Kumail Nanjiani, Jonah Ray, and Emily Gordon on The Meltdown and Creating the Best Stand-up Show in the Country

By
Photo: Nathaniel Wood for Vulture

If you want to witness the new comedy boom in person, head to the NerdMelt Showroom at West Hollywood's Meltdown Comics on a Wednesday night, where you will see the best comedy show in the country: The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail. Jonah Ray and Kumail Nanjiani, two prominent L.A. comedians and podcasters, co-host the show and produce it with writer/podcaster Emily Gordon, who is also Nanjiani's wife. Comedy Central turned it into a TV show last year that, for my money, is the single best adaptation of live comedy to television ever. In March, I spoke to Nanjiani and Gordon in Los Angeles for my piece on the current comedy boom. (Ray could not make it, so I spoke with him separately. His quotes are incorporated throughout.) With season two of The Meltdown premiering on Comedy Central tonight, here is the edited-down transcript of the conversation.

Tell me the story of The Meltdown. It started with a show Jonah had at NerdMelt, right?
Jonah Ray: Well, it wasn't called NerdMelt even at that time. It was just the backroom at Meltdown Comics. NerdMelt didn't start for a while after that. It was called Jonah JR's Meltdown. I ran it with [comedian and current Meltdown tech/hype-man] Ed Salazar during that time. He would host for me when I couldn't make it.

Kumail Nanjiani: We moved here from New York.

Emily Gordon: [In] 2010. And Jonah was like, “It’s not going well and I’m not able to keep it organized, but I wanna go weekly.” I had really wanted to produce a show in L.A. and I loved that venue, but I didn’t wanna step on anyone’s toes, so I was like, “Why don’t we combine forces?” 

KN: There weren’t a lot of great shows. We looked at a bunch of different places and nothing was good. I see so many shows where you’re like, “This show is never gonna be the best show.” We wanted a space where we could possibly have the best show in the city. NerdMelt is just a great comedy space.

Why is that?
KN: The dimensions. The ceiling is just right, the size of the room. It’s cool that it’s in the back of a comic-book store.

EG: It feels like a secret headquarters when you go back there.

KN: And the walls — the sound of the laughs in the room. You see comedy clubs with much worse dimensions. You can get 150 people in there and it still feels small, and it feels big in the right way. There are no bad seats in the house, really. When you’re onstage, the line between the performer and the audience is very blurry.

EG: People put their feet up on our stage.

KN: We wanted to do the TV show [Comedy Central’s The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail] in there because we were like, “We are not going to get a better comedy space.”

EG: People kept asking us where we were gonna do the TV show. It was like, we don’t do Meltdown if it’s not in this space. It doesn’t make any sense. 

What does the idea of being the best show mean to you?
EG: We got into New York at the tail-end of [Eugene Mirman and Bobby Tisdale's] “Invite Them Up.” To me, that was the best show. I got to see people I knew about and trusted. If there were people I didn’t know, I knew they'd be good. It felt electric. Everybody felt part of a club, part of this thing.

KN: That’s exactly right. You want to get to the point where people come not because a specific comic is on but because they trust the show, and whoever is on is gonna be great. And you want to have a stage where people can do whatever they want. 

What has having a weekly show meant for your comedy?
JR: I suggest anybody who wants to pursue any kind of comedy start a weekly show. Actually, I wrote a blog about that.

KN: Being onstage and riffing a lot and becoming comfortable onstage. I would say the downside of that has been [that] I always have that show, and it’s such a great crowd, and sometimes your gauge is a bit off. So it’s been good and bad. It’s been good in that it’s great to riff onstage and become truly, truly confident without having to worry about …

EG: Finding your way out of a thing.

KN: Yeah, go onstage and not worry about having nothing planned. I would plan so much. It’s been good from that perspective.

EG: I think Jonah’s really good at that, too. He loves being in the moment and definitely prefers that.

KN: I like to plan stuff out.

EG: It’s like they’re a classic sitcom. You’ve both learned from each other. Also, I feel like both of you have figured out your comedy archetypes a bit. At least with each other onstage. That’s a fun thing to watch evolve. 

Photo: Nathaniel Wood for Vulture

Jonah, I know you used to play in punk bands. In what way does the show feel like a punk or DIY scene?
JR: Everybody is welcome. All types of people, comics, artists, weirdos. Coming up in a punk scene isn't so much about the type of music. It really just means that you won't be playing in regular clubs. You're gonna be playing wherever you can: high-school cafeterias, in a field with a generator powering a PA, a record store, a laundromat, the back of a comic-book store. It's a similar trait that DIY musicians and comics have where you walk into any place and you see an outlet and a corner where a "stage" can be. NerdMelt wasn't set up to have comedy, but comedy worked. And that feeling influenced so much of the ways we do things. The hand stamps to get in, the weekly posters designed by Dave Kloc were sprung by a conversation we had with Dave when we met him. Dave said, "It's like a punk show." And I said, "Yeah, if I had the time I'd make a flyer for it every week, like a punk show." And Dave said, "I'll do it!" The ease in which things happened because of the sole fact that "It'd be fun" is what makes it most like a punk/DIY scene. 

Photo: Nathaniel Wood for Vulture

Are industry members at all these shows?
EG: Absolutely. They’re at our show every week.

Is there any fear about experimenting with industry there?
EG: I find that it’s best to never tell comics. There’s industry there every week, but I never tell comics that because the last thing I want is for them to get in their heads and be like, Oh shit I gotta do this very polished set. The times that industry have contacted me the next day to get in touch with people, it was just when a comedian did a thing that they're excited about.

KN: Yeah, it does feel like the power has gone back to the talent. There used to be these couple of comedy festivals, Aspen or Montreal, and they had all the power. They were like the gatekeepers. You had to go there to become big. The fact that it’s so diffused now, the power’s gone back to the talent.

EG: Do you remember [that] one of the first shows you did in New York was not a great show? Not a lot of people in the audience. Then you got offstage and found out there were people from Comedy Central. You were so upset.

KN: I don’t know network stuff so much, but working with Comedy Central, it feels like the execs want to work with the comedians to make something together rather than, “You tell us your idea and we’ll try.”

EG: Or, “We have this show. We’re gonna stick you in it. Now you’re a dad, and also a blue-collar dad. Have a good day.” 

Was that the case with the Meltdown TV show?
KN: Everyone is like, “How is it working with Comedy Central?” We were like, “If it sucks, it’s our fault.” They really let us do what we wanted.

EG: They were very hands-off.

KN: We’re in a good time with comedy right now. A lot of these executives get it. Our experience and my experience with HBO, with Silicon Valley, is that there are just good executives around. It’s cool. 

There were comedians at the MeltDown who were not performing. What does it mean for the scene to have a place where people just go?
EG: That’s my favorite part. It's partially because we have a lot of backstage area for them to hang out in, but also it's that you can count on someone you know [being] there. Sometimes they’re part of the show, but very rarely is the expectation, “I’m here to do a set.”

KN: I run into people or I do a show and they’re like, “It seems like you guys are all friends.” You see it with Nick Kroll and Amy Schumer’s show: There is a scene. Everybody’s got their own thing, but they come and play at each other’s thing on every level, on TV or in movies, but also at comedy shows. It’s a very positive, noncompetitive, supportive scene. 

Photo: Nathaniel Wood for Vulture

How does your audience differ from a traditional comedy-club audience?
KN: Our show is all young people. Shows at clubs tend to be a lot of tourists sometimes.

EG: Our audience wants you to play around and find something fun, and have a spontaneous moment. I feel like there might be some audiences that are like, “I paid money to see you do this, so you should do something you know is gonna work.” 

JR: Spontaneity is the thing that will help you kill in our room. Comics like Moshe Kasher, Rory Scovel, Beth Stelling, and Pete Holmes tend to crush because they let the room guide their riffs and tangents, and since you are right within the crowd, they feel that coming off of you and just eat it up.

There are audiences now that wanna feel like they’re part of the process. They’re helping.
EG: They don’t wanna heckle, but they wanna feel like they’re in it.

KN: When I first moved to New York, I noticed this difference where you had to hide your punch lines. I went there, and if you have a stand-up cadence, they turn off immediately. It’s gotta sound like you’re just talking. You’ve gotta hide the punch lines.

EG: Like, “Anyway, I was just thinking about this thing …”

KN: Now it’s changed and become more conversational. People are okay listening to a podcast that’s an hour and a half and it’s not funny, funny, funny, funny, but then they take that expectation to a comedy show as well.

Photo: Nathaniel Wood for Vulture

Can you talk about MeltDown's audience? Who are they?
EG: They've become a community.

JR: They are some of the most dedicated, sweetest weirdos around. They are great. When we started there were these different people that we would recognize, and they slowly started sitting closer to the stage and they all started to become friends and know each other. Now, every week, almost all of the first three or four rows are the diehard regulars. They are creatives and artists and comics themselves, and them knowing each other and us knowing them has created an amazing dynamic for Kumail and I to play with.

EG: We have a specific animal stamp that we do, and one guy got a tattoo of it on his wrist. Are you kidding me? 

What did you think?
EG: I cry! I cry every time. Anytime they do anything, anytime the audience does anything like that, I can’t handle it.

KN: We do a lot of crowdwork, and I love doing crowdwork, but my goal is that the person I’m making fun of should also be laughing. We’ll make fun of people, but in a way that feels inclusive, I hope. One time we were talking about theme-park experiences, and someone told a story about how he was 12 and he went with his friends and his friends abandoned him, and he hung out at the theme park all day on his own, and at the end it was really sad. We had the whole crowd chant, “We would hang out with you!”

EG: [Tearing up] I’m getting chills right now just thinking about it. I’m obsessed with that moment where everyone goes from being a bunch of individuals to becoming one group right here. I just think that’s one of the most magical things.

What’s the thought process behind the lineups?
EG: At first it was all about stacking as many big names as we can, and some shows go to not announcing the lineup at all, which I don’t love, because then I feel like everybody’s expecting just celebrity, celebrity, celebrity. 

Louis C.K. doing five sets in a row!
EG: Literally. So, we’re always gonna release the names. Always, always, always. Now I feel like it’s a little bit our job to introduce the audience to new people, like, “This is the new hot guy. Hot girl.”

KN: Not just buzzy people. Funny people.

EG: At this point, we want to do a couple people that you know and a couple people you may not know. I like every show to have one person who’s going to be something that’s not just a traditional stand-up set. We try to account for a diverse group of comics. The first part is just people who are very funny. I can show you my notebook; I have lists and lists of hilarious people. There are so many funny people in L.A. right now that it’s really hard to get to everybody.

[A random fan comes up to our table.]

Random Fan: Unsolicited opinion, it is the best show.

KN: We hired him.

EG: We’ll pay you later.