I first met Will Reiser when my writing partner, Evan Goldberg, and I had just gotten hired on a temporary basis as staff writers for Da Ali G Show. I was 23 and Evan was 22. It was our first morning in the office, and then Will walked in, and he was 25, but he looked younger than both of us. He was a producer who booked the show’s guests. We became friends because we’d take cigarette breaks together. We started hanging out and worked on the show together for maybe five months. We just got along. I thought he was funny, and he was a nice guy. I remember him as a Woody Allen-ish type of character who was really neurotic and would complain a lot, and I would make fun of him for it and be an asshole. For some reason we were both entertained by that.
Around six months later, Will called me one day and told me he had a giant tumor on his spine. That was in 2005.
This was my first brush with having anyone close to me get really sick. I was literally sitting on the toilet when he called me and told me he had cancer. I remember thinking, this is so horrible, and I can’t connect to it emotionally because it’s so ridiculous right now. But a few days later, it did sink in, and we really didn’t know how to deal with it. It was scary, but Will started telling all these f--ked-up jokes, and it gave us permission to do the same thing. We were very young, and we never really got that emotional or sentimental about it. Alone, we all felt terrible for him, but together, our conversations carried very much the same tone as they did before. He’d make it seem like it was fine, even though it wasn’t. He’d complain about girls he was trying to date—he was in a slew of terrible relationships—and was trying to make the situation be as normal as he possibly could.
It’s not something I realized was happening until later, but I think a lot of people who were around -really bailed on him, and I just didn’t do that. I had no job and nothing to do all day, and I’d invite him over all the time to smoke weed and we’d go to bars. And he introduced me to my fiancée [Lauren Miller]. He knew her through another girl and invited me to a birthday party at El Cid on Sunset. It was definitely a setup—he thought we’d get along with each other. That night was actually the first time we joked about making a movie about Will’s cancer. Someone asked him what his “bucket list” was—that movie The Bucket List had just come out—and we realized our movie would be nothing like any of the other cancer movies. We hit it off that night, and I ask my fiancée to this day, “Did you like me only because Will set us up and he had cancer?” And she says, “No! You were funny.”
Will had surgery four months after he was diagnosed and he was cured, essentially. He still didn’t talk about it that much and was kind of under posttraumatic stress. I think that’s part of the reason Evan and I encouraged him to write a script about it. It was around the time we were making Superbad, so we had a little success, and we thought, if we made a movie out of our lame high-school experience, you could make a movie out of this incredible experience you had. The first draft of the script isn’t that dissimilar from the movie that we made, but it was called How I Learned Nothing From Cancer. That’s what Will thought at that point. I don’t think he had enough perspective to realize that he had changed.
Will and I didn’t communicate our emotions, or even talk about the fact that we weren’t talking about our emotions. I realize now that’s something that would have been helpful just to acknowledge. But I really don’t know. I honestly go back and forth: “Should I have been more upfront with him? Or was that the opposite of what he wanted?” Everything turned out great, but I don’t know if I should’ve done anything differently. We’re still really good friends.
As told to Marlow Stern. 50/50, featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the Reiser-inspired character, is in theaters Friday, Sept. 30.