It sounds like something dreamed up by a team of romantic comedy writers: A Pakistani-American comic falls in love with an American graduate student, but because of cultural pressures from his family, he is forced to keep the relationship a secret. It is only when she becomes mysteriously ill and is put into a medically induced coma that he decides to tell his family about the woman he loves.
That is the plot of the new film The Big Sick, but it is also the story of how the film's co-writers, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, met and fell in love in real life.
Nanjiani, who plays himself in the film, says the days Gordon spent in a coma were pivotal to their relationship. "This sounds like a movie moment, but it really, really isn't. I remember seeing her laying there in the coma for the first time and I remember having the thought, If she comes out of this, I'm going to marry her."
Gordon did come out of the coma, and she and Nanjiani married three months later. Though their story ended happily, Gordon (played in the film by Zoe Kazan) says both she and Nanjiani were careful about "not writing anything that felt disrespectful or off-base or off-color" for the screen adaptation of their story.
"Because we had been through it ... we knew the emotional truth of what happened," she says. "And we knew that we didn't want to disrespect what actually happened and the seriousness of being in a medically induced coma."
On finding comedy in their real-life story
Emily V. Gordon: [Producer] Judd [Apatow] was really great about encouraging us to ... write the movie out, put everything out there. And [then] he was like, "Don't worry about the comedy, the comedy will come," which I think was really good advice.
Kumail Nanjiani: Generally, comedy is a person in trouble; it's a person dealing with a situation that they're ill-equipped to handle. And we knew that the real-life event, no matter how traumatic, was basically us — me and her parents — dealing with an event that we weren't equipped to handle, which is the person we're all in love with being very, very ill. So we knew that the general construction of [the film] could be comedic; we just had to figure out specifically how could we make it a comedy without losing the reality level of a very young woman being very ill.
On why Gordon had to be put into a medically induced coma
Gordon: I had been sick for a little while and people kept telling me I had the flu, I had pneumonia, I was having panic attacks. None of that seemed right to me. ... Every time I went in, they would diagnose me with something different, and all I knew was that I felt quite awful and I couldn't seem to catch my breath. ...
I went to the doctor and they decided to admit me to the hospital because my breathing was so unstable that they wanted to kind of check me out in a hospital. And by the time I got there, my breathing was so unstable, as was my heart rate, that the only thing they could do to kind of keep me safe and keep my vitals stabilized was to put me on a respirator. And you should not be on a respirator while you are conscious, so that is why they put me in a medically induced coma.
Nanjiani: When I got to the hospital, Emily was in the ER and I went in and was talking to her and the nurse came in. And the nurse, first thing she said to [Emily was], "Oh, you're a very sick girl." And I was like, "What? What does that mean? She doesn't really look that sick." That was sort of the beginning of this journey.
On how Nanjiani talked to Gordon while she was in the coma
Nanjiani: Yeah, the nurse actually really encouraged us to talk to her because they said that she could hear. So we would talk to her pretty often, her parents and I. We would keep her updated and tell her what was happening in the news and what was happening with, like, celebrity gossip and stuff.
Gordon: I really appreciated that.
Nanjiani: We would talk to her all the time. I think I ran some jokes by her.
Gordon: Did not get a good response.
Nanjiani: Not a good response. ...
Gordon: I was very well aware that both Kumail and my parents were there in the room with me. I could kind of hear snatches of what they were saying. I constructed an elaborate back story for my plight that involved Kumail being sick. I thought Kumail was in a hospital and I was visiting him, so I clearly had some level of awareness of what was happening.
Nanjiani: It was like this extended dream you were having.
Gordon: Which, to me, I thought was only like a day or two long. I didn't really have a sense of time so much, but my brain was trying to make sense of things. I could definitely hear them — not the entire time, but I could hear them.
On how Gordon's coma changed their relationship
Gordon: We got married three months after I got out of the hospital. ... There was no moment that he proposed to me, as much as we just talked about it and we're like, "We're getting married."
Nanjiani: We never got engaged, we just got married. ...
Gordon: We were just like, "Yeah, that's it. We're getting married," in kind of this fever haze just a few months after I got out of the hospital. ...
Nanjiani: It didn't seem like a fever haze at the time, it seemed like a very rational decision. But if you add up all these so-called rational decisions we'd made within three months of this, it maybe amounts to a fever haze; because we had both quit our jobs, we had gotten married and we had moved to New York within three months of this event. So it clearly affected us. ...
We walked into City Hall in Chicago with four or five of our closest friends and we got married. And then we went and got brunch, stood in line — it was a Saturday, so, you know, it was a 40-minute wait.
Gordon: We thought we could skip the line, because we had just gotten married, but no.
On the American narrative of rebelling against your parents
Nanjiani: This is a generalization, but there is sort of a rebellion narrative for kids here. You sort of find yourself in some ways by rebelling against your parents, and that's sort of built into the story of growing up. We don't really have that in Pakistan, at least my family and my extended family did not. When the oldest son grows up, the parents move in with the oldest son, and then they live with their grandkids and their sons and those ties never get severed. So we don't have this thing of, like, you rebel against your parents. A big part of our culture is respecting the elders and never going against your parents is part of that. ...
I'm generalizing, but [in America], it's definitely, "Who are you? Who do you want to be? Do whatever you want!" That's sort of the American dream, right? Whereas [in Pakistan] it really is about the family unit and the community. So when I would watch [American] movies ... I didn't think I was swayed by them. I saw them as being morally inferior. I did! ... When I first saw Ferris Bueller's Day Off, I was like, He's such a bad kid. This is a bad kid. He's a bad influence on everyone.
On their experience co-writing the screenplay for the film
Gordon: I think what helped us partially is that we had worked together before on a couple of other projects, so we had a pretty good working relationship. I think the thing, especially for me, that I had to adjust to is that in our personal lives, I expect my husband to kind of have my back no matter what, to always support me and be lovely; and then when you go into a business meeting with a spouse, I kind of went in with that same expectation of Oh, whatever I say he should definitely agree with it and be like, "What a great idea."
And what's amazing is that my co-worker Kumail has every right to disagree and think that this idea is not great and we need to tweak it, and vice versa. I think that took a little bit of adjusting for both of us to remember that the person in the room when you're working on something is not your spouse. They are your spouse, of course, but kind of emotionally they aren't. Their job is not to just support you unconditionally. So the fact that we had already set up that parameter in previous projects really, really helped us going into this. We set up some boundaries, we set up some rules around the house for when and how we can talk about work, but we mostly work really well together. We like making each other laugh.
Nanjiani: I feel like it really brought us together closer partially because what we were writing about was so personal to us but also because reading someone's writing can be a very intimate experience and reading someone's rough drafts can be a very intimate experience. And I would see her typing away at something and then she would send me the file and I would read it, and it just was like a really special, intimate feeling to be like, Oh, she was just sitting there writing it and now I get to read it. Nobody else in the world has read it! I'm the first person in the entire world to read it! And she's such a remarkable, wonderful, empathetic writer. I think it just really made me fall in love with her more.
Gordon: Oh my goodness.
Ann Marie Baldonado and Heidi Saman produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guests, comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani and comedy writer Emily V. Gordon co-wrote the new romantic comedy "The Big Sick," which stars Kumail. The movie is based on their own relationship. Kumail grew up in Pakistan. He came to the U.S. to attend college and stayed. In the film, which is set in Chicago, as he and Emily begin seeing each other and falling in love, his parents, who are also in Chicago, are still expecting that he will enter into a traditional arranged marriage.
Rather than hurt his parents and risk being cut off from his family, he keeps secret his relationship with Emily. Meanwhile, Emily is diagnosed with a life-threatening infection that requires that she be put in a medically induced coma. Emily's parents and Kumail spend time together at the hospital sizing each other up as they worry about Emily. The coma may sound like a fictional contrivance but it really happened. Kumail Nanjiani is perhaps best known for his role as Dinesh in the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley."
Emily V. Gordon was a practicing psychotherapist for about six years before becoming a comedy writer. She wrote for the sitcom "The Jerrod Carmichael Show." Let's start with a scene from "The Big Sick" in which Kumail and Emily first meet. He's just done a set at a small comedy club. He walks to the bar where he sees the woman who yelled out a woo-hoo during his set.
That woman is Emily, who in the film, is played by Zoe Kazan.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BIG SICK")
KUMAIL NANJIANI: (As himself) Hi.
ZOE KAZAN: (As Emily) Hi.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Hello.
NANJIANI: (As himself) My name's Kumail.
KAZAN: (As Emily) (Laughter) Yeah, we know.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Yeah, we saw you perform.
NANJIANI: (As himself) Now that the niceties are out of the way, I have to tell you that when you yelled at me, it really threw me off. And you really shouldn't heckle comedians. It's so rude.
KAZAN: (As Emily) I didn't heckle you. I just woo-hooed (ph) you. It's supportive.
NANJIANI: (As himself) OK, that's a common misconception. Yelling anything at a comedian is considered heckling. Heckling doesn't have to be negative.
KAZAN: (As Emily) So if I yelled out, like, you're amazing in bed, that'd be a heckle?
NANJIANI: (As himself) Yeah, it would be an accurate heckle.
KAZAN: (As Emily) Cool.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Goodbye.
NANJIANI: (As himself) Oh. Now you can...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) I'm going. I'm going.
KAZAN: (As Emily) You scared my friend off now.
GROSS: Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the film. So, Emily, my first question is to you. Did you really woo-hoo Kumail when he was at the mic?
EMILY V. GORDON: That is actually one part of the film that is entirely, 100 percent accurate. We took some creative license, of course, but that is exactly how Kumail and I met. I did woo-hoo him, I say, helpfully, at his show. I was not a heckler before, have not been a heckler since. But that is how we met.
GROSS: Did you consider it a heckle or did you consider it a way to be flirtatious?
GORDON: I was kind of being funny and flirtatious. He asked a question. There was silence. I thought it would be funny to kind of, you know, respond to the question, is anyone here from Pakistan? It was quite funny.
GORDON: And, you know, I was kind of being a little flirtatious. Sure, why not? But I don't recommend heckling. I don't think it's a good idea overall.
GROSS: OK, we got that point (laughter).
GROSS: (Laughter) So Kumail, when Emily woo-hooed (ph) you, did you think it was flirtatious or annoying? Did you see it as a heckle or as helpful?
NANJIANI: It certainly wasn't helpful. What I remember is her going woo-hoo, me looking at her and seeing this very, very pretty girl and being like, oh, she's cute. And so I was charmed by it rather than being upset by it. I think it's more the messenger than the message.
GROSS: So you both write comedy, but your life isn't a comedy. So you've turned a difficult period of your life into comedy, the period when Emily was in a medically induced coma. So how did you go about trying to find the comedy there? You know, 'cause you still manage to keep it as a comedy even during the rough periods like that period of the film.
GORDON: I think part of what helps is that because we had been through it, anything that we wrote that was kind of added, you know, fictionalized parts or added new scenes, we knew the emotional truth of what happened. And we knew that we didn't want to disrespect what actually happened and the seriousness of the kind of being in a medically induced coma.
So I think that helped us just as a mindset to go and not kind of writing anything that would have felt disrespectful or off-base or kind of off-color for the movie. That being said, that was something Judd was really great about encouraging us to do was...
GROSS: This is Judd Apatow, yeah.
GORDON: Judd Apatow, who helped us produce the movie, was that you write the movie out, kind of put everything out there. And he was like, don't worry about the comedy, the comedy will come, which I think was really good advice.
NANJIANI: Yeah. And I would say, you know, generally, comedy is a person in trouble. It's a person dealing with the situation that they're ill-equipped to handle. And we knew that the real-life event, no matter how traumatic, was basically us, me and her parents, dealing with an event that we weren't equipped to handle, which is the person we're all in love with being very, very ill.
So we knew that the general construction of it could be comedic. We just had to figure out specifically how could we make it a comedy without losing the reality level of a very young woman being very ill.
GROSS: Emily, would you explain why you were in a medically induced coma?
GORDON: Yes, absolutely. I had been sick for a little while and people kept telling me I had the flu, I had pneumonia, I was having panic attacks. None of that kind of seemed right to me.
NANJIANI: But you weren't having panic attacks. They thought you were.
GORDON: No, I certainly was not. That's what I'm saying. They kept - every time I went in, they were diagnosing me with something different. And all I knew is that I just felt quite awful, and I couldn't seem to catch my breath. So by the time I went to the doctor - and they decided to admit me to the hospital because my breathing was so unstable that they wanted to kind of check me out in a hospital.
And by the time I got there, my breathing was so unstable, as was my heart rate, that the only thing they could do to kind of keep me safe and kind of keep my vitals stabilized was to put me on a respirator. And you should not be on a respirator while you are conscious. So that was why they put me in a medically induced coma.
NANJIANI: Yeah, they had to take pressure off of Emily's body. So they would put some of the vital functions on machines so that her body wasn't taxed. I remember when I got to the hospital, Emily was in the ER. And I went in, and I was talking to her. And the nurse came in. And the nurse - first thing she said to - she was holding reports and she said to me - or to Emily she said, oh, you're a very sick girl.
And I was like, what does that mean? She doesn't really look that sick.
GROSS: Gosh, a respirator - it does its job, but it's very terrifying to watch somebody on a respirator. It makes a lot of noise. It's basically breathing for you. So you hear, you know, the inhale and the exhale that the respirator's creating. And it seems like it's a very invasive kind of machine. There's - what? - a tube down your throat.
GORDON: All the way down your throat. It's incredibly invasive. I, for many years, had a hard time even looking at anyone on television or in movies that had one in their mouths. It's, like, even though you're not conscious for it, some part of you must be because it's quite traumatic for sure.
GROSS: Kumail, did you talk to her while she was in coma?
NANJIANI: Yeah. The nurse actually really encouraged us to talk to her because they said that she could hear. So we would talk to her pretty often, her parents and I. We would sort of keep her updated and just tell her what was happening in the news and what was happening with, like, celebrity gossip and stuff so...
GORDON: I really appreciated that.
NANJIANI: Yeah. We would talk to her all the time. I think I ran some jokes by her.
GORDON: Did not get a good response.
NANJIANI: Not a good response.
GROSS: (Laughter) And, Emily, so people were assuming, like, your parents, Kumail, were assuming that maybe you could hear them, even though you were in a coma. So they would talk to you so that you would know that they were there and be comforted by that. Did you know that they were there? Could you hear them? Do you have any memory of hearing them?
GORDON: I absolutely do. I think - and, you know, I think it's partially because I was in a medically induced coma, so I don't know what it's like for other people. But I was very well aware that both Kumail and my parents were there in the room with me. I had no - I could kind of hear snatches of what they were saying.
I had constructed an elaborate backstory for my plight that involved Kumail being sick. I thought Kumail was in a hospital and that I was visiting him. So I clearly had some level of awareness of what was happening. But I...
NANJIANI: It was, like, this extended dream you were having.
GORDON: Yeah, which, to me, I thought it was only, like, a day or two long. I didn't really have a sense of time so much. But I was - my brain was trying to make sense of things. So I could definitely hear them. Not the entire time, but I could hear them.
NANJIANI: Once she was out, we were talking about it a few weeks later. And she was talking about the doctor - actually, no, she was still in the hospital. But she'd been awake, and she was pretty lucid by this point. And she was telling about - she was like, where's the doctor with the sticky candy hands? And that happened because, you know, she had all this tape on her and she was getting prodded with needles.
So even while she was in the coma, she could feel people sort of putting sticky tape on her. And so she, in her dream state, had this doctor who had, you know, sticky candy hands.
GORDON: Jolly Rancher - they were Jolly Rancher hands.
GORDON: I don't if that's - we can say brand names, but they were Jolly Rancher hands.
NANJIANI: Yeah, Jolly Rancher hands. It's...
GORDON: One, I didn't think he was a real person. I wasn't asking if he was around. I - in my head, I just had - one of my doctors had Jolly Rancher hands in my head.
GROSS: You know what this is reminding me of? You know in "The Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy's in a - you know, basically a coma and she has this whole elaborate fantasy about Oz that she's dreaming until she gets out of the coma and the people in real life are the models for the characters and Oz?
GORDON: Yeah. And you were there, and you were there.
GROSS: Exactly (laughter). And sticky hands, you were there.
NANJIANI: Exactly right. That's exactly right.
GROSS: So you know, I've always wanted to ask this to someone. Emily, what's it like when you come out of coma? Like what - what's the first feeling that you have?
GORDON: I was pretty out of it for the first couple of days. And I remember being just incredibly confused. And not super proud to admit this - my confusion led to kind of frustration and anger. I was quite angry because it seemed like everyone around me was very, very happy. We actually - this ended up in the movie. Everyone around me was so excited, and I was, like, guys, something awful has happened to me. Why are you guys so excited? But they had been dealing with something much worse happening to me and were excited that I was now conscious, whereas I was just catching up to what had been happening. So I was, like, furious and kind of crying all the time. A lot of strangers were coming in the room to, like, tell me how excited they were that I was awake. And I just - I was not (laughter) - I did not greet them with the most - I was not the most gracious human being, I'll say, at the beginning.
And so it took me a little while to kind of get comfortable with what had happened to me. I just needed time to catch up. I also had very little short-term memory, so they basically had to tell me every day for a couple of days that I had been in a coma, which I was unaware of every single time. So it was really pretty overwhelming. And traumatic is maybe a little too strong a word, but it was a little - it was a lot of catching up to do.
NANJIANI: I think describing a medically induced coma as traumatic isn't overstating it.
NANJIANI: I think that might be an appropriate term. Emily mentioned that people were coming in to say hi to her. That was because Emily was by far the youngest person in the ICU at that time. So all the family members of all the other patients were very aware of Emily. So they were all kind of rooting for her. And so they were very excited. They were very excited when she was up because they just wanted her to get out of the ICU.
GROSS: Emily, how (unintelligible) change your relationship to your body when you survived the coma?
GORDON: That's a good question. I definitely had a lot of - and this is something I've kind of written about - I definitely had a lot of body issues growing up. I was always a very over-tall kind of kid. And so to me, for a long time, my body had been a thing that did nothing for me, that, if anything, it kind of hindered me and was - it was a problem. My body I considered to be a problem. And so I often kind of, you know - I had a lot of self-hatred for it, and I was - I didn't treat it with respect. That's for sure.
And so to me it was a little ironic that I kind of got my wish, which was that I was quite separated from my body when I came out. It was very numb. It had had this very traumatic thing happen to it. And I wasn't sure how to kind of make peace with it. And so it really, really rocked me back to this place of how important it is to care for this body that is kind of carrying my brain and my heart around.
And that's something that I - that's a lesson that I wish I could have learned any other way. But it's a lesson that I'm happy that I did get to learn this way. So it's really changed a lot. I have a lot more respect for my body not as a thing that looks sexy or cool or skinny or whatever but as a thing that kind of carries me around and is a thing that I need to kind of treat with respect because it's not permanent.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are comedy writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. And Kumail is also of course an actor and stand-up comic and is on "Silicon Valley" in the role of Dinesh. But they co-wrote the new film "The Big Sick," which Kumail also stars in. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ANDREWS' "NEW LEASE ON LIFE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. They're married, and they co-wrote the new romantic comedy "The Big Sick" that's based in part on their relationship. And one of the parts of the movie that is true is that after they started seeing each other, Emily had to be put in a medically induced coma because she had such a raging infection that they had to do that.
So in the film, when you come out of the coma, everyone is told that you're going to be especially honest because of all the drugs in your system. So is that a fact? I mean does that actually happen?
GORDON: (Laughter) Yeah.
NANJIANI: Yes. That's true.
GORDON: It is also true that I tend to be a little loosey-goosey. I'm quite informal with my parents. I have a very - I have a lovely kind of relationship with them. But I definitely had weird things. Like, I thought that ice had flavors - had different fruit flavors. And I was trying to encourage people to try the ice in my room, and I - in my - in the drink that I had. But I just was a little maybe saying inappropriate things (laughter).
NANJIANI: All the time. I mean there's a line in the movie where she says - when she has the thickened liquid - that she says, it tastes like something that I don't want to name. That's something Emily said.
GORDON: Oh, I said that?
NANJIANI: Yeah, you said that. And the doctors said - had said, just so you know, her social inhibitions are going to be sort of down while she comes off this medication. So Emily was really (laughter)...
GORDON: That's so funny. I thought I came up with that line like a clever, funny - like, what a great - I thought I came up with it writing the script. I didn't realize I'd actually said that line.
GORDON: Great (laughter) - because the thing is, when you have a - oh, God, this is not what I dreamed for myself on NPR. When you are on a respirator, your esophagus gets really weak. And so they won't let you have liquids that are normal liquids because you're too weak to even swallow normal liquids. So everything I drank had this, like, thickened, like, gelatinous quality - oh, God. So yes, that is a line in the movie.
GROSS: So how did this, like, medical nightmare affect your relationship? You were not yet engaged when this happened.
GORDON: Oh, not even a little bit.
NANJIANI: No, not at all. I remember. So you know, I was sort of going through a lot of stuff with my own family. So I hadn't really thought about the future of this relationship in any way. And I remember. This is going to sound - this sounds like a movie moment, but it really, really isn't. It's completely, 100 percent true. When they put her in the coma, I was there alone at the hospital. They, you know - I got there at night. They put her in the coma at about 5 a.m., which I watched. They should not have let me watch it. It's a - anyway, I remember seeing her laying there in the coma for the first time. And I remember having the thought, if she comes out of this, I'm going to marry her. And I know that there are some consent issues with that. But I'm just...
GORDON: I'm going to ask her to marry me.
NANJIANI: I will. And I hope she says yes.
NANJIANI: That's right, yeah.
GROSS: How long did it take to actually ask?
GORDON: Well, that's funny that you asked that question. We got married three months after I got out of the hospital. But like many things we do, instead of it being kind of, like - there was no moment that he proposed to me as much as we just kind of talked about it. And we were like, we're getting married.
NANJIANI: We never got engaged. We just got married.
GORDON: Yeah. We just were like, that's it; we're getting married in kind of this, like, fever haze just a few months after I got out of the hospital. But there was no - well, you did propose later.
NANJIANI: Yeah. It didn't seem like a fever haze at the time. It seemed like a very rational decision. But if you add up all these so-called rational decisions we'd made within three months of this, it maybe amounts to a fever haze because we had both quit our jobs. We had gotten married, and we'd moved to New York within three months of this event. So it clearly affected us. And what Emily was referring to was, you know, we got married. We walked into a City Hall in Chicago with four or five of our closest friends, and we got married. And we went and got brunch, stood in line. It was a Saturday, so you know, there was a 40-minute wait.
GORDON: We thought we could skip the line because we'd just gotten married but no. They were like, would you like some juice?
GORDON: Sure, we'll take some juice.
NANJIANI: We got free orange juice - not very much of it. It was, like, a shot glass of orange juice.
GROSS: So Kumail, in the film, your parents, who are from Pakistan, live nearby. You all live in Chicago. And they're always trying to set up an arranged marriage for you with a Pakistani woman. And every time you come over for dinner, it's like, surprise, look who's here. And it's always, like, a young, single Pakistani woman who just happened to stop by. And your parents are hoping that this will be the one that you will marry. Was this an issue for your family? Did they want you to have an arranged marriage like they had?
NANJIANI: Oh, yes, definitely. That was the narrative from the very beginning. I remember since I was a little kid my mom showing me jewelry and being like, this - I'll give this to the wife that I find for you. You know, it's - I feel like people here sort of think of arranged marriage as sort of this old-world thing. But it really is - it's just the way that everybody in my family did it. My parents obviously, but all my aunts, uncles and most of my cousins are arranged married. You know, and the...
GORDON: All very happy marriages.
NANJIANI: Yeah, yeah. And the method has evolved over time. I've seen it change in front of me. Like, I - when I was a kid - I know the story of how my parents got married. And I saw my older cousins getting married. And now I know how people get married now. And it's evolved a little bit. It's become more technological in some ways. But it's definitely still an arranged marriage.
GROSS: So did they know that you didn't want to do that?
NANJIANI: You know, it's interesting you ask because I sort of - I really led them on. I never said no to it. Sort of how in the movie I'm just sort of avoiding making these decisions and avoiding making decisions is what hurts the people around me, that's kind of what I was doing in real life. I just was saying no, not this one, not this one, not this girl, not her, not her. So they would send me emails, and they would call and be like, hey, remember that aunt whose house you went to when you were 12? Do you remember that little girl that was there? Anyway, now she's of a certain age (laughter). What do you think of her? And they would send me pictures.
And I actually recently found one of my mom's emails to me. And it was during the period that Emily and I were dating. And reading the email chain was kind of devastating because I saw how I was clearly leading them on and letting them think that I was going to do it. Honestly, at the time, I couldn't imagine a world where I did have an arranged marriage. And I couldn't imagine a world where I didn't have an arranged marriage.
GROSS: Where does that leave you if you can't imagine either?
GORDON: That's a great question (laughter).
NANJIANI: It just leaves me in the middle. I mean that's - you know, when we were writing the script, Judd Apatow was like, so what was the plan? What were you going to do? And I was like, I don't know. I had no plan. I just wasn't thinking about it. I was just kind of living day to day, that there really was no strategy. It's horrifying.
GROSS: My guests are Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. They co-wrote the new romantic comedy "The Big Sick," which stars Kumail. After we take a short break, we'll talk about how Kumail told his parents that he was in love with Emily. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ANDREWS' "KUMAIL, TERRY, AND BETH")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, who co-wrote the new romantic comedy "The Big Sick," which stars Kumail. He also co-stars in the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley." "The Big Sick" is based on the story of how Kumail and Emily first met and became a couple. That period coincided with her developing a life-threatening infection that was treated while she was placed in a medically induced coma. Kumail grew up in Pakistan, came to the U.S. to attend college and stayed. When he and Emily were falling in love, he knew his parents wanted him to have an arranged marriage with a woman who was also Muslim and Pakistani.
Kumail, how did you tell your parents about Emily?
NANJIANI: So I did while she was really sick. It had been - I forget, you know, what day it was or when it was. And I sort of remember where I was. My mom - my parents had been calling me just sort of to say hi to me all week. And I hadn't been answering the phone. And then one day when - you know, 'cause being in the hospital was a rollercoaster.
Some days were good, some days were bad. But actually, every day was good and bad because you'd meet with all these doctors and somebody would say something that would give you all this hope. And then someone would come and shatter all hope. So it was in one of those sort of troughs, one of those valleys, where my mom called me.
And I just sort of answered the phone. And I was just - I just needed...
GORDON: You wanted your mom.
NANJIANI: Yeah, I just needed my mom. So I just - that's when I told her, on the phone.
GROSS: And what was her reaction?
NANJIANI: In the moment, her reaction was, is she - what's wrong with her? Is she going to be OK? Are you OK? And then she sort of checked up on Emily every day, called me every day. And then as soon as Emily was out of the coma, that's when she got really angry. She was like, how could you do this to me? But while Emily was sick, she just wanted to make sure Emily was OK.
And then she got angry later.
GROSS: You know, the whole how could you do this to me thing, when it comes from a parent about your relationship, it puts people - it puts the child in such a bind. I mean, you have to live your life the way you've chosen to live it, but you don't want that choice to hurt your parents and to be perceived as something that you've done to hurt them.
And so it leaves you with this impossible choice. Do you not live your life the way you think it should be lived to avoid hurting your parents? Or do you do what you think is the right thing to do knowing it's going to hurt your parents? It's pain - it's, like, pain in either direction.
NANJIANI: And it's especially tough for immigrant families, I think, because, you know, a lot of immigrant families will come here and the parents sort of take the hit, right? They lose their job to start over, they get jobs that are much worse than the jobs they had to sort of sacrifice their own lives to give their children better lives. And then a lot of times, children, their children, don't choose the life that the parents want for them.
So they're kind of getting it both ways. It's very tricky because I understand my parents - I understand why they wanted me to marry someone within the culture - right? - because they're here and they want to hold onto their identity and they want to hold onto their culture. And one of the most important ways to do it is to sort of pass it on to your kids.
And then having your kid choose someone outside the culture, I understand. You know, it's a very - it's a struggle. It's difficult to hold onto your identity in a land where your identity is not valued.
GROSS: So is everything OK now in the family?
GORDON: Oh, great. Yeah.
NANJIANI: Yeah, yeah. You know, I realized I had not given my parents enough credit. I just, you know, it's easy to think of your parents as being the people that they will always be and that they're sort of done, you know, that they're always going to be these people. But I had not given them - I had not thought that they would have the capacity to evolve and change in the way that they really have.
It's been, you know, I just did not give them enough credit.
GROSS: Emily, was it an issue in your family that you were marrying a Pakistani man, you know, an immigrant who was Muslim? I don't know what religion you are, if any at all. But was that an issue?
GORDON: Oh, no, not at all. My - I think my parents...
NANJIANI: Well, that makes my parents sound bad.
GORDON: I know. That's why I don't want to make them sound bad. I think my parents, they just have, you know, I was, like, a fun kind of challenging kid. And I think they - as long as they found someone - as long as I was with someone who kind of loved me and respected me, I think they were quite happy with whoever. Not that what Kumail's parents did was not good parenting.
But my parents - I've always been a little bit more with them, like, I'm going to do what I'm going to do and you're going to have to be OK with it. And they're like, OK, that's fine.
NANJIANI: But here's the difference from - and this is a generalization. But there is sort of a rebellion narrative for kids here, you know? Like, you sort of find yourself, in some ways, by rebelling against your parents. And that's sort of built into the story of growing up. We don't really have that in Pakistan, or at least my family, my extended family, did not.
You know, we don't ever really - I mean, when the oldest son grows up, the parents move in with the oldest son. And then they live with their grandkids and their sons and, you know, they don't - those ties never get severed. So we don't have, like, this thing of you rebel against your parents.
A big part of our culture is, like, respecting the elders. And never, like, going against your parents is part of that.
GROSS: Kumail, your point about rebelling and not being part of the family narrative in Pakistan is a really interesting point because it's such a part of the narrative here. And there's been so many movies about it too. And I'm sure you saw a lot of them growing up in Pakistan. So you probably witnessed that kind of storyline from afar before you lived it yourself.
NANJIANI: Yeah. And I really thought that the people in the movies were doing the wrong thing, you know, this idea of going against your parents' wishes, which is sort of romanticized here, right? It's like, be who you want to be. And I think that sort of gets to, like, the - I think the focus on individuality versus focus on community. And again, I'm generalizing.
But here, it's definitely like, who are you? Who do you want to be? You know, do whatever you want. That's sort of the American dream - right? - whereas there, it really is about the family unit and the community. So when I would watch these movies, I wasn't - at least, I didn't think that I was swayed by them. I saw them as being morally inferior. I did.
GROSS: Can you give an example of a movie that you watched and thought that the rebellious kid should just kind of straighten up and get in line with their parents? Like, did you watch "Rebel Without A Cause" and think, James Dean, you're doing the wrong thing here?
GORDON: He had such cool hair.
GROSS: You should be more like your parents.
GORDON: Kumail's also quite - he was quite swayed by good hair. So I don't think that would have worked on you.
NANJIANI: Well, I will tell you, when I first saw "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," I was like, he's such a bad kid.
NANJIANI: This is a bad kid. He's a bad influence on everyone. I remember being like, I don't like this movie. I don't like what it has to say.
GORDON: I don't think I knew that.
NANJIANI: Yeah, definitely.
GORDON: That's amazing.
NANJIANI: I was like, this is wrong. This movie's wrong.
GORDON: Everyone loves Ferris Bueller.
NANJIANI: That's so funny 'cause I remember not liking him at all.
GORDON: Well, everyone - they think he's a righteous dude. Isn't that (unintelligible) (laughter)?
GROSS: My guests are Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon who co-wrote the new romantic comedy "The Big Sick," which stars Kumail. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani and writer Emily V. Gordon. They co-wrote the new romantic comedy "The Big Sick," which Kumail stars in. They're married, and the movie is based on the story of how they became a couple.
This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guests are Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, and they co-wrote the new romantic comedy "The Bick Sick."
And Kumail is also a stand-up comic and actor. He's in "Silicon Valley." And Emily is a comedy writer. Well, Kumail, I know another issue for you and your family was that you became - and you can correct me if I'm wrong here - more secular.
NANJIANI: Yeah. I don't want to talk about my own faith, personally. But, you know, it's been - what's been sort of interesting for me is trying to figure out how I fit into being a Pakistani-American and how I fit into my family, you know, and what parts of my identity - I guess, I don't know how to, like, (unintelligible) my identity together.
GROSS: You know, it's funny, but that is such a part of the American narrative. You know, like, figuring out who you are compared to your parents and to your own generation. And since everybody in America is ultimately descended from immigrants, with the exception of Native Americans, and since so many people are, you know, the grandchildren or children of immigrants or they're immigrants themselves, it's so much about trying to figure out, you know, the relationship between tradition and the present between, you know, the past, the origin culture and where you are now.
NANJIANI: Yeah. And, you know, I mean, again, this might be generalizing, but I come from a family where the kids generally do what their parents did, you know. So I have uncles who are doctors and then my cousins are doctors or uncles who are bankers and then my cousins are bankers. I mean, there's examples over and over of that.
I don't remember - again, I don't want to generalize. But in my experience, when I was a kid, they would be, like, so what kind of doctor do you want to be? It wasn't like...
NANJIANI: I'm not joking. It was like - it wasn't like, who do you want to be? And I remember this specifically. I was probably 13 or 14. And I was sort of hanging out with my cool older cousins, you know, who were already doctors and stuff.
GORDON: You know, cool kids.
NANJIANI: Yeah, the cool kids.
NANJIANI: Yeah, he was a real rebel. He became a podiatrist.
NANJIANI: No. He - I remember him asking what kind of doctor do you want to be? And I had no idea. So I remember this specifically. It was with a big group. We were at a wedding. And I said, heart doctor. And he was like heart doctor? You mean cardiologist? And I was like - I remember feeling such shame and being like, oh, my God, why did I say a heart doctor?
GORDON: Did you know cardiologist? Would you have known that term?
NANJIANI: Sure, I would have known that term. But, you know, I didn't think of it because I was just like, I don't know...
GORDON: Heart, heart doctor.
NANJIANI: What's an important thing in the body? Heart, that's pretty important. I'll do that.
GROSS: And, Emily, let me ask you. You started off as a psychotherapist. I think you practiced for about six years before becoming a comedy writer. What was the transition from psychotherapy to comedy?
GORDON: It's a slow one. It's hard to jump ship from one to the other. But I really, really loved being a therapist. And I worked with a lot of really, really intense populations because that's kind of where I loved and where my heart was. But it did also...
GROSS: What are intense populations?
GORDON: I worked with very, very troubled teenagers, who had been court-ordered into therapy. I worked with people with schizophrenia, very, like, severe persistent mental illness. And it kind of was definitely my favorite. I loved it so much. But I started burning out a little bit. And then after the events of this movie, after getting sick, I definitely just had a hard time kind of clicking back into how selfless you have to be to, you know, work with the populations I was working with.
So I very slowly started figuring out that I needed to have something else I could do. So I started freelance writing mental health essays at first for, like, women's websites and women's magazines, just using my therapy background to try and write advice columns, things like that. And at the same time, I started booking a stand-up show, first in New York and then in Los Angeles.
And - 'cause stand-up is kind of a deep love of mine as well, even though I don't perform. And then slowly, my stand-up comedy friends started hiring me to kind of work on their shows or work on projects they were doing. And everything just kind of weirdly folded into itself. I think being a therapist gives you a really great background for being a writer, especially writing about, like, human emotions and writing about the relationships between people.
But, you know, at the time, it all felt very chaotic and like nothing was connecting. But when I look back, I can create a wonderful narrative for myself.
GROSS: So many comics have issues with, like, depression or some kind of, you know, mental health issue or at the very least, like, deep insecurities and neuroses. So did your background as a therapist come in handy for your friends who were stand-up comics?
GORDON: (Laughter) A little bit. I think...
GORDON: I will say, I have had a few comedian friends ask me to get lunch. And I'm like, oh, great, I'll get lunch. And then they're like, anyway, I've got this problem. And you're like, oh, no. I didn't want to be on the clock. But I found for the most part, especially our friends, comedian friends, tend to be incredibly - they're very well-adjusted human beings.
They put the more kind of neurotic sides of themselves on stage on display on purpose because it's relatable. But they tend to, for the most part, be pretty well-adjusted. So I don't have to be on the clock that often, thank goodness.
GROSS: Is that true about really being well-adjusted?
GORDON: I think so. Yeah, I actually do. And, listen, we're not friends with every stand-up comic. And maybe we're gravitating towards the ones that already kind of have their stuff together a little bit more. But, yeah, I would say so. Some of them are not great in relationships because it can be hard to date a stand-up comedian. But for the most part, they're all OK, I'd say.
GROSS: Why is it hard to date a stand-up comedian?
GORDON: Oh, let me - how long do we have?
NANJIANI: Going to terrible, terrible shows.
GORDON: It's a job where - it's interesting 'cause the comedian - and this is true for all genders. The comedian will have to be quite vulnerable with themselves in writing material. For the - very basically, they have to be working at night, and so that's often quite difficult. And their careers kind of can take them in a billion different directions at any one moment. So Kumail and I, definitely when we were dating - we would be like, well, what are we doing this weekend? Oh, let's do this. And then he would get a call and be like, oh, Stella wants me to open for them - which is a comedy group. I'm going to leave for two weeks. And then you're like, oh, OK.
So it is a little bit of a kind of - the work isn't always steady. Sometimes it can be a little difficult. Sometimes they'll do bits that involve you that aren't super flattering. There's all kinds of issues that can come up. It is - I've given very small workshops to girlfriends and boyfriends of comedian friends of ours for sure.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. They co-wrote the new romantic comedy "The Big Sick." Kumail stars in it. Kumail's also a stand-up comic. Emily's a comedy writer. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ANDREWS' "KUMAIL, TERRY, AND BETH")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. They co-wrote the new romantic comedy "The Big Sick," and Kumail stars in it. The movie is loosely based on how they met and decided to get married. And they met when Kumail was doing stand-up comedy, and things got more serious after Emily had to be put in a medically induced coma.
So Kumail, your parents wanted you to come to America I suppose to study and become a doctor.
NANJIANI: The plan was always that I would come to America and my brother would come to America. My parents were sort of trying to emigrate out of Pakistan I think for as long as I can remember. And actually when I was about I would say 15 or 16, before college - years before college, my dad got a job. He got a residency here, and then we were going to move. I'd said goodbye to all my friends, and we were moving to America. And then something happened with his visa.
And he'd worked for years and years and years to, you know, pass his medical equivalency test - I think that they're called USMLE - years and years studying really hard to pass. And then some visa snafu happened, and our whole, like, move got canceled. And I remember I said bye to all my friends, and then I showed up at school again on Monday. And they're like, what are you doing here? And I remember how devastated my dad was.
GROSS: Were you already here on 9/11?
GROSS: How did that change your life as a Pakistani immigrant?
NANJIANI: I mean, you know, it wasn't like Muslims weren't demonized before that, you know? I mean going back to, you know - before the - you remember Ayatollah Khomeini in the '80s was, like, sort of the big bad guy in the West. So I knew from the very - since I was a kid. In fact, this is a weird thing. I used to love MAD Magazine when I was a kid. Like, it was my favorite thing. And we were Shia, so Ayatollah Khomeini was sort of, like, our religious leader, you know? He was, like, our highest - sort of our pope I guess. And I remember reading "Ghostbusters II" - the "Ghostbusters II" parody in MAD Magazine, and instead of Vigo's face, it was Ayatollah Khomeini's face. And I remember being so torn because I was like, these are two things I love. Why do they not like each other? I remember being like really - I don't know, like - it, like, shook me. I was like, I love MAD Magazine. Why would they do this horrible thing?
So I knew that Muslims were pretty demonized sort of in America. So 9/11, you know, it - I had racist stuff happen to me after that certainly, and some of that's in the movie. Some of the stuff that happens in the movie to me is pretty much taken from real life almost exactly. But it didn't really change the way I saw America because I felt like there was such an effort right after 9/11 - there was such an effort by the government to go out of their way and say Muslims are not the bad guys; they are part of America just as much as we are part of America. So that really, really was - that really was very helpful. And that I felt was very noble, that even though this awful attack had happened, the reaction was - in a way, the reaction was very compassionate.
GROSS: How has President Trump's anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric been affecting you and your family?
NANJIANI: I think in general it's become much more OK. Certain things that were considered racist comments have now somehow become part of valid political discourse. And I feel like people feel OK saying stuff that they would not have felt OK saying two years ago.
GROSS: Has that happened to you, where you feel people feel entitled to say hateful things to you that they wouldn't - that maybe they would have thought it before but they wouldn't have actually said it?
NANJIANI: Oh, not necessarily in person but certainly online. You know, I've seen the discourse online really, really, really change and attempts to sort of intellectualize racism and support it with fake numbers and stuff. That's something that I hadn't seen before. But there's some pretty crazy stuff on there, and it just - yeah, it's really scary (laughter).
GROSS: Are you getting a lot of hate tweets directed at you personally?
NANJIANI: I've turned on the quality filter on Twitter, and I recommend that for everyone. I honestly stopped looking at my mentions too much because I decided that even when - because here's the thing. When someone is racist to you, you know the problem is theirs. You know they are the ones who need to fix themselves. You know you - there's nothing wrong with you, that you did nothing to deserve it.
However, when someone is racist to you, you still feel - I still feel this sense of embarrassment. I feel flattened. I feel sort of - you know, you - I think of myself as a completely rounded person with favorite things and dislikes. And then suddenly you become flattened into this mass of a stereotype or whatever it is. So it can be very - it's a very ugly feeling. And even though you know that it's not your fault, it still feels horrible. And then you get over it, and you're fine. So I just decided I didn't want that feeling.
GROSS: So it looks like "The Big Sick" is going to be a big success. I think it's doing very well at theaters and getting very kind of warm receptions from audiences who are also laughing a lot. This is your first - as far as I know, your first outing together co-writing something.
GORDON: That's correct...
GROSS: How did that go? I mean I think for a lot of people, it's hard to survive that (laughter).
GROSS: Like, working on a project with a spouse can be - it can be great, or it can be really hard. It's kind of like learning to drive from, like, a parent or, you know, a girlfriend or a boyfriend or spouse or something.
GORDON: That's true.
GROSS: That can be really helpful. It can be really horrible.
GORDON: I think what helped us partially is that we had worked together before on a couple of other projects. So we had a pretty good working relationship. I think the thing, especially for me, that I had to adjust to is that, you know, in my - in our personal lives, I expect my husband to kind of have my back no matter what, to always kind of support me and be lovely.
And then when you go into a business meeting with a spouse, I kind of went in with that same expectation of, oh, whatever I say, he should definitely agree with it and be like, what a great idea. And what's amazing is that my co-worker Kumail gets - has every right to kind of disagree and think that this idea is not great or we need to tweak it and vice versa. And I think that took a little bit of adjusting for both of us to remember that the person in the room when you're kind of working on something is not your spouse. They are your spouse of course, but kind of emotionally, they aren't. Their job is not to just support you unconditionally. And so the fact that we'd already set up that parameter in previous projects really, really helped us going into this.
And other than that, we - you know, we set up some boundaries. We set up some rules around the house for how we - when and how we can talk about work. But we mostly work really well together. We like making each other laugh.
NANJIANI: Yeah, I feel like it really brought us together closer partially because we were - what we were writing about was so personal to us but also because, you know, reading each other's - reading someone's writing can be a very intimate experience, and reading someone's rough drafts can be a very intimate experience.
And you know, I would sort of - I would see her typing away at something, and then I would get what - she would send me the file, and I would read it. And it was - it just was, like, a really special, intimate feeling to be like, oh, she was just sitting there writing it, and now I get to read it. Nobody else in the world has read it. I'm the first person in the entire world to read it. And she's such a remarkable, wonderful, empathetic writer. It really - I think it just made me fall in love with him more.
GORDON: Oh, my goodness (laughter).
GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. Thank you, and be well.
GORDON: Thank you.
NANJIANI: Thank you for having us. This was such a thrill. We were so excited to be here (laughter).
GORDON: Absolutely (laughter). Thank you.
GROSS: Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon wrote the screenplay for the new romantic comedy "The Big Sick," which stars Kumail. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GET ME ROGER STONE")
ROGER STONE: My name is Roger Stone, and I'm an agent provocateur.
GROSS: We'll talk about political operative and Donald Trump adviser Roger Stone with Morgan Pehme, co-director of a new Netflix documentary that details Stone's political dirty tricks dating back to Richard Nixon's re-election campaign. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.