Inside ‘The Big Sick’ with Kumail Nanjiani

After years of outstanding ensemble work in acclaimed television series like Silicon Valley, Portlandia, and Burning Love —as well as unforgettable scene-stealing cameos in films like Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates and Central Intelligence — comedian Kumail Nanjiani has been long overdue for a chance to solidify his leading man status. The Big Sick, which opens this Friday, provides ample proof that Nanjiani can carry a film with aplomb. His trademark wit and charisma are on full display, and the film’s tragic elements also allow him to showcase a profound depth and dramatic range. Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon co-wrote The Big Sick, which is based on the real life experience of how both of their lives changed when Emily fell gravely ill during the nascent stages of their relationship.

The Michael Showalter-directed, Judd Apatow-produced dramedy caused a massive $12 million bidding war at Sundance earlier this year. It’s a well-deserved price tag for an original story that is refreshingly poignant, hilarious, and, most importantly, full of humanity. The Big Sick is the perfect antidote to the nauseating noisiness of summer blockbusters. Oh yeah, and it contains the best 9/11 joke ever committed to film!

I sat down with Kumail to discuss The Big Sick, writing the film with his wife, and why the Academy constantly overlooks comedies.

The Big Sick is such a triumph. Rarely do we get to see a rom-com successfully weave not just the humorous and romantic tones together, but also the tragic beats, too. What was your writing process like?

Yeah, that was a big trap, right? It’s such a serious life event and you don’t want to mythologize it. You don’t want to romanticize it like it was just this thing that happened to bring us together. You want to have the seriousness of it but you also need it to be funny. We knew from the beginning that we could do an emotional movie. The tricky part was making a funny movie, and funny in a way that doesn’t lose sight of the fact that there’s a very serious issue at the center of it, which is a person in a life or death situation. So the reference movies we used were films like James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News. You see a lot of dramedies — especially indie dramedies — where they fall right in the middle. They’re kind of funny. They’re kind of dramatic. The stakes are kind of high. So we wanted to hit both those highs, or at least try to. The idea was always to make a movie that’s as funny as a big comedy and as moving as a very serious drama.

You’ve known Michael Showalter since your early days as a standup, and he gave you your first acting gig in Michael & Michael Have Issues. Can you talk about those early conversations of bringing him on to direct a movie about your life?

It’s just great how he went from being my boss to being a coworker and a contemporary. But the thing is, when he was my boss on Michael & Michael, he never acted like he was my boss. I was aware he was my boss but he was always very collaborative and communicative and it never felt like there was a power differential. Getting him on to direct The Big Sick was great because I’ve known him for a very long time and I’ve worked with him before, so we had sort of an ease that comes from knowing each other outside of work. Emily and I were at his wedding. I’m such a fan of his work and he’s done so many disparate kinds of things that we knew that he was the right guy for it. We knew he could juggle the tones of the movie really well. As you just said, it’s a tightrope walk with the tone. He’s done so many kinds of projects that prove that. The State is so different from Hello My Name is Doris, which is so different from The Baxter, which is night and day from Wet Hot American Summer. Search Party is amazing too! We just knew he was the guy that could negotiate all the pitfalls of making a movie like this.

You co-wrote this script with your wife Emily V. Gordon, and it’s based on a real tragedy that affected both of your lives. Did you two encounter any Rashomon-esque hurdles when remembering certain details? And how did you reconcile those differences?

Definitely. There were some scenes that she would write, and I’d be like, “Uh, that’s not how I remember it happening.” It actually really helped our relationship to try and see things from each other’s perspectives during these events and understanding, “Oh, this is something we went through together but we had a totally different experience of the same events.” It helped because we were able to put these different perspectives into the movie. The conflict between the characters comes from that. It was super helpful and I’m so glad Emily and I were able to work together on this.

I like how The Big Sick explores this idea of a man who can be honest and vulnerable on stage as a professional comedian but can’t be honest or vulnerable with another man, or even his girlfriend for that matter, in serious situations.  

It was really interesting because shooting the goodbye scene at the hospital with Ray [Romano, who plays Emily’s father], he’s trying to find a way to open up to me and he can’t do it. That was the first scene we shot and it really all came from Ray’s incredible performance. We started acting and Ray’s doing this thing where he’s trying to connect but can’t because it’s hard for guys to be vulnerable. So it was cool to see that play out. Then earlier in the film when we have our sleepover scene where he sleeps in my room, it’s the same kind of scenario except we’re the opposite, where now he’s trying to connect and I don’t want to. I have this wall up. But then we connect a little bit. I just think it’s interesting how guys relate to each other where there’s this posturing and bravado and the emotions are tougher to access with other guys than when they’re with women. So I think that’s the real part of it — this struggle to be sincere with a guy and unfortunately it’s not valued.

The scenes in the comedy club feel so authentic because the film is populated with real comedians. There’s Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, David Alan Grier –

The sad thing about David Alan Grier was he was in the movie a lot more. He was so fantastic when we shot these scenes, and there is a bunch more, and they’re all so funny. We had to cut out a lot of his standup because we just felt like it wasn’t as intertwined as the other stories.

Was there a method to who you cast as fellow comics in the movie?

As you know, I started standup in Chicago and New York and you do these open mics and you hang out with and encounter a lot of different types of comedians. We wanted to capture that experience. Like, Bo is the smart cerebral truth-teller comedian. Then Kurt [Braunohler] is the really broad, goofy comedian. Then Aidy is the comic who uses props on stage. It was important that we represented different types comedians. David Allen Grier was the cokehead who is older and runs the room and has power over who performs in that room. He’s like the comic that never quite made it and now has a little room and lords that power over comedians: “You put out chairs you get five minutes, that’s the deal.” We also have Jeremy Shamos, who plays the gatekeeper for booking the Montreal comedy festival. These type of guys that would come in once a year and wielded a tremendous amount of influence over all of us. So we wanted to capture this strange little world.

I hope this isn’t too much pressure, but I truly believe this is an awards contender, especially for Best Original Screenplay.

Oh my God. [laughs] Well thank you for saying that.

Why do you think the Academy has such a hard time recognizing comedy as awards-worthy?

I think the two genres that are least critically considered when they first come out are comedy and horror. I think that there’s a connection, too: Both of them rely on surprise in one way. When you laugh there has to be a little bit of surprise of what just unfolded. Horror is the same thing —when you get scared it’s because the unexpected just happened. So it counts on you to be fully immersed, to either laugh or be scared. I think when you’re watching something as a critic you’re sort of evaluating it, taking notes while you’re doing it. I think you’re slightly removed from it. That’s your job. It’s unavoidable. So I think the reason a lot of horror and comedy don’t get their due until later is because initially the way people are experiencing it is trying to evaluate instead of experience. The Thing is one of the best horror movies ever made but it didn’t get great reviews when it first came out. Now it’s considered a classic. I think it’s because people aren’t fully immersed in it – at least that’s my theory. I also think people feel comedies are just lesser than, but creating something universally funny is extremely hard. Being funny’s not easy!

You’re no stranger to using your Twitter account as a platform not just for telling jokes, but to promote social awareness and to speak out against the current administration. Do you think the role of comedy has changed under Trump?

I think it’s every comedian’s own individual responsibility to figure out what they want to do. If comedians feel like they want to talk about politics directly, that’s great. If they want to talk about it indirectly, that’s great. If they don’t want to talk about it all, that’s great too. I think every comedian has to decide on their own what their responsibility is. We are living in such a specific time. It’s rare. Usually when something sort of crazy happens, most people used to want to look away and want escapism. But I think right now people don’t want that. I think people actually want to be engaged. The tide has shifted towards this feeling that if you’re watching something that’s not engaging with what’s happening at all, it feels a little frivolous. It’s like, why are we not talking about this big thing that’s going on. But again, I do think comedians have to define their own rules.

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.

Inside ‘The Big Sick’ with Kumail Nanjiani