Q: You came to Chicago from Canada.
A: Yeah, I was doing underground sketch comedy in Toronto. I was running into walls with the Canadian entertainment industry. I wanted to be in something like "Kids in the Hall," so I went to Toronto and it felt impossible. I was actually not permitted in the Second City program in Toronto, so, youthful arrogance, I thought I could move to Chicago and within a year I would be on "Saturday Night Live" and Lorne Michaels and I would become best friends. I was about 21 when I came to Chicago. I got into Second City, then iO.
Q: Did you audition for "SNL"?
A: Yeah, and it went well. I thought I was getting it. Then nothing happened. As far as I know it's because I look too much like Seth Meyers. That's what I was told. They could have just been polite, though. I found out I'm going on Seth Meyers' show now, so I'm going to hand him an invoice for what I would have made.
Q: So you settled into the comedy scene here.
A: Yeah, except when I started, the revered style of improv was slow and patient, and I was antsy and wanted a faster pace. It couldn't get weird enough — if you call that a style. But I met Kumail through the comedy scene in Chicago, though we became friends playing "Gears of War" together. That's how the friendship really formed. The past couple of years I have weaned myself off video games, but in Chicago it was a serious addiction. It sunk in during my early teens. I binge-gamed: You want to finish the game and soon sunlight is coming through your window and, what time is it? That was taking me away from other stuff. But I'll never not be a gamer. Some of my favorite narrative experiences lately have come from video games.
Q: Did the cast of "Silicon Valley" compete for nerdiest?
A: We did! Kumail hosts a video game podcast ("The Indoor Kids"), I go to Renaissance fairs. In garb. For the past two years. I went in normal clothes three years ago and I was missing out. The next year I went in a costume. It was totally fun. I talked to people about joining guilds. OK, I'm painting a picture as a supernerd. But I have woke up and realized there are other things. Hockey is big for me now. Sports! Who knew?
Q: You came to Chicago comedy after having studied computer science in college?
A: Basically, I watched Jerry Seinfeld on HBO and fell in love with (stand-up). I watched his special hundreds of times. It was the first time I loved anything that much, and I wanted to see if I could be good at it. I came to Chicago because so many comedy people had come out of there, so the plan was to make comedy work for me. The first place I performed was Red Lion Pub in Lincoln Park, which shut down (and reopened in Lincoln Square). I performed at the Cubby Bear. I used to play this place, the Lyons Den, on Irving Park, which had an amazing open-mic: T.J., Hannibal Buress, Pete Holmes, Kyle Kinane, they all did it. Thomas and I became friends because of "Gears of War" on Xbox. We defeated the Locust together.
It's funny how so many of the people I started out with in Chicago are doing really well. My own life is so different than when I was in Chicago. For one, I'm married, I'm sort of a grown-up. In Chicago I would stay out 2, 3, 4 a.m. every single night. I was perpetually tired. I also had this day job (as a computer technician for the University of Chicago), so I would have get up at 8 a.m. Very 9-to-6. Most stand-ups just waited tables.
Q: How were you when you started as a stand-up?
A: I was nervous. Then I decided to play up the nervousness, which became my shtick. The hardest thing was being myself. If you're a character, (an audience) can reject a character. If you're yourself and they hate it, they're rejecting you. It wasn't until I moved to New York that I could be myself. It took me years to enjoy it.
Q: You grew up in Pakistan. Was there pressure to play up your nationality?
A: Not really, because I was emulating comedians — Seinfeld, Jake Johannsen, people I was influenced by were not talking about that stuff. Plus, I had seen more bad ethnic comedy than good. I never saw myself as that kind of guy. I would do it occasionally, to get the crowd on my side, but that was nerves, amateur stuff.
Q: And now you've become this ubiquitous comedy figure. Is there a kind of light panic behind doing so much in different mediums — TV, movies, podcasts, live shows, animated voice-work?
A: There is a light panic behind everything, all the time. It's an industry without job security. As soon as a job is done, you have to find a job. I know people who stop working, and it's terrifying. But I also think doing different stuff makes you better at other stuff: Acting makes you better at stand-up, which makes you better at writing. Right now, it's a good time for comedy, and everyone wants to be playing in everyone's sandbox.