Nish Kumar on bread rolls, trolling and being back in Hackney
- Credit: Matt Stronge
In December 2019, Nish Kumar suffered a fate experienced by many a comedian - getting booed off stage.
It happens to every stand-up sooner or later and is as much a part of a comedian’s life as getting called into the manager’s office is for the rest of us.
But the incident at Lord's Taverners annual charity cricket lunch was more impactful for how it was picked up by the national press. And then when it circulated on social media the trolls emerged from under their virtual bridges.
“The gig itself wasn’t the problem,” Kumar says, “The problem was the 24 hours or 48 hour period after when you get a lot of weird press attention.
“That’s when you start getting death threats and stuff. That was what was harder to deal with.”
Kumar describes experiencing a general “low hum” of threat and violence on social media. He feels women and LGBT comics experience greater general trolling but as a “bog standard individual and person of colour” he has learned to “tune out” most day-to-day abuse. But with the Lord Taverners incident it was the first time it happened in a “concentrated period” with 10,000 words, he estimates, being written about a bread roll being thrown at him.
Every comedian, he says, has 50 gigs where they are booed off but one nightmare “one which they can talk to you about for 40 minutes”. Having gone through therapy with a mental health professional, he found himself able to write jokes about the experience.
“It is really all I am able to do, write jokes,” he says. “It is the only way I can process everything in my immediate vicinity.
“I did a couple of warm up shows and pretty quickly I realised what I would be talking about would be the experience of doing that gig.”
When Kumar, now 36, started out in his early 20s abuse was more likely to be experienced on stage. But with Twitter and Facebook it doesn’t stop when the show finishes and instead follows comedians around with notifications in their pockets.
He describes the phenomenon as “the stupid end of the culture war” and a “self sustaining bonfire” - but breadrollgate wasn’t an incident that put him off from stepping back on stage.
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“It didn’t play on my mind too much in terms of gigging because it wasn’t emblematic of what is a normal comedy gig. It was a really strange event and a really strange occurrence. It was such an odd conglomeration of circumstances that it wasn’t really something that concerned me over whether it could happen again.”
Kumar is around half way through a mammoth UK live tour that has been impacted by his own Covid diagnosis that led to “a load of shows” being rescheduled.
All being well, he is set to perform at Hackney Empire this Friday and Saturday night - which is something of a homecoming even though Kumar is from Wandsworth.
“I’ve got an emotional relationship with that building as it was the first place I ever saw live comedy. I saw Goodness Gracious Me on tour in 1999 at the Empire and I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen in my life. I have a tremendously sentimental relationship with that venue.”
The extensiveness of the tour sees him take in a diverse range of places from Hackney, a borough that votes largely in-line with Kumar’s left wing values, to the very next night in Tunbridge Wells - a town better known for delivering Tory MPs.
“People know what they are going to get from me,” he says, “And often when it is a place that has a very high Conservative vote, those are some of the best gigs as the people who come out and see me are the angriest people. They live amongst the Tories and they are livid about them!”
“It really was weird,” he said about getting back on stage after so long. “And that was for no other reason than I just stopped doing stand up which I have been doing since I was 21. Like for many, I suddenly stopped doing my job. For some people it was a relief but I knew I was desperate to get back on the road and start doing stand up.
“It has been great getting back out there, it has been so fun.”
Were there any doubts that his jokes would no longer land?
“Yes, for sure there were. It really was like starting again, that first gig back was pretty nerve wracking but pretty quickly you remember you can do the job.”
Nish Kumar will perform at Hackney Empire on April 22 and 23 as part of his YOUR POWER, YOUR CONTROL UK tour. For tickets and more information, visit www.nishkumar.co.uk