The term “comedy nerd” was practically invented for fans of Kumail Nanjiani. The Pakistani-born standup hosts L.A.’s weekly The Meltdown, an ultra-hip show that takes place in the back of a comic book store and was recently picked up by Comedy Central. But Nanjiani is also a nerd himself, running the Nerdist network’s video game podcast The Indoor Kids with his nerd wife (writer and producer Emily V. Gordon) and making show-stealing guest appearances (as a nerd, of course) on Portlandia, Veep and Franklin & Bash.
In other words, out-nerding this nerd would take some serious effort. Despite that, Beta Male is neither cliquish nor exclusionary. Nanjiani’s style is smart but also unusually welcoming, laced with self-conscious colloquialisms yet relatable in its observational goofiness. It’s looser than Chris Hardwick, who often comes off like a game show host, but less googly-eyed than Kurt Braunohler, who’s taken silly harshness to new heights.
Whether Nanjiani’s talking about living in Brooklyn or Karachi, playing video games or confronting ghosts, his material oozes friendliness. “You guys into video games at all?” he asks. “You play, sir? What’s your username?” It’s moments like those where he collapses the distance between himself and the audience by artfully ignoring it, like the barista who slices through your bad mood with an unexpected smile.
That may sound cheesy, but it’s important to note because if this were the 1980s or even ’90s Nanjiani might have felt compelled to base his entire act on his race and ethnicity. It’s not so much that he, or comics like Aziz Ansari, Hari Kondabolu and Aparna Nancherla are “post-racial” (whatever that means). They all acknowledge their identities and build bits around them. But unlike many obese comics, for example, they also have plenty of material that has nothing to do with their appearance. One of the glorious things about stand up’s current renaissance is that comics have an implicit license to talk about whatever the hell they want, and Nanjiani runs the gamut on Beta Male.
Recorded in front of an adoring crowd at Austin’s Moody Theater, the material veers from ridiculous and horrific experiences at Pakistani birthday parties (think cobra vs. mongoose) to the logic (or lack thereof) of slasher films, but Nanjiani always does best when telling stories. Perhaps that’s why his frequent asides come off more like nervous speed bumps than spontaneous crowd work, faring slightly better on the video version of Beta Male, thanks mostly to Nanjiani’s expressive stage presence and giant, luxurious eyebrows.
The delivery isn’t overly polished, dipping and banking in all the right places but never rigidly so. Nanjiani might have one of the more recognizable voices in stand up, but his accent hardly overwhelms the bits. When his voice breaks like a teenage boy, it’s intentional. And when he gets excited and talks too fast, it’s endearing. Nanjiani is the cool, nerdy friend you want to hang out with in every context. For a self-professed nerd, Beta Male is pretty damned alpha.