Pakistani Denzel

Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani and the Most High-Brow Dick Joke Ever

Kumail Nanjiani—the unlikely hero of the HBO comedy, which wrapped its first season Sunday—talks about playing ‘Mario Kart’ in Karachi, ‘Game of Thrones’ spoilers, and nerd culture.

Bret Hartman/The Washington Post/Getty

“What we’re trying to do, hypothetically, is minimize time,” says Dinesh in Silicon Valley’s season finale. “Which is 800 dudes multiplied by mean jerk time divided by four dicks at a time.”

The equation [T = (800 x mJT) / 4] gets complicated when variables are factored in: dick to floor ratio, complementary shaft angle, orgasm threshold, girth similarity, and the condition that T must be less than or equal to 10 minutes. It is, without question, the most high-brow dick joke in television history. Stanford engineers verified the math. Really. Piloting the scene, like a Pakistani Denzel Washington having a Good Will Hunting moment, scribbling equations and delivering lines that undoubtedly would make his parents cringe, is comedian Kumail Nanjiani.

Dinesh, Nanjiani’s character on the HBO comedy, Mike Judge’s genius satire of tech titans and startups that wrapped up its first season Sunday night, doesn’t suffer from crippling panic attacks like the show’s version of Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Hendricks. Dinesh isn’t a misanthropic Satanist like Gilfoyle. Dinesh doesn’t wear a black turtleneck and babble about being the founder of Aviato and go on shroom-induced vision quests like Erlich. So as these men turn a compression algorithm called Pied Piper into a billion-dollar company, it’s a logical conclusion that Dinesh is Silicon Valley’s unlikely hero. And Nanjiani, the side-burned and suave 36-year-old, is a geek icon.

But before there were dick jokes, there was just a little boy and his video games. Nanjiani’s origin story begins in the unlikeliest of places: Karachi.

“I remember playing Mario Kart with my cousins and being like, ‘This should be illegal. I bet drugs can’t be much better than this. Or sex,’” he tells me. (Last week he tweeted that “Being really good-looking is like having a red shell in real life all the time.”)

Nanjiani rented Hollywood movies from a local video store and became obsessed with classics like Indiana Jones, Gremlins 2, Ghostbusters, E.T., and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (He also really liked the sorcery movie Krull, but he’s been told that it’s pretty terrible.) After he and his younger brother got a Sega Genesis while visiting an aunt in Singapore, “Kumail’s house” became the place to play video games.

Fast-forward through the next years of Nanjiani’s life, and he’s moving with his family to New Jersey at 18, majoring in computer science and philosophy at Grinnell College in Iowa, watching standup comedy for the first time, studying at Chicago’s Second City, playing Stephen Colbert’s detainee, and being featured in a New York Times profile. Since then, he’s been on Portlandia and Franklin & Bash and Veep, co-hosted the video game podcast The Indoor Kids with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, and hosted the standup show The Meltdown. And HBO’s renewed Silicon Valley for a second season. Now he’s working on a movie script with his wife (Judd Apatow is “helping” the couple).

All those video games and movies and comics and, well, the Internet, have given Nanjiani an “encyclopedic” knowledge of geeky things since the ’80s, he says. He’s deeply disturbed by the human noses of Michael Bay’s Ninja Turtles. He wants to launch a podcast that dissects X-Files episodes. He has a very Zen approach to superhero reboots: Even if it’s bad, it doesn’t tarnish the original. And, like everyone who knows what “dracarys” means, he wonders if George R.R. Martin knows where he’s going with Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, if Nanjiani watches the show with his wife, who’s read all of the Song of Ice and Fire books, there’s a chance she might unintentionally spoil the story for him.

“It’s really hard to watch it with her,” Nanjiani says. “Because she’s like, ‘Just wait.’ When Game of Thrones is on, the phrase ‘in the books’ is banned from our house.” He tells me a long story of her prematurely telling him all about a character who dies and then is resurrected, ending with, “Emily!? What the fuck.”

I ask when “nerd culture ” infiltrated the mainstream. Nanjiani says that, like Richard Hendricks in Silicon Valley, tech giants such as Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs made geekiness sexy. But it’s about damn time, he says.

“The thing is, that stuff has been great forever,” he says. “Obviously, Star Wars is geeky stuff. Indiana Jones is geeky. People grew to consider this serious and mainstream and not just niche stuff.” Nanjiani is one of those video game-playing, comic book-reading guys who now just happens to be a Hollywood star.

He’s also a trailblazer in another sense—as one of the few “brown” comedians, like Aziz Ansari and Danny Pudi, cast in roles that don’t hinge on ethnicity, unlike, say, Raj in The Big Bang Theory (sometimes) or everyone in NBC’s now-extinct Outsourced. Indeed, the part Nanjiani auditioned for in Silicon Valley wasn’t written for a Pakistani immigrant. “When is the last time you saw a show that had four brown guys in it that werent related to each other in the story?” he says. “Like, their Indian-ness or Pakistani-ness has nothing to do with the part. That’s so fantastic.”

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So in Silicon Valley, when we see a garage mural of Dinesh as an Aztec warrior penetrating the Statue of Liberty, or when he gets aroused reading his male friend’s Java code, the gag is more than just another dick joke on television. And when Dinesh explains why he’s reluctant to get a lap dance from a stripper in front of his friends—“The idea of getting an erection among men I live and work with is just not something I can handle. The idea that I have a boner and you have a boner and he has a boner and we’re all sitting there with boners in our pants.”—the scene isn’t just meaningful because of the way Nanjiani pronounces the word “boner.”

If you were ask to him about all of this, whether he’s a pioneer in the fight for the acceptance of nerds and brown guys, he’d likely demur. “A lot of times you say, ‘Oh, that guy’s really funny. Why doesn’t he work more?’” Nanjiani says. “And you find out it’s because he’s a dick. Well, I’ve been lucky. And I’m a nice guy and not a dick.”