premium Blend and Live At Gotham worked and Comedy Central books those shows. And we really wanted to book the shows ourselves and have the comedians we wanted on it and that was part of our pitch, too. “It has to happen in this space and it has to be comedians that we want. And you can’t ask for transcripts.” I remember when I was doing sets on other things and, like, I’m typing up my jokes and nothing is less funny than watching your fucking bits on a Word document. It’s like, “Why did I ever think this was ever funny, what’s supposed to be funny here?” I felt so vulnerable in a bad way, I felt so naked typing these jokes out and sending them to them like, “Here! Hopefully it’s funny when you read it in your office!” so I really didn’t want that to be the experience of people doing our show.
JR: It’s our show and we’re having our friends and our contemporaries and some of our heroes on the show and it would feel so weird for us to ask, you know, Hannibal Buress to type up what he’s going to say and send it to me, Kumail and Emily? Thanks!
KN: Yeah, it’s like, “Who the fuck are you?” We used to do open mics together! We didn’t want to do that. We don’t book material, we book comedians.
AVC: Some of the stuff that’s worked best on the show seems like it came about after you just booked a person and let them do whatever they wanted. You trust them. If you’re booking Zach Galifianakis, you’re booking whatever he’s going to do and you trust he’s going to do it well.
KN: Fuck, we should have tried to book Zach Galifianakis, Jonah.
JR: That’s a really good idea. What the fuck?!
KN: We didn’t even think of this! I’m not joking, Marah!
AVC: Next time.
Recently, I asked Jack Black what Amy Poehler’s going to do on Festival Supreme this fall, and he said he didn’t know, but what did it matter? That she’s a genius and whatever she does will be great. That sort of thing.
KN: Yeah, it’s Amy Poehler. Let her do whatever she wants.
I think people appreciate that. We have Brett Gelman, who would never do a late-night spot, doing a fucking great bit on our show. And what’s great about Lance Bangs is that he came out of shooting those skateboarding videos and stuff, so he’s really good at capturing moments. We worked with him and we really shoot in a way that new, weird stuff can happen in a way that we’re able to put it on TV.
This season there’s an episode where there was a 12-year-old girl in the third row of the audience and we were all so thrown by that, so we all talked to her, and that was the episode. I believe it’s called “The One With The Girl Called Julie” or whatever her name was.
JR: That was a weird night. That’s some of the cool stuff that happens with how loose we allow the show to happen. Kumail and I, we don’t really do a lot of gross bits together, but we ended up ripping into this horrifically graphic back-and -forth.
KN: Horrifically graphic!
JR: Just real gross stuff; real gross stuff.
KN: It was fun and it was funny. And as soon as we got offstage, John Mulaney was like, “Did you see the 12-year-old girl?” And we were like, “What?” So I looked and my face dropped and I went outside and we apologized to her, “So sorry and nothing else is going to happen,” and then Brett Gelman came on with the most disturbing fucking thing! So that’s become the through-line of everyone being very aware of this girl that’s in the audience.
JR: And that’s something that’s happened this season is that each episode kind of has this through-line. There’s an episode where Kumail goes out on a limb fashion-wise and wears this fancy-ass jacket, and everyone knows how uncomfortable he is in it and continues to make fun of him throughout the entire night.
KN: I don’t think it’s a fancy-ass jacket; I think it’s denim and it has slightly different material on the sleeves and the body and everybody pounced on it.
JR: It’s like a goth kid’s jacket. It has different material on the arms, but they’re both dark-colored and I never would have noticed it if you didn’t just become a weirder person in it.
KN: The jacket wears me, I don’t wear the jacket. And Adam Pally was on the show, and he is very, very good at roasting people, so that episode becomes about Jonah making fun of my jacket and Adam Pally making fun of my jacket and I can’t take it off because of continuity. So I have to wear this jacket like a big, fucking bullseye on my back. And that one’s called “The One With The Jacket.”
With our stuff, Jonah, I was very nervous because we normally just riff on the show, but at the first taping I was scared because we’re just riffing. That’s another thing I’ve noticed, Marah, is that it is very hard for riffing to work on TV. Riffing usually doesn’t work as well, but something about it, the energy going throughout the room, if it’s a written bit it’s funny, but if the crowd’s aware we’re riffing, there’s something about the context of that room that is really important. So I was afraid in the first season that if we just riffed it wouldn’t work. And then editing the first season and going into the second season, I was a lot more confident and a lot looser. It was like, “It’s not that we won’t have enough stuff, it’s that we’ll have too much stuff,” and going into editing an hour-and-a-half live show, plus about three hours backstage into a 20 minute and 45 second show, going into the next season I was more excited and a lot looser. I was more nervous the first season.
AVC: Jonah, what would you like see Kumail do more of for the show? And Kumail, same question about Jonah.
KN: Yeah, Jonah!
JR: Oh, no! [Laughs.]
KN: Jonah, you first.
JR: Are you trying to break up the show, Marah?!
KN: It’s been five years. It’s been a long time, let’s do this. Jonah, what should I do?
AVC: Wear more jackets?
JR: More silly clothes that I can make fun of. It really helps me with my confidence. When you have less confidence onstage, it helps my confidence to not be as drastically low.
KN: Marah, edit all the sadness out of that and just keep the prepositions.
AVC: Jonah, didn’t you say somewhere that in your special you wore some shirt that you thought looked bad on camera?
JR: No, it was my pants. It was my half-hour special. These pants I was wearing, they were great pants, they fit, I like them, I like the way they feel. Then onstage with how the lighting was, when I saw the special on TV, they appeared shiny. So, again, all these people were asking me why I was wearing shiny fucking pants onstage and I had shown people the pants and said, “Look, do these look like they would be fucking shiny?” and they go, “No, not at all.” So now I just look like I’m trying to do a chubby-white-guy-Eddie Murphy-outfit thing.
KN: I’m glad you noticed that, Jonah, because I wanted to bring it up but I didn’t know if you had the wherewithal to know. But those were fucking shiny-ass pants.
JR: They were. It was real weird to find out with the rest of everybody else. I looked at my pants afterwards and was like, “What the fuck, man?! You never told me you were shiny!”
KN: I would have loved to watch the whole special, Jonah, but the pants were so distracting that I couldn’t get through the opening credits.
AVC: Kumail, do you want to say what you’d like to see more of from Jonah?
KN: No, I think Jonah is perfect! Don’t change anything.
JR: You fucking asshole!
KN: No, just keep showing up, buddy!
AVC: The Meltdown isn’t picked up for a third season yet, but if it is, having done the second season now, what do you want to do?
KN: Less riffing on jackets; 100 percent.
No, there are comedians that we’ve wanted to get that we haven’t been able to for scheduling reasons so this season we’d love to get those guys in. Zach Galifianakis, for instance.
Also, I’d love to take this show on the road. Just get on a bus and go for it.
AVC: Would you just fly people in or would you like have the same people on in a Comedians Of Comedy-style thing?
KN: It’s really more for exposure or experience, so there’s not going to be much money in it for the comedians, but I think they’re going to have a good time and they’re going to get two drink tickets.
JR: Good stage time and there’s going to be industry in the room.
KN: Not the entertainment industry. But, yeah. Exactly.