Nish Kumar is one of the most popular comedians in the country right now. As he brings his stand-up tour to Yorkshire, Chris Bond talked to him about comedy and politics.
Groucho Marx once quipped: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” He wasn’t the first comedian to lampoon politicians and he certainly won’t be the last. And neither will Nish Kumar. The London-born comedian follows a long tradition of British comics – from Ben Elton to Mark Thomas – who have infused their stand-up routines with political satire.
Kumar has become a familiar face on TV thanks to Mock the Week and the BBC’s satirical news show The Mash Report, which he hosts, and his latest stand-up tour – It’s in Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves – heads to Leeds later this month before going on to York and Huddersfield.
The sci-fi film buffs amongst you might recognise the quote from Terminator 2 and, while it might seem an odd title for a comedy show, Kumar felt it was apt. “It’s a phrase that’s been rattling around my head for a couple of years now and it’s from a film I love very dearly. I thought it would be a nice title for a show and I like the fact that it sounds semi-profound, but is actually a line from the Terminator.”
It also reflects his view of the state of British politics. “It’s a show about the news and I’m struggling to think of anyone who can put a positive vibe on that at the moment,” he says.
“I’ve always been interested in politics and current events, but in previous years it’s been difficult to do comedy about the news because people weren’t really that bothered. For long periods while I was growing up there was real apathy that set in during the late 90s and early noughties, but now there’s a widespread awareness of various figures in the news. You can pluck a name out like Dominic Raab and most people in a comedy club know who you’re talking about. I’ve always been a politically engaged person and when I look at what’s happening now I’m just ceaselessly appalled.”
Some comedians deliberately steer clear of politics and the dreaded B-word, but Kumar puts them front and central of his show. “I can’t remember the last time I got out of bed and didn’t immediately start thinking about Brexit. It’s at the forefront of my thoughts and it’s permanently worrying so I try and do comedy about these serious issues and make myself feel better by making jokes out of them.”
As a committed Remainer, Kumar likens Brexit to a “slow-moving disaster”, adding: “I think a lot of politicians are just trying to crack on with their jobs and help their constituencies and many of them are perfectly decent and hardworking. For me, the target is the people that led us into Brexit and have now run a mile as soon as they realised how difficult it was going to be to administrate. They’re the ones I’m livid with.”
Comedy, he believes, can help us if not make better sense of the world, then at least not take it too seriously. “I’m not changing minds with my comedy but I think it’s cathartic to sit in a room with people and have a kind of collective exhalation.”
If stand-up can be a form of group therapy, then TV shows like The Mash Report are a way of questioning, and sometimes ridiculing, political leaders, and Kumar admits it has drawn the ire of some politicians and commentators. “We’ve had the odd response and if I’m being honest I don’t think they’ve liked it, but that’s the nature of the beast.”
Kumar grew up in London and was a comedy fan as a kid. “I don’t come from a show business family but I used to record Chris Rock stand-up specials and go and watch people like Ross Noble,” he says.
It was while he was studying at Durham University that he joined a comedy sketch group. “I was 20 before I had any idea of what I needed to do in order to make this my career, rather than it just being a pipe dream.”
It was at Durham that he made his first forays into stand-up. He went on to hone his craft in pubs and clubs doing gigs wherever he could, though not all of his audiences appreciated his style of humour. “I got chased off stage by a heavy metal band once and I’ve had to be escorted out of a venue by security because people were waiting in a hallway to beat me up.”
His parents were nonplussed by his determination to be a comic. “I think they thought it was amusing while I was a student but couldn’t understand what I was playing at afterwards. But they’ve come round to the idea now,” he says.
Kumar started out on the comedy circuit in 2006, when he first went to the Edinburgh Festival, and for the next five years he worked full time (as an office temp) during the day to support himself while doing gigs at night. “I was gigging nearly every evening so I was always trying to find little corners of the office where I could have a sleep in.
“I remember getting back from Hereford at 2.30 in the morning and had to be at work by nine and thinking ‘I really need to sleep.’ But I’m very grateful to all the offices I worked in for not just immediately firing me.”
He has been a full-time comedian for the past six years now and says Yorkshire, and in particular Leeds, has played an important role in his career. “I used to gig in Leeds a lot when I first started. I had friends I’d met in Edinburgh who were still at uni in Leeds so I used to go there quite a bit and it was the only place I could do 20-minute sets. A lot of the time I was doing open mic nights in London which meant five minutes here and five minutes there, and the union in Leeds was the only place where I could do longer gigs, so I have a lot of fond memories of Yorkshire and specifically Leeds.”
These days he has become a recognisable face through his TV work. “I’m not at the level of fame where it becomes onerous to leave the house. It’s not like The Beatles or anything, it’s more that occasionally someone comes up to you and says something nice.”
Stand-up, though, is something he feels compelled to do. “I think you have to have a burning passion for it. It’s a lot of things but it’s never dull and it’s always challenging.”
Not that he takes it too seriously. “Comedians can often be very self-aggrandising, but none of us are curing cancer here. All you’re hoping to do really is give people who have socially useful jobs an hour or two of entertainment.”
Nish Kumar will play Leeds City Varieties on February 28, the Grand Opera House, York, on March 14 and Huddersfield Town Hall on March 24.