Published Jul 22, 2013"Really? Woos for Pakistan?" Kumail Nanjiani asks an audience in Austin, less than a minute into Beta Male. "That's new." One of the best storytellers and most expressive performers in comedy right now, Nanjiani unleashes his skills on his first stand-up special and, while formidable and effortless in so many ways, on occasion his process becomes a little too clear.
Nanjiani lived in Karachi with his parents until 1997, when he moved to the U.S. for college. He is savvy enough to play his race cards close to the vest (his pronounced accent precludes him from sinking to Russell Peters-like levels of exaggerated Asian voices) but his stories from home are hilarious and memorable. The best of these is the epic "Birthday Party," in which Nanjiani delights in singing a Pakistani knock-off of "Happy Birthday" before recounting a party he attended as a ten-year-old where, instead of your standard trained monkey (an "accurate racist" stereotype according to Nanjiani), the "children's entertainment" consisted of watching a mongoose fight a cobra to the death.
It's also striking, and likely enlightening for some, to hear Nanjiani talk about discovering porn and hiding the videos from his parents or seeing Cindy Crawford on TV, while growing up in Pakistan. He is far too clever, subtle, and sardonic to push the "Hey, we're all the same" tone of such an anecdote but, when he jokes about Karachi, "which CNN once dubbed the 'city of terror' — that is true," you can feel the weight of it.
Nanjiani is a video game expert/nerd who has lived in Brooklyn, Chicago, and Los Angeles and had oddly relatable experiences in all of them. But, even though he hasn't been back in 16 years, Pakistan — which, during some crowd work, he assumes is "still on fire" — is always with him. He is different, he's aware of it, and it has shaped him into a worldly, wise, and objective Western pop culture connoisseur.
The only real knock against Beta Male is that there are fleeting instances where Nanjiani's study of stand-up and his peers is plainly apparent. The aforementioned "Really?" is one of a few that come up while he simultaneously engages and deflects the crowd and its enthusiasm; it's a Eugene Mirman move to stiffly mock any semblance of connection with people in the room. Even Nanjiani's punctuated "you guys" drip with the false inclusion (and form) that Michael Ian Black has employed in the past and it might not be a coincidence that both men have worked with and mentored Nanjiani over the last decade.
His charming segue "missteps" have obviously been developed and honed to be part of his act and, on the accompanying DVD, it doesn't take long to realize that the audience Q&A wasn't ever going to be anything but target practice. His reflex setting is "kinda mean."
The thing is, the writing and material here is so priceless and well crafted, it makes for a strong, entertaining special that forgives some minor performance tics and crutches that Nanjiani is sure to out-grow. His expressive face and manner are idiosyncratic, drawing his audience in on Beta Male, and demonstrating what a comedic force he truly is. (Comedy Central)