Nish Kumar: ‘Do they just hate my jokes?’

·12 min read

Hide your commemorative Brexit coins! Here comes Nish Kumar, scourge of the sensible right, pirate-chief of the woke left, swinging in fresh from a morning spent toppling statues, hexing Conservative politicians, rolling up Union Jack flags and smoking them like giant cartoon cigars… Kidding. The real Nish Kumar is boyish and bearded, a 35-year-old comedian who likes to loaf around in an Adidas tracksuit and slip-on Simpsons trainers, who leans left in his politics and who (in keeping with a million British comics before him) enjoys making jokes at the expense of the government of the day. When Kumar looks in the mirror, he tells me, he sees a well-to-do, fundamentally harmless British Asian man. He barely recognises the dangerous lefty ghoul who gets criticised in the right-wing press and lambasted on social media as a bigot, a hater, someone who is “anti-British”, who “pour[s] scorn on Britain’s achievements”.

“It’s baffling,” Kumar shrugs, when we meet one afternoon in south London. He hasn’t brought along a sack of bulldogs for us to be mean to, or suggested we boo some royals. Instead, we sit on a wall in the sun, in a neighbourhood not far from where he grew up, drinking takeaway coffees while Kumar makes mild jokes about gentrification. “This is one of the last un-gentrified bits of south London, this wall we’re sitting on,” he says. “In about six months, this wall? It’ll be an artisanal Fabergé egg dispensary. Gen-Z will be flocking here.”

To explain a little about his recent history, for those who are unfamiliar with Kumar’s adventures in the culture wars, when he was the presenter of The Mash Report, a comedy programme which broadcast on BBC Two from 2017 to 2020, he earned an outsized reputation among rightwing commentators as The Singular Embodiment Of All That Was Wrong With The BBC. Despite the fact that his programme broadcast to modest audiences, Kumar and his co-stars were felt to be too mean about Conservative voters, exemplars of bias in the BBC schedules. The Telegraph began to keep a tally; and once, the paper noted soberly, there were as many as 11 anti-Tory jokes in a single episode. Andrew Neil called The Mash Report “unchallenged leftwing propaganda”.

Kumar, who has always toured as a standup alongside his TV work, didn’t help matters by making provocative jokes about Brexiters at his live shows. After a bad gig in 2019, during which his material fell flat with a pro-Brexit audience, there were gleeful write-ups in the Mail, the Express and elsewhere. (Tonally, think England beating Germany at football.) Later, when Kumar contributed to an online video made by the children’s programme Horrible Histories – the two-minute clip amounted to a lighthearted interrogation of patriotic clichés, aimed at 7 to 12-year-olds – it was treated as borderline treason by nominal adults, condemned by at least two Tory MPs.

More recently, when the BBC declined to recommission The Mash Report, the rightwing press met the moment as if there’d been an overdue giant-slaying. “NISH MASH BOSH,” ran the Sun’s headline. Finally, at last, they seemed to say, they were free of the tyranny of The Mash Report.

Mildly, without much self-pity, chuckling frequently, Kumar talks me through this bizarre ride. “I mean, all this! And it was a comedy show that at most a million people watched.” I ask him, does he have any idea why he provoked such a keen degree of suspicion and schadenfreude from the right? Oh, a couple of theories, he says.

“One is, they are just looking for any excuse to whack the BBC. And for a while I was that excuse.”

What’s the other theory?

“It’s, it’s, it’s…” Kumar spreads his hands and laughs, a little reluctantly. “You wanna believe that they just hate you because of the jokes you’re making. But sometimes you’ve gotta be smarter than that. Why have I become a lightning rod? Why am I their bogeyman?” For the moment he’s content to leave that question hanging.

Kumar’s parents are originally from Kerala in south India. On arrival here, 40-odd years ago, his dad freewheeled the surname Kumar (more typical in northern India) when he was handed a UK immigration form. The family eventually settled in Croydon, where Kumar and his younger brother went to primary school. Aged 11 he passed an exam to get into a grammar in Kent: “All the arrogance of a public school,” he once described the place, “without the fees.” He was well behaved at home, but disruptive in class, often in trouble for talking back. His parents would ask, “Do you do this to entertain your peers?” And little Nish would answer: “Yes. But more than that I do it to annoy the teachers.”

“I’ve always felt this charge, a definite energy, in doing something that upsets people,” he says.

He remembers a sense of racial otherness, first creeping in when he moved schools from (diverse) Croydon to (less-diverse) Kent. Later, while at university in Durham, Kumar heard overt racist insults, yelled at him out of cars. There was bafflement, anger, even amusement. When he started working as a standup in his 20s, Kumar reckoned he was funniest on stage when he surrendered to the anger inside him. “I figured, lean into it, because me when I’m angry is funny. I’ve got quite a stupid voice and when it gets loud it really sounds like tyres screeching round a bend.”

Between 2007 and 2013 he worked for a London temping agency, day shifts that paid the rent while he gigged at night. He met his partner, Amy Annette, a comedian and producer, in 2010. Though they have been together a long time, the relationship got off to an unpromising start, as Annette recently recounted on a BBC podcast they appeared on together called You’ll Do: “We had to check how far you were into your overdraft so we could go and get Nando’s.” On that same podcast, Kumar mentioned his hesitations about starting a relationship back in the early 2010s. In his own words, he was going through “a spicy period” with his mental health at the time.

I ask Kumar if he’s comfortable talking some more about this and he says yes. “It’s tricky, though. There is no doubt that a lot of the, uh, spice in that period was due to feeling like I wasn’t successful enough in my career. Feelings of worthlessness.” When he started to have sustained success (a run of panel show appearances in 2014, then a popular Edinburgh show in 2015 and a guest-spot on Have I Got News For You that year) those feelings diminished. “And that is fundamentally unhealthy, the linking of your career to your sense of self-worth. I’ve been trying to work out with a therapist how I can maybe separate some of those things out. It’s been like untangling Christmas lights.”

Did he willingly submit to therapy? “God no. Kicking and screaming.” One day, Kumar says, he was recording a radio advert for a mental health charity, advising men to talk about their feelings. The hypocrisy! “But this is the problem with men of my generation. We’re the worst. Because we’re exactly the generation that knows all the right things to say, but then doesn’t act on those things. Whether that’s about mental health, or the way women are treated, we know all the right things to say. But we have to learn to back up our words with actions, because otherwise we are the absolute pits.”

When Brexit happened, five years ago, Kumar zeroed-in on the event as a source of material. As with a lot of emerging leftwing comics (Michael Spicer, Sarah Cooper), he found himself energised by the political successes and excesses of those on the right, and his star rose. That 2015 appearance on Have I Got News For You gave him a first taste of serious online trolling, he remembers. Diane Abbott was a fellow guest that night, “and it was the first time I was exposed to the angry Conservative right, how some of them react to black and brown people on TV.” From then on, social-media threats became routine.

For comedians this trolling is generally gradable, Kumar explains, according to certain aspects of your identity. “If you’re like me – a brown, middle-class, cis-gendered man – there’s, like, a group of people who are angry at you for one reason. Whereas the weird and creepy shit, even before you get into the threats of violence, that female comedians have to put up with… That’s something else. And any trans person of any prominence is constantly threatened.

“I say this to put my own experiences in perspective,” Kumar continues. “Other people have it worse. I get these promises of violence through things like Twitter, but I just report it and move on. There’s a point at which you wouldn’t do anything else, if you took it more seriously. You would have to become a full-time threat-of-violence administrator.” He believes he has only ever received two legitimate death threats.

The Mash Report, made by the production company Zeppotron for the BBC, debuted quietly in 2017. It borrowed its tone and format from The Daily Show in America. When clips from it started to do well online, in 2018, the show grew in popularity and became more of a target for rightwing campaigners. In this period the BBC was under increasing pressure from media outlets, MPs and activists on the right to remix the political tone of its comedies. In September 2020, in his incoming speech as the new director-general of the BBC, Tim Davie spoke of “exploring new ways of delivering impartiality”. Kumar learned The Mash Report had been binned by BBC Two a few weeks later.

“Broadly, in the arts in general? The leftist or liberal viewpoint is over-represented,” he says. “And nobody has a God-given right to be on television. Well, apart from maybe David Attenborough. And Oprah. Those two do.” He found out his show was done for in an email from the controller of BBC Two. “They said we don’t have the money, so we’re gonna move on.” Kumar was sanguine about the decision. They’d made four series: a decent innings.

A couple of months later, though, a report emerged in the Sun that Kumar had been cancelled by personal fiat of Tim Davie, part of a new “war on woke”, or so the report claimed. Kumar expected the BBC to put out a firm denial. “I had an email sent to me privately by somebody senior: ‘Just ignore the article, it’s all nonsense.’” But he pushed for a public clarification, not a private one, telling me: “There’s an important principle at stake. The story suggests a person’s political leanings can have a bearing on what they get to do on television, which is unacceptable.”

Honestly, says Kumar, he seriously doubts that anybody so senior as Davie took a hand in cancelling his low- flying show. “But the concern for me is that it’s a useful myth for Tim Davie to have out there, because it placates the British right. It gives the sharks a bit of blood. And when do sharks ever stop at a bit of blood? When do sharks ever say, ‘Thank you for the bit of blood. That was the perfect amount. Like tapas’?”

In Kumar’s opinion, a suggestion has been allowed to linger, that comedians had better think twice about gags that are too critical of the government of the day, or they might lose their slots. Tacitly encouraging self-censorship is just as insidious, maybe more so, than outright censorship. So Kumar continues to wait for his clarification. Meanwhile, Zeppotron has been in discussions, not quite confirmed at the time of writing, for The Mash Report to resurface on a commercial channel. You imagine something of this unseemly scrap will make its way into Kumar’s standup, too, when he rejoins the live circuit later this year.

The sun has gone in and it’s getting chillier on our ungentrified wall. Before Kumar leaves, I ask him to circle back to those rhetorical questions he asked earlier. Why him? Why should he, out of all the Tory-botherers on the BBC roster, provoke such ire from the hard right? Why was his history video for children treated like an act of war? What made Kumar their bogeyman?

He takes a long breath. At first I interpret this as reluctance to answer. Kumar has been thoughtful and open on the subject of race, if uncharacteristically circumspect, even dainty at times. (“A group of people who are angry at you for one reason,” he went out of his way to say, instead of the readier synonym.) Turns out he’s taking that long breath because he’s going to need it.

He says: “One of the things I’ve noticed over time? There’s a narrow band of opinions you are expected to have, if you are born in this country and your parents are of ethnic minorities. If you are a person of colour and you don’t just tell everybody how wonderful Britain is, how it’s not racist, there is a sense of your ingratitude. There is a sense that you were given plenty, so how dare you? People like me, who come from an ethnic minority, who are born in this country, if we do anything that even vaguely tries to interrogate Britishness or British history, there is a sense that we should just be quiet and be grateful.

“But I thought that was that was the point of being born in Britain. I thought I was supposed to consider myself to be a British person. That I was supposed to have the same rights as any other British person to criticise, to interrogate, to make jokes out of what’s happening here. What I have realised over time is that there’s a voluble minority of people who simply do not not feel that way. It’s where we’re at at the moment. It means we’re not having honest conversations about the state of race in this country. And it sucks.”

He kicks together his Simpsons shoes. He zips up his tracksuit, ready to go. Kumar is out of puff for now, though not, I suspect, out of more things to say.

Nish Kumar is touring the UK with Control from February 2022. Tickets are on sale now from nishkumar.co.uk

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting