Talking to Kumail Nanjiani and Jonah Ray About ‘The Meltdown’

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The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail premieres on Comedy Central tonight as an eight-episode, half-hour standup showcase based on the very popular weekly alt show hosted by Kumail Nanjiani and Jonah Ray in Meltdown Comics’ NerdMelt Theater and produced by Emily Gordon. The show will feature a range of comedians many of whom have appeared on the live show in the four years it’s been a part of the Los Angeles comedy scene including Marc Maron, Jim Gaffigan, Adam Scott, Maria Bamford, and Moshe Kasher.

I caught up with Nanjiani and Ray and talked with them about translating their show to TV, working with director Lance Bangs, and making the kind of show they’d never seen before.

The first episode of The Meltdown went online July 7 – what kind of feedback have you gotten so far, and how are you guys feeling about the premiere?

Kumail Nanjiani: I would say it’s been really positive for us. Almost 100% positive, even on Reddit. We posted it a bunch of places, and all the comments have been really really overwhelmingly positive.

Jonah Ray: It’s been kind of scary.

Nanjiani: Only criticism I’ve heard is that it should be longer, which is great.

Ray: Yeah. From what I’ve gotten online and Twitter – and just seeing people’s comments on Amazon and iTunes – it’s been pretty good across the board. So it makes me excited about the mass public who don’t use the internet watching it now.

Nanjiani: Yeah, and it’s got a ton of reviews on Amazon. Jonah, did you see over 80 reviews on Amazon?

Ray:Oh really?

Nanjiani: Yeah.

Ray: I try not to check comments too much for my soul’s sake.

Nanjiani: I’m the opposite. I look at everything.

Ray: But you handle it well. It’s because you have confidence. You see people saying bad things about you and you go, fuck them. I see it and go, they’re absolutely correct.

Nanjiani: I don’t know, it depends on the day. Some days I take it well, some days I don’t.

Ray: Yeah. But to answer your question, yeah! We’re excited!

Good! One thing I was surprised by was that the show looked amazing. Even in the documentary style, the cinematography is very smooth and crisp. It almost feels cinematic. How much did you talk about what you want the show to look like, and are you pleased with how it looks?

Nanjiani: Well, our director is Lance Bangs, who is amazing. He’s done so much amazing stuff, so  the aesthetic is him and Dave Kloc who is an artist who does the posters every week. He did the backdrop and he did the murals. So those guys are just really good at this stuff, and I was always like, ‘I don’t really have a great visual sense.’

Ray: When we were going to work with Lance, it was almost perfect, because Lance’s style was what always in my head figured the show would be good for, and that’s the kind of stuff I like seeing – cameras within the audience, and just kind of a stylized thing, without the falsity of creating that environment, or trying to overlight it like that.

I like the effort put into it, and Lance was the perfect guy for that because he’s been just shooting stuff when he’s not supposed to in areas he’s not allowed to for twenty years. Starting back in Athens when he was filming bands like Slint or Neutral Milk Hotel, and even up until doing specials for a lot of or friends, or doing the Nirvana show in Portland. He’s done so much incredible stuff, and he really knows how to capture a thing that’s happening, which is very important for us in the show, in the way it looks, because you want it to look good because we’re presenting it on TV, but also we want to show it as it’s happening, and Lance has been the guy who’s been doing that for a really long time.

Nanjiani: He’s really good at catching moments, and the space is what it is. The space is really small, and when we were doing the pilot for Comedy Central, who honestly have been so great, their one note was hey, you guys should pick the backdrop. And we were like, no, this is our show, we’re not going to change anything. And then we watched the show and we were like, we should’ve picked the backdrop. So they were right. And so we sort of, redid the way the room looked. I was afraid it would look too slick, and it wouldn’t feel like the space, but then I realized the space is the space, it’s never going to look super fancy. But if we fix it up a little bit, it’ll look better on TV.

Ray: Yeah, that was a funny realization. No matter what we do to the space, nothing will change that it is the back storage room of a comic book store. So let’s not be so scared of making it look good for TV.

It captures the experience of seeing the show from the audience, and then it also goes behind the scenes. Why was it important to show that side of the live show?

Nanjiani: Well, for us – Jonah, and, I, and Emily – when we first were thinking about how this show should be, we never wanted to do a presentational comedy show, like you’re introduced, they go on stage, and it’s an ad, then we introduce, they go on stage. We always pitched it as a documentary of the night – just capture the shit that was happening at our comedy show. So you’ll see the comedian, then we’ll go backstage, and we’ll come back to the comedian. There’s one episode with Tom Wilson where we ran into technical issues because the keyboard wasn’t working, and this is a real problem, and we actually put it in the episode because that’s what Lance is really good at, and that’s what we always wanted to do is make a documentary of every show.

Ray: The thing is, there are enough standup shows out there that show it the way that people are really used to, meaning in a theater setting or an actual club, the panning shot above the audience. That’s already been done, and it’s been done well. So we didn’t feel the need to do that again. We were very much into just showing how it’s been for us. I started standup in the early 2000s – same with Kumail – and a large part of the comedy that’s been in that time has been that most shows have been in weird little venues like Riffifi and Pianos in New York and the Embar and the old Largo in LA. The show is more indicative of what comedy’s been like for us growing up. In the 80s, yeah, it was mostly clubs, so TV reflected that by having stuff filmed in clubs and theaters. This shows how I’ve been seeing comedy since I started, and I really wanted to show that.

Nanjiani: Yeah, I wanted to see a show on TV that I’d never seen on TV. Like Jonah said, we’ve seen a ton of great standup shows, but I’ve just always wanted to see this type of show, so that’s why we set out to make it was because we’d never seen it.

How did the original idea to make the TV show come about, and why is the live show special to you?

Ray: The idea of doing the TV show was Mike Rosenstein.

Nanjiani: Mike works for Red Hour and he’d been coming to the show a bunch and he was like, “Hey, we should do this show on TV.” Initially, at least for me, I wasn’t that excited about it. I was like, “Well, we already do a great show, why would we want to change it?” We all talked and decided that if they would let us do the show in this space and exactly the way we wanted to, that only then would we do it. So we kind of took it out to a bunch of places and we only have those caveats in place. We’re not going to make a stage, we’re not going to go to a soundstage and make it look like this room. It’s going to be in this room. We shot like a little fizzle reel.

Ray: Fizz reel!

Nanjiani: [Laughs] Yeah, we shot a Fizz. Lance came in, and I’ve been trying to get that going for about a year and a half now. So we shot it and we showed it to everybody and were like, “Listen, we can make a good looking show in that space and we don’t want to change anything.” Get the cameras in but do it in the least obtrusive way possible, and Comedy Central were completely on board with that from the beginning but that’s why we decided to do it in the first place.

Ray: We didn’t start the show with the intention of ever making it a TV show. When the show started getting big when we were doing it live, people were saying stuff like, “The show’s selling out every week, are you gonna move it to a bigger place or a different place?” I always felt like that was insulting because I thought a large part of the show was every little aspect of the show, and much of it due to the fact that it took place in the back of Meltdown Comics, this place that had treated us so well. It’s not just a show to us, really, it’s like a weekly club for us. Our friends show up, and it’s kind of a reason we get to hang out with each other a lot because we get so busy that sometimes Kumail and I – that’s our night to hang out. That’s a very special show to us.

Nanjiani: And the audience, a lot of the audience comes back. It shows in the pilot; the show really involves the audience. It’s this clubhouse community vibe. We’re all coming together and doing this thing. I think on top of everything, it’s such a great performance room. On top of the cool vibe, it being next to a comic books store, everything being wonderful, it’s just the physical dimensions of the space are perfect for standup comedy.

Ray: Low ceiling, comfortable chairs.

Nanjiani: Yeah, low ceiling, everybody can see you, there are no bad spots in the room. So it’s a great place where you can come in and try new stuff and do really well or you can bring your A stuff and do really well. The room is really good for a lot of different performances.

Can you think of any moments from past shows that you wish had been recorded?

Nanjiani: I thought there was one that was really great, Jonah, do you remember? Each week we pick a topic on the show, and I believe it was theme parks. And this guy sort of told a story – what I like is that people will tell stories and there’s no pressure for them to be funny. They can sort of be revealing, so this guy told a story when he was 12 and his friends went to a theme park and they all abandoned him–like that was the plan they made, that they were gonna run off and leave this guy alone. And he just wandered the theme park alone all day and at the end of the day they all met up and went back home together. So the audience started chanting, “We would hang out with you!” Or what was it? “We will go to Disney World with you,” or “We will hang out with you.” Something like that. This crowd of 150 people chanting that, and it wasn’t an especially funny moment – it just was very sweet and very inclusive and I think those kind of things are what really really make the show to me. It’s definitely special.

Ray: Yeah, it’s the things you can’t plan that come out that usually end up being great. One time the power went out and I was out of town, but Kumail had to do the whole show – and the audience, they stuck around, no mics, one light, no air conditioner.

Nanjiani: The lights went out and we asked, “Hey guys, I’m totally okay doing a show but if you don’t want to stay you can leave and we’ll refund you your money,” and only a very few people left. Everybody else stayed and watched the show, and it was honestly a really great show. But then also weird stuff happens, like one time we were talking to a guy who kind of revealed he had done a hit and run. So it’s not always light and sweet. It can go all kinds of places.

Ray: Yeah, a really good comic Tyler Greene in the middle of his set proposed to his wife and it was all real. She said yes and then he told her to get off the stage so he could finish his standup set.

Nanjiani: That’s got to be your closer. You can’t follow that. Now they’re actually married. He proposed to her during the set.

Ray: It was really great. Even now, there’s been this kid showing up that looks like the most handsome version of Kumail.

Nanjiani: All right, we don’t need to talk about this. Please leave that out.

Ray: He’s got a good smile, he’s going to go places, that kid.

Nanjiani: Yeah yeah, okay, let’s leave that out.

Ray: True Detective season two: me and that kid.

How easy was it to convince the comedians appearing on the show to release material in this way? I would think it would be exciting – was there any hesitation on their part?

Nanjiani: We approached all our friends, and we said, “Listen, this is the only TV comedy show you’ll ever do we’re not going to affect the set.” That was our deal with Comedy Central was: We’re not going to tell you what they’re going to do, and they’re not going to tell us unless they need some extra mic. They’re not going to tell us what they want to do. Our plan was always get funny people and let them do whatever they want to do. They’re professionals, they’re hilarious, that’s why they’re on the show. I think that was appealing to a lot of people, the idea that they could do the kind of set that you could never really do on late night. Like Moshe’s set, no other comedy show that I can think of would be able to support that kind of bit. But he was like, “Oh I have this weird bit, maybe I could do that on the show,” and I thought it worked so so great. We have Rob [Huebel] and Paul [Scheer] who are up later do this really, really awesome bit where they basically kick us off stage and pretend to be audience warmups. I think what was appealing to people was that they could do the stuff that they wouldn’t be able to anywhere else.

Ray: Comics like Chris Hardwick – he had these bits that he didn’t put into his last special and had no place in the new stuff he’s working on. He wanted to get it out there but he had no spot for it in his longer shows. There’s a lot of that throughout the show. We got Weird Al doing something he’s never done before.

Nanjiani: Oh yeah, we got him doing his song with like a string quartet.

Ray: Yeah, “Dare to be Stupid” with a string quartet and that’s like my favorite Weird Al song. It was insane, some of the stuff we got to have on our show. It was incredible. We got Jim Gaffigan; he’s almost doing arenas at this point, and you won’t really get to see him on TV in such an intimate setting.

Nanjiani: What’s cool is Jim was in our original pilot which we shot for basically no money. We asked Jim if he wanted to do it and he was like, “I want to do this show no matter what.” So we flew him out, put him up, and then he flew back the next day. He had like one day free. He really loves doing the show. He was just like, “I will do the show and I will make it happen. As long as I can physically be there I’ll do it.” There’s a lot of people who really love doing the live show. For us it was sort of telling the story of Meltdown, like I said, so it was very important for us to get the people who are in that story, people like T.J. [Miller] and Pete [Holmes] and Kyle [Kinane]. Marc Maron was in the very first or very second show we did. We wanted to get all the people that are part of the story of Meltdown.

The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail premieres on Comedy Central tonight at 12:30am.