Kumail Nanjiani on the Art of Crafting a Masterful 9/11 Joke and That Time He Was Accosted by Trump Supporters
The co-writer and star of the best rom-com in years, ‘The Big Sick,’ opens up about releasing his film under the specter of President Trump and why online trolls are ‘amateurs.’
AUSTIN, Texas — By the time we’ve reached the midway point of The Big Sick, the audience has fallen head over sneaks for Kumail, a struggling stand-up comic moonlighting as an Uber driver who is navigating the cultural demands of his traditional Pakistani Muslim family (see: arranged marriage) and his all-permeating affection for Emily, a white American gal played by the eminently likeable Zoe Kazan. When Emily falls into a coma, our smartass hero is thrust into an unusual position: serving as the confidant and emotional crutch for her grieving parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).
You see, things are a bit prickly between Kumail and Emily’s parents on account of his dumping her after caving in to familial pressure. To them, he is a brown stranger who hurt their little girl right before she succumbed to a mysterious illness. And so, when the two parties collide at a hospital cafeteria, the mood is tense. Terry, a New Yorker prone to bouts of foot-in-mouth disease, opens their edgy exchange with—what else?—a remarkably ignorant query about 9/11.
“So, uh… 9/11. No, I mean, I’ve always wanted to have a conversation about it with… people,” he says, throwing a not-so-subtle jab, born of his bumbling naiveté, at Kumail’s Muslim heritage. “What’s your stance?”
Kumail’s brilliant pressure-release of a comeback is, without question, one of the best—and most audacious—jokes in a movie so far this year.
“What’s my stance on 9/11? Oh, anti,” he diplomatically replies, before firing off the coruscating kicker: “It was a tragedy. I mean, we lost 19 of our best guys.”
The quick-witted crack earned guffaws at Sundance, where the film made its debut—so much so that the movie parents’ stunned reaction was completely drowned out by the roar. And the man who delivered and penned the joke, Kumail Nanjiani, knows why it works so well.
“I think that joke worked because it comes from the character, and the situation. It comes from this character who’s very nervous around these people, and he’s trying to break the ice. And the way he breaks the ice is the way a lot of comedians break the ice: joking about things that they shouldn’t joke about. So it sort of makes sense because my character is quick and makes inappropriate jokes, and he makes the most inappropriate joke possible about the most inappropriate event to make a joke about: 9/11,” explains Nanjiani.
“It also comes from how I started doing stand-up comedy after 9/11 and there was this expectation from people like, ‘Hey! Make a joke about this! Make a joke about this!’” he continues. “And so this, for me, is a little bit of a rebellion against that. Oh, you want me to make a joke about this? Well, here’s a joke about this. It’s probably too much, isn’t it? So it’s a little bit of a stabby joke at that, but it also comes from the extreme awkwardness and discomfort of that situation, and that’s why it works. It is the absolute worst joke to make in that situation.”
The Big Sick is so much more than a line-toeing 9/11 joke, of course. It’s a profound, moving exploration of cross-cultural love in the time of intolerance—and an incredibly funny one to boot. Directed by Michael Showalter (Search Party), it’s scripted by the real-life couple of Nanjiani and his writer-wife Emily V. Gordon, who based the story on their own. And the project was born here in Austin, where I’m seated across from Nanjiani on a sweltering spring day.
Nanjiani has deep ties to SXSW, the Austin-set film, television, music, comedy, and tech extravaganza. His hit HBO series Silicon Valley premiered there (creator Mike Judge is from Austin); a reality-dating competition parody series which he appeared in, Burning Love, dropped there; he performed there while doing comedy with network-mate John Oliver; and it was there he hosted an episode of his TV series/stand-up showcase, The Meltdown. But the most fateful event came in 2012, when Nanjiani joined a live taping of Pete Holmes’ podcast You Made It Weird alongside Chris Gethard and Judd Apatow during the fest.
“I met Judd here, we hung out, did a live podcast together, had a great time,” recalls Nanjiani. “And then Judd called my manager and was like, ‘Hey, does Kumail have any ideas?’ So I went and met Judd at 7 a.m. out in Santa Monica, and I told him some ideas and then was like, ‘Well, there’s also this real-life thing that I think could make a good movie…’ and he liked it. He said, ‘Go, figure out a pitch, and come and pitch it to me.’ So I took about a month or so and then came back and pitched it to Judd and Barry Mendel, who’s one of the producers on the film, and they said, ‘Great! Start writing it.’ I got started on it and then Emily came in to write it about a month later.”
And the film has all the hallmarks of the best of the Apatow oeuvre: a comedic potpourri of off-color jokes and deliciously awkward encounters with a winning, lost-in-life man-child protagonist and a good heart at its core. Apatow was, according to Nanjiani, instrumental in helping shape the script—as well as attracting Oscar-winner Holly Hunter and his good pal Ray Romano to the project, who are pitch-perfect as Emily’s wacky parents.
“This movie wouldn’t have gotten made if it wasn’t for Judd,” admits Nanjiani. “This was before Silicon Valley, so now some people know me because that’s a popular show, but back then I was just a stand-up. I’m so grateful that he took a chance on me.”
But landing the gifted Kazan as Nanjiani’s real-life love, Emily, was equally—if not more—crucial to the film’s success.
“If Emily doesn’t work, the entire movie doesn’t work,” says Nanjiani. “It’s such an unconventional structure for a rom-com where one of the leads disappears for a while, so you have to establish that relationship where people are rooting for them in a very small amount of time, and to do that you really must have a chemistry that’s undeniable to allow the audience to root for them even in her absence. And with Zoe, we really, really lucked out.”
Getting The Big Sick off the ground also no doubt helped with the sting of being rejected from Saturday Night Live, which Nanjiani auditioned for in early 2012. But what really sets it apart from the rest of the films in Apatow’s stable, from The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Trainwreck, is that it’s told not only through the eyes of a protagonist of color, but a Muslim-American lead.
According to Nanjiani, the film is not so much about assimilation, but about “negotiating your cultural identity with your personal identity—and how those intertwine, and how those can conflict with each other.” He adds, “It’s about what it means to be an American, what it means to be a Muslim, and what it means to be someone in love, so it’s about navigating different cultures, and being a minority in a new place and how you define your identity in that context.”
The film is riddled with jokes satirizing American narrow-mindedness toward the Muslim community, from a scene where Kumail and his brother are forced to explain themselves after a diner outburst with the line, “It’s OK! We hate terrorists,” to his initial clashes with Emily’s white parents, who aren’t exactly used to having a Muslim dude around.
Whereas most Hollywood films offer the most stereotypically offensive depictions of Muslims imaginable, from terrorists to cabbies, The Big Sick invites viewers inside a traditionally Muslim household, showing them their humanity and love.
“I think what’s important is that we see many different versions of Muslims so we understand that Muslims are just as complicated as anybody else,” says Nanjiani. “There are all kinds of Muslims, and we don’t get to see that. I think our movie’s important because it shows a portrait of Muslims that, honestly, we should have seen already. We should have seen loving Muslim families—ones that love each other, and are as complicated and messy as any other family—by this point, but we haven’t. This is a loving, American family.”
Another scene that addresses the tense racial climate of 2017 America involves Kumail being heckled by a racist white crowd member during a stand-up set. The man repeatedly insinuates that Kumail is a terrorist, and all hell breaks loose. Unfortunately, the incident echoes something that happened to Nanjiani in real life back in November, when he was accosted and harassed by two racist Trump supporters at a bar in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake. The two white men approached Nanjiani—who was out with his Silicon Valley costar Thomas Middleditch—with the aim of convincing them that they were “wrong about Trump.” When the TV actors tried to brush it off with a polite, “Hey, we don’t want to discuss politics right now,” the men got in Nanjiani’s face, branded him a “cuck,” and challenged him to a fight.
“It was a strange little thing. It’s a strange time…” mutters Nanjiani of the unfortunate episode, clearly uninterested in discussing it further.
While it’s rare for a Trump troll to confront his or her targets in person, instead choosing to hide behind the anonymity of social-media handles, the comedian chalks up this troll phenomenon to, in a sense, the bastardization of comedy.
“I think it’s people who want to be comedians but are total amateurs,” Nanjiani says of online trolls. “I remember the ‘shock-comedy’ of the late-’90s and god, I hated it, because it’s very easy to shock and get a reaction; being funny is not easy. When I started doing open mics, you’d see a lot of comedians who felt that getting any reaction was a success to them, but it’s very easy to get a reaction. So it was just all these people who would say stuff to get a reaction, but then people would get used to that so you’ve go to raise the stakes on what you have to say to get a reaction, and we’re at this point now where people are getting reactions by saying the most vile stuff. It’s become OK to say, and the bar keeps getting raised.”
And while he admits it’s “weird” that The Big Sick will be received differently under the specter of President Trump—“The film has all this expectation and weight on it now that the film wasn’t meant to take on,” he says, adding, “Certain scenes where characters are racist towards me that were meant to be sort of funny, light scenes now seem much heavier”—Nanjiani is grateful that he has a project coming out that scrutinizes America’s new (un)reality.
“I know a lot of my comedian friends are struggling with how to deal with [President Trump] in the work that they do, so I’m lucky that it sort of worked out where we have a movie that speaks to some of the social and political climate we’re in,” he says. “It’s an accident that the timing worked out. So I’m happy that I have some piece of work that will hopefully be a small positive contribution to some of the stuff that’s going on. That gives me a little bit of peace of mind, that we have a story where people will see a slightly different version of things.”