Not that long ago, a guy named Kumail Nanjiani probably couldn’t have caught a break in the oddly conservative world of standup comedy. And what if he had been born in Pakistan and didn’t even visit the U.S. until he was 14? Yet, despite that background, and a shocking turn of events in the American social climate, the actual Nanjiani has thrived as a comedian, actor, and now filmmaker.
Familiar to cable subscribers for his role as the passive-aggressive Dinesh on Silicon Valley, and for characters in multiple episodes of Portlandia and Community, Nanjiani was 29 and just getting started in the Chicago of 2007 when he met Emily V. Gordon. She was a trained therapist heading toward writing for stage and TV when they began dating—something interrupted by the sudden eruption of a rare disease that left her in a coma. This development crystallized something crucial for Nanjiani, who hadn’t even introduced her to his observant Muslim parents.
Their medically induced romance eventually became the basis for The Big Sick, a mostly comedic debut for their collaborating keyboards, produced by Judd Apatow and directed by Michael Showalter, best known for writing the subtle romcom spoof They Came Together. In the critically lauded Sick, opening here Friday (June 30), Nanjiani plays a version of himself, and Gordon’s screen counterpart is the appropriately offbeat Zoe Kazan.
As it happens, the married duo is in Toronto the morning after Silicon Valley’s season finale has aired, and in a call to the Georgia Straight, Nanjiani admits that it’s hard not to talk about that.
“I tweeted something about it today,” he declares, “and people were like, ‘No spoilers!’ ”
“Please don’t say anything more,” Gordon interjects, in a manner typical of their rapid-fire verbal interplay. “I haven’t seen the season finale, and I don’t want to learn about it here!”
One major constant of the HBO show is his character’s vicious feud with laconic fellow techie Gilfoyle, played by Freaks and Geeks veteran Martin Starr. This is pure acting, he insists.
“I love Martin Starr. We’re like brothers, really. Emily’s shaking her head right now because she thinks it’s gross how close we are!”
In TV land, Gordon has written for The Carmichael Show and produces a live-to-podcast “alt-comedy” series called The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail. (Jonah Ray is the other principal there.)
“I am looking forward to telling some creative stories that have virtually nothing to do with us,” she says. “But I guess we can talk about ourselves one more time.”
For now, Sick seems to be a pretty good summation of everything that brought the couple to this place in the firmament of funny. Like Master of None creator Aziz Ansari and Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj—both born in the U.S. to traditional Muslim families from the Indian subcontinent—Nanjiani keenly felt his outsider status and took some time to channel it into comedy. But he didn’t even move west, to Iowa from Karachi for college, until the age of 18.
“Feeling like you’re outside the clan can be a useful perspective for comedy,” he suggests. “But for me, it’s not just that I’m a Pakistani man in America. I felt like an outsider back home, too. I wasn’t a cool or popular kid in school. I’ve always been weird, but I tried hard to be normal, and that made me feel like an underdog.”
Trying, and failing, to fit in accounts for some of Nanjiani’s exceptionally deadpan style, in which some of his best lines are barely audible throwaways. Gordon was likewise a teenager who made caustic remarks she expected few people to hear.
“I was a very low-self-esteem goth kid,” she says with a notably relieved chuckle. “From a very young age I had too many thoughts in my head, and a lot of anger; I actively rejected anything that was deemed to be popular. It took me years to shake that off. I was an idiot about it, actually.”
“Oh, stop that,” her husband interrupts. “It’s adorable and I love it. She’s still like that about things,” he tells me. “Right down to this movie. If everybody likes it, she has to wonder if it’s any good.”
“Maybe it does suck,” she answers, “How should I know?”
Learning how to separate entertainment from couples therapy required a different form of professional counselling, both conclude—mostly at the hands of Showalter and Apatow.
“I don’t know quite why Judd wanted to take us on,” Gordon continues. “But he does like championing people who don’t often get a chance to tell their stories. He likes to usher them into the world like a kind of comedy midwife.”
“Yes, he’s like a funny-point-of-view doula,” adds Nanjiani. “Basically, he wields enough power in Hollywood that he can get anything made. He was like, ‘I want these two to write it, even though they’ve never written a movie. And I want him to star in it, although he’s never played a lead.’ And then he got all these other great people to support us.”
“God, we really are lucky, aren’t we?” asks Gordon, this time without the laugh.
That providence included scoring a raft of Bollywood players to play Kumail’s Old World family, plus Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as her character’s southern-fried parents. Are these last two anything like Gordon’s own folks?
“Not really,” she confides. “This is where Judd and Michael kept reminding us that we want to amuse people and not tell our real-life story, which would be pretty boring if you saw it straight on.”
“A big part of our movie,” Nanjiani insists, “involves combining people who seem like they don’t belong together but somehow become a family. Me and Holly, Ray and Zoe—we all look kind of funny together and all the actors have very different kinds of energy. But I think that’s exactly what makes it compelling—to see everyone engaging each other’s cultures and personalities and getting something better out of it.”
Basically, he’s describing the polyglot, multihued USA as it’s actually lived on the ground, circa 2017. Apart from some unforeseen walls erected in high places, isn’t that gestalt pretty much already in place?
“Yeah, it’s mostly a done deal,” Nanjiani answers, with his characteristically hesitant drawl. “We’ve just got to cross a few Ts and dot some Is first.”