For the first time in a long time, Nish Kumar can breathe easy. It’s not a sentiment you’d imagine from a regime-critical comedian who’s caught in the crossfire of Britain’s culture wars. But since wrapping up the satiric TV series Late Night Mash in October 2021 – a reinvention of The Mash Report, which was axed by the BBC ostensibly for being too anti-government – he’s enjoying the freedom that comes with exploring new directions.
“I was on a roll for a long time, I was very lucky,” he reflects over Zoom, kitted out with professional-looking headphones and mic – the sign of a man who’s spent much of the last two years in this manner. “From 2012 I was just writing shows for the Edinburgh Fringe. Then, around 2015, the TV work started cropping up. And when the TV work starts, that’s when the touring can start.”
“After The Mash Report began [in 2017], the big question was always if it would be recommissioned, and we’d try and fit a tour in between all of that.
“Now I’ve finished this series and I’m finishing this tour, and I think I deliberately just wanted to leave a bit of time for me to figure out what I want to do next. It’s a privileged position to be in.”
A few blanks to fill in: what 36-year-old Kumar fails to mention is that, from a typical British Asian family in Croydon, his was a decidedly atypical career path. Yet he rose to become a two-times Edinburgh Comedy Award nominee, a prolific podcast guest, and a TV personality with appearances on Taskmaster mainly, QI and Mock the Week alongside his one-series travel show with friend Joel Dommett, Joel & Nish vs the World.
So it’s with confidence that he stepped away from the Late Night Mash, which had moved to comedy television channel Dave. At the time, Kumar joked it was “to spend more time with my emotional problems”. But six months on, it transpires there was a little more to that story: after fronting it through its good times and bad, he asked to have more of a creative say as a producer, but the production company declined. So he walked away. “It was their prerogative,” he says, with absolute neutrality. “It was a show that they had created that I was brought on as a host. I really enjoyed it but I was ready for a different level of responsibility.”
It’s no secret that it’s a sensitive time for the UK’s public service broadcasters, as the BBC’s licence fee model of funding hangs in the balance and a mooted privatisation of Channel 4 threatens its raison d’etre.
“They’re both in a very, very difficult position at the moment,” Kumar says on the subject. “The BBC and Channel 4 are operating with a gun pointed directly at their temples, and nobody’s going to make great decisions when they’re constantly having their futures called into question by the government.
“And the Conservative government in Britain are cultural vandals,” he continues. “Their aim is to dismantle the state and so I don’t think we should be surprised by any of the moves that they’ve been pulling in terms of public broadcasters. Either the Conservative government will turn the BBC fully into just a mouthpiece for government policy or they’ll just get rid of them completely.
“They’re averse to any form of scrutiny. They can state their reasons for trying to privatise Channel 4, but we can also look at it and say it’s because Channel 4 News replaced Johnson with a block of ice when he didn’t turn up for the climate crisis debate. They’re offended by anybody questioning any of the decisions they’ve made.”
I’m not really a big advocate of the idea that comedy is a form of therapy. I’m a bigger advocate that therapy is a form of therapy
You couldn’t ignore the glee with which the fall of The Mash Report was covered in the right-wing press (sample coverage from the Mail when it wasn’t renewed at the BBC: “Nish Kumar was fuming when BBC Two axed his Leninist-leaning topical satire The Mash Report. The Beeb called it a ‘difficult decision’, though it’s hard to see what’s so difficult about axing a show no one watches”).
It just goes to show that of the UK’s topical comedians – like his Mash peer Rachel Parris, Frankie Boyle, Ian Hislop – Kumar earns the most hate for reasons he’s well aware of. “It begins with ‘b’ and ends with ‘brown’,” he once said.
This vitriol is covered extensively and jovially in his stand-up show Your Power, Your Control. He unpicks the abuse he receives from bread roll-throwing to an online death threat that’s uncomfortable to hear let alone receive. He also discusses his reluctance to seek therapy, and its help once he began it 2½ years ago.
Is therapy the only reason he’s able to reframe potentially debilitating negative experiences into material for a comedy routine? “It is just therapy,” he replies. “That is the reason I was able to do the show. I’m not really a big advocate of the idea that comedy is a form of therapy. I’m a bigger advocate that therapy is a form of therapy.
“It was only because I’d processed the emotions around it that I’m able to talk about it without reliving it. You have to have some kind of support system in place, otherwise you’re just torturing yourself over and over again for no real reason.
“Also, a bit of time has passed. I’m not sure I could have done the show in the immediate aftermath of it,” he says. That rings true when he talks about an audience member on this tour admitting he got Kumar mixed up with another brown comedian, Romesh Ranganathan. The day after that show, another audience member heckled, “Where’s Romesh?”
Kumar’s voice is tinged with hurt as he discusses this, delicately phrasing the situations as “sub-optimal” and “more fraught than it needed to be” respectively.
Does he now have techniques to deal with insults and abuse? “Listen, I’ve got whole textbooks about patterns of problematic thinking. There are worksheets I can fill in to see if I should be worried about a situation or if I’m blowing things out of proportion,” he says. “You also have to take charge of your own mental health, and step away from any of the forms of social media or ways in which people can broadcast their opinion to you.”
Like his buddy the comedian and Off Menu podcast host James Acaster (there’s a reason Kumar’s bio simply reads ‘Comedian & great friend’), he could abandon social media. It just becomes tricky when there’s a tour to promote. “It’s still unfortunately just a way to sell tickets at the moment,” he says. “That’s the best thing I can say about it.”
With no call to play nicely for a broad audience, Your Power, Your Control weaves the narrative of his worst gigs to date with no-holds-barred pops at those in power. The Irish dates won’t need much tweaking, I suggest, given the impact of British politics here.
“Impact?” he baulks. “Impact is certainly one word for it. If British politics has had an impact, it’s much in the same way as a freight train hitting a boy has an impact on him.”
I’m aware I have the voice of the coloniser and a face of the colonised. It gives it an interesting energy when you do gigs in Ireland
It’s clear that Kumar is attuned to the societal climate in Ireland especially as he’s close to Aisling Bea, and David O’Doherty, who he often shared flats with during their Edinburgh runs.
“Obviously there’s such a contentious history between the UK and Ireland, but in more recent years, Irish friends of mine have becoming frustrated with their governments. As a British person, it’s always very difficult to add things could be so much worse. Things could be So. Much. Worse.”
There’s an extra dimension to his performances in Ireland, Kumar says. “I’m aware I have the voice of the coloniser and a face of the colonised. It gives it an interesting energy when you do gigs in Ireland, especially when most of my material is trashing the British government.”
When the tour finishes at the end of May, that’s when Kumar will consider the next chapter of his comedy career carefully. Fret ye not – he’s already ruled out podcasts unless there was a strong premise (“nobody needs another podcast with a dude sounding off about his opinions”). Whatever the platform, sideswipes at injustices – political, personal but most often both – are a given.
“Ultimately you want to make something that you’re proud of and so you want to think as much about it as possible,” he says. “These things should be hard because otherwise what are any of us doing? If we’re not actively working to cure cancer or stop the spread of climate change, we’re all wasting our time. So if we’ve elected to waste your time, at least waste it with as much effort and toil as we possibly can.”
Nish Kumar plays Ulster Hall, Belfast (11th May) and Vicar Street, Dublin (12th May). nishkumar.co.uk