Jordan Peele is executive producer and narrator for “The Twilight Zone,” CBS All Access’ new revival of Rod Serling’s classic anthology series.
Picture, if you will, a fan-favorite comedian and movie star who was terrified of getting on stage and going to a darker place than he’d ever been. But it’s not just any stage in Anytown, USA – this is one that exists only in “The Twilight Zone.”
That’s how Rod Serling would have described what happened to Kumail Nanjiani when he got the script for his premiere episode of CBS All Access’ new “Twilight Zone” revival – “The Comedian” (streaming now), which was written specifically for him.
Nanjiani stars as a struggling stand-up comic, Samir Wassan, who’s a regular at the local nightclub. He’s visited one day by his comic idol J.C. Wheeler (Tracy Morgan), who offers Samir some cryptic career advice: “Put yourself out there and you will get laughs.”
When Samir starts talking about things and people in his life as part of his set, the audience cracks up. But in “Twilight Zone” fashion, he finds the subjects of his jokes – like his dog – are then erased from existence.
It was the perfect combination of his interests: Nanjiani had a successful stand-up career and has been a “Twilight Zone” fan since his teenage years.
“It’s like someone asking me, ‘When was the first time you ate an omelet?’ I couldn’t tell you. It’s been forever,” Nanjiani tells USA TODAY.
The role was so unlike anything he’d ever done that Nanjiani saw executive producer (and his friend) Jordan Peele at a party several weeks before filming and told him that he was so intimidated that he might not be the right guy to do it.
“And Jordan talked me out of dropping out of the episode,” Nanjiani says. “Initially I was really scared, and there were some parts of it that I didn’t quite get the tone immediately, to be honest. (But) if Jordan says, ‘You can do this,’ you sort of have to trust him.”
The premise hooked Nanjiani from the start. “I feel like we share so much of ourselves on social media that in some ways what you give of yourself, you don’t have anymore,” he says. “Everybody sort of has that now, you know?”
Nanjiani saw real-world parallels with his 2017 semiautobiographical dramedy “The Big Sick,” which earned him and his wife Emily V. Gordon an Oscar nomination for original screenplay. (Ironically, they lost to Peele’s “Get Out.”) The film, starring Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan, was based on the real-life couple’s own interethnic love story and struggles through a harrowing illnesss.
“We’re very proud of it and it had a really wonderful, tremendous reaction,” Nanjiani says. “But also we told a very personal part of our lives and in some way we gave it away to people. So it goes from just a thing that’s yours to sort of a thing that belongs to the world. There is a little bit of a feeling of loss to that.”
Nanjiani says the episode’s premise, coupled with an obsession with social media, made the story “the exact right way” to bring “Twilight Zone” into the 21st century.
“Whereas previously it would have been just about a guy who would do anything to be successful, now it’s about a guy who would do anything to be successful in a very, very technologically current way,” he said.
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