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Nish Kumar: ‘My Rishi Sunak joke doesn’t work any more because everyone f***ing hates him’

The Croydon-born comedian talks to Isobel Lewis about facing abuse and bread rolls, the vandals who want to get rid of the BBC, and why it’s time to cancel talk of cancel culture

Thursday 21 April 2022 06:30 BST
‘There’s absolutely no way The Office would exist without the publicly funded model of broadcasting,’ says Kumar
‘There’s absolutely no way The Office would exist without the publicly funded model of broadcasting,’ says Kumar (Matt Stronge)

Nish Kumar has never worried about winding people up. As one of Britain’s most prominent political comedians, the double Edinburgh Comedy Award nominee says what he thinks, whether he’s slagging off Brexit, branding himself “the brown Laurence Fox” or calling Boris Johnson a liar and a racist. In a time when politicians won’t stop banging on about all things “woke” (insert eye roll here), it’s been argued that right-wing comics are the ones sticking their heads above the parapet to receive abuse. One look at Kumar’s Twitter mentions – full of, as he calls it, “real bad stuff” – will show that isn’t the case.

Of course, if you’re going to make comedy in times of darkness, it has to be really funny. Luckily, Kumar is one of the country’s best. The Croydon-born performer was raised on political satire, from the great British panel shows like Have I Got News for You and Chris Morris’s dark comedy Brass Eye to British-Asian sketch show Goodness Gracious Me – stuff that, in Kumar’s words, took “serious subject matter and made it into something that was funny and palatable for an audience”.

It comes as no surprise then that Kumar would become a satirical comic himself, presenting political programmes such as the topical Radio 4 Extra comedy show Newsjack, The Bugle podcast and the news show Hello America on the short-lived, short-form video platform Quibi. And then there was the BBC Two show The Mash Report which, in being cancelled by the BBC in 2020, became news itself. The show had a decidedly anti-government slant, with Andrew Neil, then a political presenter for the BBC, calling it “self-satisfied, self-adulatory, unchallenged left-wing propaganda” on Twitter. When the network announced that they wouldn’t be bringing Mash back, it was seen as a response to Tory complaints that comedy at the BBC was exclusively left-wing.

Kumar’s current live show, Your Power, Your Control, expertly interweaves the political and personal. Topical material will always make up part of a Kumar gig, although he admits that “it’s [an] objectively strange thing to try and make people laugh about the worst subjects possible that you could pick”. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, he says, you “have to be prepared to rewrite as you go”. “I had a whole bit about Rishi Sunak being the beneficiary of culturally lowered expectations, but now, literally in the last week, that joke doesn’t work any more because everyone f***ing hates him now.” He lets out a big laugh. “That joke literally no longer works.”

But Your Power, Your Control isn’t all topical material. The show looks back to 2019, when Kumar was booed off stage at a posh annual lunch for cricket charity the Lord’s Taverners after making anti-Brexit jokes, culminating in someone (poorly) throwing a bread roll at his head. For the first 24 hours PBT (post-bap throw), it was something he laughed at in the pub. But then The Sun ran an article claiming that Kumar had “used his set to promote ‘extreme views’ against Brexit” and it became a national story. The dam was removed, a new wave of “visceral” and “unpleasant” vitriol flooding in. It was, he says, “a crescendo rather than a turning point”.

At this stage in his career, you know the kind of thing you’re getting at a Kumar show – when I saw him perform in January, he joked that his audience consisted of Guardian subscribers and people who recently cancelled their Guardian subscription because it “wasn’t left-wing enough”. Still, some anomalies slip through the cracks. When he played in Shrewsbury last month, one bizarre incident happened that caused Kumar to tweet the words: “Why are white people like this part 765545677990876578899.” To sum up a long story, Kumar tried to kick out a rowdy audience member for using his phone, only for the man to tell him that he “thought I had tickets to Romesh [Ranganathan]” anyway.

You can see the disbelief in Kumar’s eyes as he tells this story. “I said, ‘That’s not a great joke for you to have made, my white friend’... Apparently he was really apologetic to the staff, but he said, ‘The thing is, just tell him I really did genuinely think I was going to see Romesh.’ I had this moment where I felt bad for accusing him of making a joke. And then I was like, ‘No, that’s even worse!’”

Kumar on panel show ‘QI' (Fremantle Media/Talkback,BBC/Fremantle Media/Talkback)

Kumar has dealt with casual and not-so-casual racism throughout his whole career. The bread-missile event initially is presented as funny and harmless, but it soon descends into something much darker, with the comic reading out one of the slur-laden death threats he received. “I felt like you need to hear some of the language in order to understand why I had such a reaction to it.” There’s value too, he says, in white audience members “hearing what some of your uncles are saying… just so that people know that we’re not making this s*** up”.

Breadgate was one of the first times Kumar became the subject of major national interest, but it certainly wasn’t the last. The comedian hosted The Mash Report (which so riled Andrew Neil) on BBC Two from 2017 to 2020. Mash was originally pitched as a modern-day, British version of US comedy institution The Daily Show – “something completely different that doesn’t really exist on British television”.

When reports emerged in 2020 that the new BBC director general Tim Davie was looking to challenge “perceived left-wing comedy bias” at the corporation, The Mash Report’s days felt numbered. In March 2021, the Beeb announced that they’d made the “difficult” decision not to renew it, with the show finding a new home on Dave as Late Night Mash, which Kumar hosted for one season. In the end, he left after the production team refused to let him have a producer role. “I felt to some extent like I was getting blamed for everything anyway, so I may as well have a say,” he tells me.

When culture secretary Nadine Dorries announced plans in January to scrap the licence fee in 2027, many left-wing figures claimed that the BBC had spent the last decade trying to appease the Tory government, only to be turned on by them. The corporation was a great idea on paper, they said, but they only had themselves to blame. One might expect Kumar to have been among these voices, yet he was one of the first to defend the BBC, branding the government “a pack of p***ed-up cultural vandals”. “I know that it feels like absolutely everyone hates the BBC right now, and there are good reasons for that, but ending the licence fee is bad news,” he tweeted.

I don’t think people who are trying to get rid of the BBC have considered for a second how much stuff they love wouldn’t exist without it

Given the treatment of his show, people were slightly surprised he was so quick to defend the BBC, I note. Kumar nods. “Listen, I do think at its core principle, it’s a publicly owned utility and we should where possible, on the political left, be defending publicly owned bodies,” he says. “I understand a lot of people’s frustration with the BBC, I do get that. But I think you need broadcasters that don’t have a remit to make a profit, because [commercially funded] broadcasters aren’t able to take the risks that publicly funded broadcasters can take.”

He points to the recently announced plans to privatise Channel 4. “It’s all very well and good for the government to say Channel 4 needs to be like Netflix, but Derry Girls has been a massive hit on Netflix and that was commissioned by f***ing Channel 4.” Public broadcasters, he says, can find emerging talent “who then go on to make s*** tons of money in the commercial sector. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a classic example of something where this is a buzzy Fringe show that everybody loves, the BBC is able to give her a six-part sitcom, and then Amazon drives a dump truck full of gold up to her house.”

‘As a political comedian, you have to be prepared to rewrite as you go’ (Matt Stronge)

He continues: “There is no way a commercial broadcaster would have given Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais the commission for a six-part sitcom because neither of them had the profile to do that. There’s absolutely no way The Office would exist without the publicly funded model of broadcasting.” (Neither would the show’s US remake, which has become one of the most popular shows of all time.) “I don’t think people who are trying to get rid of the BBC have considered for a second how much stuff they love wouldn’t exist without it.”

Getting rid of the BBC, he says, would “absolutely” be to the detriment of the country’s cultural landscape. At a time when it feels like comedy is being used as a political football and under threat, how does he feel about its future?

“For a while I was like, I just don’t understand why I’m constantly hearing about people complaining about how you can’t say anything any more,” he says. “I’m bored of people talking to me about ‘cancel culture’; as soon as somebody mentions it now, I’m just like, ‘Just shut the f*** [up].’ It’s always people that have no idea about comedy and don’t even watch it or do it, who just want to talk about it and talk about it and talk about it.”

Kumar gets louder, clearly exasperated by the whole thing. “Every time somebody uses the phrase, it makes me want to tear my own skin off and beat him to death with it.” Kumar recently agreed to take part in a panel discussion, only to be told it was about the dreaded double c-word. “I was like, ‘I’m not f***ing doing it. I’ll cancel that cancel culture panel.’” He laughs. “Maybe that is cancel culture. Refusing to participate in discussions about cancel culture.”

‘Nish Kumar: Your Power, Your Control’ plays at the Hackney Empire on 22 and 23 April and across the UK in May.

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