Nish Kumar credits the Fringe with his transformation into a political satirist, leading to his presenting role on The Mash Report

Words Stephen Armstrong    

Nish Kumar is not only, according to GQ, the nation’s cleverest dissector of politics, he is also, according to the Guardian, the face of combative British satire.

These descriptions will have come as no surprise if you’ve seen Kumar deftly hosting BBC2’s The Mash Report or taken in his blistering, and beautifully named, stand-up shows from 2015’s Long word… Long Word… Blah Blah Blah… I’m So Clever or 2016’s Actions Speak Louder Than Words Unless You Shout the Words Real Loud. What might be a surprise is that the Fringe itself moved his comedy from cheeky observational riffs to sharp social commentary.

“Every good thing that’s happened in my career has come out of Edinburgh,” he explains. “I did some college revues at Durham University that kickstarted my comedy, then a double act with Tom Neenan from 2009 to 2011, then my first anecdotal stand-up in
2012 and everything seemed to be trudging along quite nicely,
when suddenly my face became a meme – so I wrote an Edinburgh show about that, which became the most important show of my career.”

The meme in question, called ‘Confused Muslim’, had Kumar looking deep in thought, with the words, “Angry that Christians insulted my Prophet… Cannot insult Jesus as he is a profit too.”

“I’m not a Muslim,” Kumar explains. “They didn’t ask if they could use my image – they just stuck up a brown person with a racist epithet. The show I wrote – 2013’s Nish Kumar is a Comedian – was a mess but the beauty of a month-long festival is that I worked out how to communicate anger in a way that was funny on stage. That’s been my journey – in my early shows I was called ‘likeable’. People tend not to use that word anymore.”

2015’s Long Word refined his style – satirical and yet self-lacerating, meaning he’s the butt of more of his own jokes than anyone else. That show got him The Mash Report – “or at least the producer claims that he decided he wanted me on the basis of that show,”
he grins. “I think it was a bit more complicated than that. I think they would have liked someone famous, but all of them said no. So we made a pilot and then The Mash came out of that.

As he prepared the show, 2016 saw the country torn to pieces by the EU referendum. Suddenly Kumar was the poster boy for half the country and the sworn enemy of the other half.  “I hadn’t previously attracted racists online,” he nods carefully. “It’s difficult for me to know if the country is more racist or my profile has raised in line with the post-Brexit fallout. It definitely feels worse and there are organisations that gather data suggesting hate crimes have worsened. But I’ve done things like Question Time so I open myself up to it.”

He pauses and thinks for a second. “What’s really odd is that I’ve become like a father confessor to regretful leave voters. I’ve had to console journalists who work for pro-Brexit titles and punters who come up after shows saying, ‘I voted leave, but I didn’t think this would happen.’ Why am I consoling these people? What’s happened here? How come I’m the guy to make these people feel okay about their choices?”

Perhaps it’s that blend of very finely crafted political comedy with the engagingly self-deprecating view of himself that makes him so approachable to mournful leavers. Or it could be that he’s not just a ranter – he takes his job seriously. On The Mash Report he was instrumental in getting Tory stand up Geoff Norcott on as a regular.
“I completely respect the need to have some level of impartiality and I’ve got huge respect for Geoff.”

Curiously for such a radical preacher, Kumar and his comedy generation – much like the first wave of punks – come from the tedious London suburb of Bromley. Josie Long, Tom Allen, Rob Beckett and Matthew Crosby all hailed from there and his career has either followed or risen with them. The men of this generation – including James Acaster, Josh Howie and Romesh Ranganathan – have all been credited by women comedians as supportive colleagues keen to collaborate with and support the funny from as diverse a group as possible.

Kumar’s latest show is a case in point. Called It’s in Your Nature to Destroy Yourself, after a quote from a Terminator movie, it ranges from Brexit and Trump through male violence, male comedians in the aftermath of #metoo, racial profiling, the cultural impact of white violence and asking, ‘Is it enough to say I don’t do terrible things, or should we take action to stop them?’

“It really is just four twenty minute routines about everything that’s been happening in the last two years,” he smiles amiably. “Alongside a bunch of stuff about my own culpability by blurring the lines between comedian and political commentator. Is that helpful and something that I have a responsibility to do as somebody with a media profile? Or is that actually ultimately counter-productive and the other side of a coin that features Donald Trump hosting Saturday Night Live and Boris Johnson on Have I Got News for You? Am I, in other words, just part of the general coarsening of our discourse?” He gives a short, dry chuckle. “It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t give myself a hard time.”


Nish Kumar: It’s in Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves, Assembly George Square, 19-25 August, 9pm, from £15

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