Political firebrand Nish Kumar: ‘I can’t be both problematic and an irrelevance’

 (Matt Stronge)
(Matt Stronge)

Midway through our interview about his new political podcast, I ask Nish Kumar which politicians get up his nose. The 37-year-old stand-up — who hosted The Mash Report, the last heavyweight topical comedy show to grace a mainstream TV channel, from 2017 to 2021 — doesn’t hold back.

“I find Suella Braverman reprehensible and Rishi Sunak irresponsible,” he says. “I have no idea how the f*** you start with the period of time that Liz Truss was Prime Minister. And you read positive things about Theresa May as if [the] Windrush [scandal] never happened!” He grins sheepishly. “This isn’t a helpful answer because I’m angry about all of them.”

Pod Save the UK, which launched last week, is a retooling of Crooked Media’s American politics show, Pod Save America. Founded and presented by former Obama aides Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor after they were short on work and hope in the Trump era, it was downloaded 120m times by November 2017 and now has 1.5m weekly listeners. Kumar’s version, co-hosted with Guardian journalist Coco Khan, will “be very different in tone because the American hosts are guys who essentially walked straight out of the White House. When they talk about how you pass a budget, they’re talking from actual expertise whereas neither Coco nor I can speak to that experience.

“We are presenting ourselves as people who are closer to the side of the audience and maybe share their frustrations.” They are not full-time Westminster commentators like The News Agents’ Emily Maitlis, Jon Sopel and Lewis Goodall; nor cross-the-divide party veterans like Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart who host The Rest is Politics. The show won’t be partisan – “I don’t think any of us is afraid of finding fault in the Labour Party” – but it “will bang the drum for a specific set of values and ideas.”

Future episodes will feature vox pops across the country, and experts debating the week’s news with Kumar and Khan, as well as ongoing issues like climate protest, reform of the Metropolitan Police, and inequality. “That seems to be the driving force behind a lot of the problems we are experiencing as a society,” Kumar says. “There is a section of the population so insulated by their personal wealth that they don’t understand that it’s hard to get your kids into a school; it’s hard to see a doctor; sometimes the trains don’t work. When those people are running the country, that’s an issue.”

Nish Kumar’s new incendiary podcast is dissects UK politics (BBC/Zeppotron)
Nish Kumar’s new incendiary podcast is dissects UK politics (BBC/Zeppotron)

The opening episode (with the disarming title Chat Sh*t Get Banged), which dropped last Thursday, featured a liberal love-in between Kumar, Khan and the hosts of the American version. Debate ranged from the Coronation (“we were fortunate to launch in the week of a once-in-a-lifetime political event”), culture wars, and the lack of accountability when politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are caught “chatting sh*t”. When we speak a day later, Kumar is digesting the fact that the Tories “got banged” in the local council elections.

“I always find it funny when Tories lose,” he says. “It’s too simple to see it as a dry run for a general election because local issues are in play. But Conservatives, in a lot of reports, said conversations on the doorstep turned to Liz Truss and Boris Johnson. Which I think is inevitable given that Truss blasted a £30bn hole in the economy when people were already struggling.” He’s less exultant than I expected. “I think it’s hard to take satisfaction from anything at the moment, when people are up against it. I would like to think this will be the instigation for Sunak to start making greater interventions to help people through the crisis. But there is also a part of me that would happily sign up to a month-long subscription to organisations that gives you a bag of magic beans, so I’m aware enough to know that my optimism should be tempered by my real-world experience.”

I ask if he turned to podcasting because he felt he could no longer express his views on mainstream TV, in particular on the BBC: he says no, he was just flattered to be asked to do it and to work with Khan, who he met when both contributed to The Good Immigrant in 2016. But there are two things everyone knows about Kumar. The first is that he was booed offstage at a 2019 Lord’s Taverners charity lunch after making jokes about Brexit and Boris Johnson, and subsequently received a torrent of abuse online including death threats.

The second is that the political comedy show The Mash Report, which he’d hosted since 2017, was axed by the BBC in 2021 to the delight of Right-wing newspapers. (The show resurfaced on Dave, but Kumar quit after a month.) He says he doesn’t know whether the show was cancelled by the BBC for political reasons but it may be a “useful myth” for some to believe that it was. “I think the BBC should be defended as an institution but I think it has been put under real, continuous and sustained pressure by the government of the last decade,” he adds. “And it’s not just the BBC. For people who talk about how much they love Britain they [the Conservative Party] seem to really f***ing hate a lot of it. Not only the NHS, the BBC, the National Trust and the university system... they also seem to hate football and footballers. They’re going after all these things that are beloved in this country.”

For people who talk about how much they love Britain they [the Conservative Party] seem to really f***ing hate a lot of it

The press coverage of the Mash Report’s demise bemused him. “There was a disproportionate amount of attention paid to me but often the articles suggested this was a show no one watched or cared about. Either I’m an irrelevance or I’m a problem but I can’t be a problematic irrelevance! But then, asking the Right-wing media for intellectual consistency… you might as well ask a frog to speak Mandarin.”

The death threats were alarming, as is the racist abuse he still gets on social media. He won’t tell me where in south London he lives with his girlfriend of 12 years, fellow stand-up Amy Annette. He started therapy soon after the death threats but won’t say if there was a specific issue he needed to deal with. “It’s something I should have done anyway, and the way it should be couched is that we should all have access to mental healthcare. Your brain is just another part of your body, and this is just another kind of doctor. But obviously mental healthcare is one of the least well-funded sectors of the National Health Service so it’s very easy for someone like me who can afford to pay for a therapist to say we should all be in therapy.”

The simplest way to avoid abuse would be to give up comedy or at least avoid political humour, but clearly neither is going to happen. “Nobody works in entertainment in my family but we all grew up as big comedy fans, watching old British sitcoms,” he says. “I’d been snuck into comedy clubs at the age of 16 by my uncle and cousins and I understood the infrastructure of it from the age of 20.”

Nich Kumar and Josh Widdicombe on hit show Hold the Front Page (Stuart Wood)
Nich Kumar and Josh Widdicombe on hit show Hold the Front Page (Stuart Wood)

At Durham University he met fellow would-be comedians Tom Neenan (who later became the Mash Report’s head writer) and Ed Gamble. The three started doing sketch comedy in a grubby pub and progressed to Edinburgh Festival shows and tours, Kumar doing office temp jobs on the side until his career took off in the mid-2010s. He always wanted to do political material but it took him “seven or eight years to learn the mechanics of joke writing. I feel nothing but guilt towards anyone who saw me perform before about 2015.”

He was born in Tooting and grew up in Croydon. We have a bit of a mutual south London love-in of our own about this, as I grew up in Wandsworth and worked for three years in Croydon. “David Bowie — who grew up in Beckenham — used to say ‘that’s so Croydon’ as a way of describing something sh*t,” Kumar recalls. “Even Kate Moss couldn’t gentrify Croydon, but it’s become a bit cooler now because of Stormzy.”

Kumar’s father, originally from Kerala, sells handmade textiles from India, while his mother, also originally from Kerala but raised in Kenya, was a stay-at-home mum. His brother works in finance in Germany. His parents were “baffled” by his chosen career, “but when you start working for the BBC all of that melts away. If you have family outside the UK the BBC means something completely different, more positive.”

That said, he’s not fussed to not be on telly now (his 2020 comedy show on Quibi, Hello America, died when the streaming platform closed that year). Stand-up is the one constant in his career but otherwise he’s project-driven rather than focused on a grand plan. “This podcast is the easiest thing I’ve said yes to. I’m so interested in the news and so happy to be working with people like Crooked, who know what they’re doing, and with my friend Coco. I think this will give my friends and family a break because I’ll have more of an outlet to talk about the news. Sometimes they’re like: ‘we can’t listen to this any more. We get it, you don’t like the Government. Now can we talk about something else?’”

Pod Save the UK is on streaming platforms now