Hours after we spoke to comedian Nish Kumar about his new satirical comedy series Hello America, Donald Trump – still the president of the United States – said the 1918 flu pandemic took place in 1917 and ended the Second World War. There have been few beneficiaries of Trump’s chaotic and incompetent presidency, but comedians have been gifted almost too much material with which to lampoon the commander-in-chief.
Since 2017, Kumar has fronted BBC Two’s The Mash Report and when we spoke with him about bringing a British perspective to US politics on Hello America, he was doing what many Brits have been doing in this month’s sweltering heat – trying to find the gentlest of breezes outdoors.
Hi Nish, are you having a nice pandemic?
“I’m having quite a weird pandemic. I’ve not stopped working and I haven’t got COVID, which is pretty much the luckiest version of this event you can have. So I have no right whatsoever to complain about anything. Obviously, I complain constantly. That’s because I’m a piece of shit, not because I have any right to complain.”
Hey, we all need some normality… Has the pandemic affected the creative process for Hello America?
“There are a few elements that are totally unchanged. We were never going to have a studio audience, because we tape the shows at 6am. The kind of studio audience you get at 6am is not necessarily the audience that you want. Best-case scenario: it’s fresh-faced people who are getting a bit of pre-work entertainment. Worst case scenario: it’s people who’ve not been home all night. People on a raging coke bender are many things, but a good comedy audience is simply not one of them.”
Donald Trump can be a depressing subject to cover. How has it affected your mental health?
“It can be quite draining but I’m always cognizant of the people actually fighting these battles, the activists and campaigners, who are trying to resist his nonsensical executive orders and trying to get kids out of cages. We’re making a dumb comedy show but, I’m not going to lie, it can occasionally get to you. When you have to say things like: ‘The president of the United States has advised people to inject bleach in order to bleach coronavirus out their body’, there is a point where you think, ‘I don’t know how we’ve ended up here.’
You recently called on the press to challenge Trump’s lies more. How confident are you that networks will raise their game for the election?
“I’m hopeful because the lies Trump’s spewed – this year particularly – involve a cavalier attitude towards a disease that has claimed more than 160,000 American lives. At this point it is now or never for the press, particularly in the States. It is life and death. In 2016 there was a dismissal of the emotional reaction to his election, brushing it off as incredibly hysterical; if anything, people weren’t hysterical enough. I wonder if you can possibly shrug off the death of 160,000 people. I really hope not.”
While focusing on US politics, what have you learned about the UK that you hadn’t realised before?
“What’s surprised and shocked me more than anything is the tolerance afforded to Boris Johnson and the latitude given to a certain type of cartoonish, posh, straight white man. We’re not just talking about his newspaper columns casually using racial epithets, we’re talking about a muddled public health strategy that’s left us in a situation where 50,000 people have died. The way he’s able to manoeuvre from scandal to scandal is quite extraordinary. For example, the Jennifer Arcuri scandal [involving conflict of interest allegations from Johnson’s time as London mayor] – in the 1990s a whisper of that sort of sleaze would have done for a politician. What’s really surprised me the most in the last few years is the extent to which nothing sticks to Johnson.”
Is he too big to fail?
“There is a strong element of that, and what he and Trump have in common is this seeming invulnerability to scandal. It’s a master class in a complete absence of accountability. The unwillingness to accept disgrace – you can only be disgraced if you accept you have disgraced yourself. That seems to be the political philosophy which underpins Johnson and Trump. I mean, Boris Johnson hid a fridge to avoid an interview.”
You do often admit that Brits are in no position to pass judgment on US politics…
“Us telling America off is very much like pulling someone up on their hygiene when you have shat yourself. ‘Have some dignity,’ says the man with fully-shitted underpants.”
‘Hello America’ streams on Quibi, with new episodes every Monday and Friday