Author, producer, screenwriter, and GWAR fan Emily V. Gordon is no stranger to the philosophical principle that comedy equals tragedy plus time. And not just because she traffics in the business of being funny, although that certainly helps.
Gordon, years before she became a successful author (Super You), standup showcase producer (The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail), and comedy writer (Another Period, The Carmichael Show), she was a practicing therapist who specialized in family and couples counseling. But that’s not the tragic part: That would be when Gordon was placed in a medically induced coma after a mysterious and rare auto-inflammatory condition known as adult onset Still’s Disease began spreading rapidly in her lungs. While in the coma, the guy she had been casually dating stepped up to care for her in the hospital and break the heavy news to her parents who he had never met.
That guy turned out to be Kumail Nanjiani, then a struggling standup who was working through his own personal quandary with his orthodox Muslim family who weren’t so keen on his more secular behavior. Kumail and Emily’s story provides the DNA for The Big Sick, the Michael Showalter-directed rom-com that — despite the tragedy at its nucleus — manages to be profoundly funny, romantic, and life affirming.
They co-wrote the script together, with Kumail playing himself and Zoe Kazan playing Emily. It’s the rare tragicomedy that wears its robust heart on its sleeve. And with its lyrical and sharp screenplay (as well as outstanding performances from Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) it’s sure to be an awards contender.
I recently sat down with Gordon to discuss The Big Sick, finding humor in personal trauma, and why comedians might not be as broken as they lead us to believe.
Congratulations on the tremendous response The Big Sick has received. I can’t remember the last time I laughed and cried in equal measure like that during a movie.
[Pumping her fists] Yes! If I can make men cry, that’s all that matters.
How did you manage to strike that balance while writing about something so impossibly personal and traumatic?
Yeah, I think it is a weird thing to juggle. We started the process by literally writing everything that happened and making this incredibly long first draft. We just worked at taking out the parts that weren’t as important and amping up the stakes and amping up the drama on the parts that we decided to leave in. But we always intended to write this as a comedy.
Judd Apatow, who we worked with for three years on honing the script before we brought [director Michael] Showalter on board, is really great about zeroing in on those things. He would always be like: “This is the character that you have; who’s the person he’d be most afraid to be paired with? Crank that up a notch.” Or “Take this certain beat and take it down two notches.” We just worked on it endlessly to try to figure out the best way to tell a story. Slowly it became a story instead of our story. So there is a lot of truth in it. A lot of us in it. A lot of the emotional beats are the same. But it’s also not just us, which helps with this type of thing.
How did you react to getting creative notes on something you actually lived?
Very early on I just realized that — and part of it is my therapist training —I’m not the expert and you’re not an idiot and my job isn’t to teach you about the things you’re being dumb about. You’re an expert in your life. I’m an expert in the skills that I’ve learned. Together we’ll figure it out. I thought about that with Judd and Showalter too. Kumail and I are the experts at what happened to us, and they’re the experts at making movies. So together we can create a story. The less precious you can be with your own life the better, especially in situations like this. If you are beating the “that’s not how it happened” drum, then you’ll beat that drum all the way to nobody seeing your movie because it never got made. [laughs]
The Big Sick is certainly a tragicomedy, but I think people will be pleasantly surprised just how uplifting it plays. Was there ever a moment when putting this to paper that you had second thoughts on revisiting those rough memories?
Oh, it was certainly rough at times. I had a really hard time going to hospitals for ten years. After I recovered from being sick ten years ago, I would just avoid them. And if I was there I was pretty uncomfortable. One thing The Big Sick did was make me confront that. I finally realized, Oh shit. We’re going to be filming most of this in a hospital. It was almost like this form of therapy for myself. I had to be back in this, so I needed to either woman-up and get comfortable with it or get the hell out of the way. I didn’t want to get out of the way. I would say the first day of shooting was a little uncomfortable but it helped overall. It was something that wasn’t easy and it wasn’t comfortable at all times but it was ultimately good.
What do you think is the biggest flaw with the modern American rom-com?
I forgot about this until recently, and it’s super relevant to our movie, so it’s so stupid that I forgot, but I used to do a workshop in Brooklyn about how rom-coms are ruining our dating lives. It wasn’t that well received but I loved it. But I do think they’re given such an odd importance. I started mirroring my love life after the rom-coms that I was watching, which was not a great thing to do. But I think it’s perfectly natural when those are your only examples of how romance should look like. That idea of a meet-cute and this guy seems perfect for you and you spend the rest of your relationship pretending he’s the guy you met in those first 30 seconds when he never really was. Instead of dealing with the realities of a person, rom-coms can teach you to put people on a pedestal and then just worship them from afar instead of dealing with them on the day to day. Then you wonder why the relationship isn’t working.
Also rom-coms end right when the relationship starts. That’s such a bummer because we need help! We need good examples of what healthy, good relationships look like. It might not be as exciting, but this idea that the lead-up is the weight of the relationship and once you get together it’s the end of the story is kind of detrimental. Maintaining those relationships once you have them is the real work. Rom-coms don’t show us that.
Can we talk about how social media compounds that problem? My apologies if this is getting too heady.
No, I love this shit. I think about it all the time.
Okay, great. Do you think social media has accelerated those skewed views of intimacy and unrealistic expectations indoctrinated by rom-coms?
I’m so happy that I’m not dating now because I don’t think I can handle the level of detachment. I know wonderful people who met dating that way, but I just think you almost start thinking of the potential dates as a commodity that you can swipe and pick and choose and discard. Maybe that’s how you get laid— and that’s great too — but it’s not how I see myself setting up with a person that I want to build a relationship with and build life experiences with. I can’t imagine how hard it is.
You married a standup. You’ve produced and written for various comedy shows. Were you always a comedy fan?
One hundred percent. When I was younger I used to hold up my cassette recorder to whatever was playing on Comedy Central before it was Comedy Central. What was it called?
Right. I would tape those HA! specials and just listen to them. Marc Maron’s half-hour, Janeane Garofalo’s half-hour, Jake Johansson’s half-hour. Then late at night they would just show one joke each, which I wish they would go back to doing. I would tape those and listen to them on car trips. I’ve always been a comedy fan but it wasn’t until I moved to Chicago that I realized that you could go see standup comedy live. That had never occurred to me. I went to my first show in Chicago and I was hooked, absolutely hooked.
You’re not a practicing therapist anymore, but you are constantly surrounded by comedians — artists known for being a bit emotionally paralyzed. Do any of them ever approach you for advice? How does Kumail compare to all those “sad clowns” in the standup world?
He’s not in the room so I’m gonna say Kumail is pretty well put together. Kumail came to me already. He had some definite issues, sure, but he was pretty good about knowing himself for the most part. He was really good at understanding patterns. For the most part, everyone’s pretty good at this stuff. I find that comedians are raw. I ran a comedy show for six years and I observed that comedians are overall just as well-adjusted as anyone else. There’s this idea that they’re all broken toys. Of course there are some, but that’s not the comics I know. They just show those parts of themselves that we all have that are embarrassing for a living. I find that most of the stuff they do on stage is merely a more primitive version of themselves. We all have that higher brain that keeps us from being that person all the time. Comedians just know how to access it more efficiently.
Are you going to make comedy writing your home or do you want to leap into other genres?
I like writing all kinds of stuff. I’ve written for Another Period and Crashing briefly. I sold a pilot to FX and who knows what’s going to happen with that because pilots can go anywhere. But I enjoy writing features because I like telling one distinct story. Writing for TV has been great because every show that I’ve written for is with comedians that I’ve been friends with who I also love working with. My brand of comedy is very… I like making people cry. [laughs] I like this new style of comedy that’s super funny but also profoundly deep emotional shit. So I want to keep writing that emotional stuff. But I like telling fart jokes too.
Are you feeling optimistic about the slow but steady increase in representation and diverse voices in comedy?
I think it’s going in a good direction but we still have so far to go. I’m a woman, so women’s voices behind and in front of the camera are important to me. But I’m also a white woman. So what I’ve learned personally is to listen and collaborate. I had the joy of writing for The Carmichael Show as my first job and that is what could be described as a “black show.” I learned a lot about asking questions and being respectful and listening and realize that part of my job as a white woman is to lift up other people’s voices and to put people on TV that aren’t normally on TV. The episode of The Carmichael Show that I wrote was about a Muslim family that moves next door. I ended up doing that because half of my family is Muslim. I think it is part of my job to make sure I’m uplifting other people’s voices and uplifting other people’s stories because the Muslims I know, they hang out and are silly and are weird and all we do is sit around and eat food. I hadn’t seen a lot of that depicted on TV before. I don’t see a lot of those voices represented on TV or in movies. I want to see them on TV and I want it on the big screen so I’ll help make it happen if I can. My job is to keep working and doing what I think is the right thing to be done.
The Big Sick hits theaters with a limited release this Friday followed by a wide release on Friday, July 14th.
Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles.