If occupying multiple pockets of comedic styles as writer and performer were a Herculean task, then mastering the mechanics and successfully wielding all the various elements of humor would seem cosmically impossible. Unless you’re Michael Showalter, who over the span of a 25-year career has not only dabbled in Marx Brothers absurdism (Wet Hot American Summer) or alt-comedy that borders on neo-Dadaism (The State), but has managed to bring avant-garde comedy from the fringes closer to the mainstream while introducing the world to a new generation of unique comedic voices. And while Showalter might be readily known for his influence in the alt-spaces of comedy or for the cult classic work he’s done under the Stella imprint with frequent collaborators David Wain and Michael Ian Black, this past decade he has been quietly reinforcing his status as one of the finest indie comedy directors working today.
2005’s The Baxter and last year’s Hello, My Name is Doris found Showalter dialing down his broad absurdist bent and dialing in on the universal humor found within grounded, character-focused dramedies. His third feature The Big Sick, starring Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, and Holly Hunter, is another shining success in Showalter’s oeuvre, showcasing how deftly and delicately he can balance high comedy with high-stakes drama. It’s the funniest, most emotionally piercing romantic comedy of the year and it deserves to be mentioned in the awards conversation come Oscar season.
Michael Showalter sat down with me to discuss directing The Big Sick, how comedy has (or hasn’t) changed since The State, and what we can expect from the second seasons of Search Party and Wet Hot American Summer.
You’ve known Kumail since your early days as a standup in New York. How did you end you up coming on board to direct The Big Sick?
Kumail sent me the script to read and was just like, “Hey would you read this movie I’ve been working on and let me know what you think?” It wasn’t even about me coming on to direct it. It’s because we are pals and he wanted some notes. I read it and absolutely fell in love with it. The next day I asked Kumail, “Do you have a director yet? Please let me direct this.”
I love Kumail and Emily [V. Gordon, Kumail’s wife and co-writer of the film]. I’ve known them for quite a while so when I read their script I felt like I knew what they wanted. There weren’t too many conversations or a big pitch. It was just like, “You’re the right guy for this movie.” Kumail was in Hello, My Name is Doris so we have a working relationship. We just felt like this could be the right fit. There was never this one definitive moment where Kumail and Emily were like “You need to tell our story the right way.”
Did you have any trepidation over directing this incredibly personal story that affected Kumail and Emily in such an intimate way?
If anything they recognized early on that, even though it’s a personal story, it’s a universal story too. It’s a story we can all find connections with. We all felt like we didn’t want this to be a small, intimate film. We wanted it to be a movie that you could watch and not know that it’s based on a true story and still get a lot out of it. The first screenings we did we didn’t inform the audience that there was a true story at the center of it. And they responded very well to it. It’s a universal story that’s based in this true and amazing reality that happened to Kumail and Emily.
Why did you decide this was the film you wanted to direct after The Baxter and Hello My Name is Doris?
I don’t really plot it out like “What should my next movie be?” When it came to The Big Sick, I just loved the idea of doing a romantic comedy with Kumail in the lead. I feel like that’s new and something important to see. Sure, he’s funny, but it’s not every day that you get see a first-generation Pakistani in such a mainstream comedic world. So that was very exciting to me. Also the opportunity to work with Judd Apatow. But I loved the script and just truly enjoy directing, and I could see myself within this film.
You have a hyper-specific comedic sensibility. How do you balance telling someone else’s life story while making sure your own fingerprint as a director is still present?
My feeling throughout the whole process was that I wanted to help them make their movie and tell their story. I never felt like I needed this to be “A Michael Showalter Movie.” But Kumail and I have a very similar sense of humor, actually – and Emily as well. So in terms of pitching jokes and ideas it all came together fairly naturally.
The absurdity is something unique to what I do with David Wain and Michael Black. So left to my own devices I’m not as needing to go into this sort of Wet Hot type of world. But there’s just lots of humor that Kumail and I both find funny. Our sensibilities are very shared.
Your films are tightly constructed human stories, but your television projects like Search Party and Wet Hot American Summer still allow that space for your trademark absurdist humor and surrealism. Have you always tried to maintain that balance?
There really is no master plan. I wish there were. It’s all completely random. Maybe it’s that I gravitate as a film director to more grounded material. So that’s probably what it is. What I feel confident in directing and motivated to want to direct tends to be more grounded and character driven.
You do some really interesting things with lighting and composition in The Big Sick, especially with how you shoot the open spaces of the comedy club compared to the claustrophobic confines of the hospital scenes. Can you talk about your stylistic approach?
I tend to think of covering scenes as if I’m in the room with the actors: What’s the most interesting way to frame this shot? Where does the eye want to be? What’s the most appropriate place for the camera to be? Sometimes the camera is merely eavesdropping. Sometimes the camera represents the other person sharing the scene. I just try to imagine where I would want to experience this scene from – where is the most interesting place to watch this from in a slightly voyeuristic way.
It was refreshing that The Big Sick never deals with Emily’s near-death experience in a cynical or detached way, which is a crutch that many recent American comedies seem to rely on.
You know, apparently it’s not cool to get serious and it’s not hip to cry. I didn’t want to shy away from those moments in life where we are sentimental or in pain. So The Big Sick is trying to play in all of those areas and not be “ironic.” The film reflects life earnestly.
The Big Sick was purchased by Amazon. Wet Hot is on Netflix. Search Party became this cult hit thanks to binge culture. Do you see any pros or cons for comedy in the age of digital platforms?
The pros would be, just as a creator, I am happy for opportunities. It’s all about being given the opportunity and the space and to be able to get paid to do comedy. Whether it’s binged or streaming or a movie to me doesn’t matter. I’ve never been able to predict or control watching habits. All I know how to do is what I do and I’m just extremely grateful that there are opportunities out there to have that stuff be financed and earn a living this way. It’s a good thing that there are more opportunities now than when I first started.
The cons are the same as they’ve always been – how decisions are made on the executive level and what shows get picked up and what shows don’t and who is being handed the opportunities. But the big picture stuff is heading in a great direction, especially in terms of diversity and women and minority voices.
So what’s next for you?
I’m going to work on Search Party in June and July. Search Party season 2 will start airing in September and we pick up right where we left off, which is that they killed somebody. [laughs] I also have a few projects in the pipeline. No Stella based stuff, not yet. But Wet Hot season 2 will be coming to Netflix in August, and it’s ten years later from where the original film ended. The counselors are now in their mid 20s having careers and lives and they’re all returning to Camp Firewood to see the kind of people they’ve blossomed into as they promised. It’s Wet Hot: It’s absurd. It’s crazy. And we have Alyssa Milano joining as our big cast addition this season.
Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles.