Kumail Nanjiani, Actor & Comedian
Kumail Nanjiani can squeeze laughter out of anything from start-up culture in HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” to his future wife’s coma — the true story that inspired “The Big Sick,” one of the standout films of 2017. But behind the laughs, he also has a sharp take on gender and race in America.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: I think the most important thing that we could do right now is to listen to women. We've been talking for fucking centuries. I think it's time for us to shut up and listen.
I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. Pretty typical family. Mom, dad, and one brother. I watched a lot of Indian movies as a kid, Bollywood movies, but also a lot of Hollywood movies, a lot of them. I really loved "Ghostbusters", and I was like, that's a pretty good job if you can get it, saving New York from ghosts.
The transition was very difficult initially. I was super shy in Karachi, so I never really felt confident in myself or anything. And it wasn't until I came to America and was sort of on my own, and was forced to interact with people and be genuinely social, that I started coming out of my shell and being funny and kind of feeling like a person.
I mean, the hardest part of doing standup is going up on stage. It's so, so scary in the beginning. I remember I'd go and sign up for these open mics and then kind of, before I went up, be like, should I just leave? I should just leave.
You know, when I was younger, I had this list of, like, the perfect woman will have these qualities. And then you grow up and you realize that stuff doesn't matter. What matters is a real connection and all of that. And then with Emily, got the real connection, but also all that stuff that was on shallow teenage Jumail's list. She has that too. So really kind of perfect.
We found this place perfect for a comedy show behind this comic book store called The Meltdown. We kind of hit the ground running. Like the first show we did, I think we had 30 or 40 people there, which is huge. Then eventually we sold out every single week.
I think of how scary it was for me starting comedy in Chicago, and then how much scarier it would have been if I was a woman starting comedy there because it really was such a boys club. And it was very aggressive. It was very locker room.
We wanted Meltdown to feel very inclusive. Emily focused on having a diverse lineup. She wanted to have different points of view on the show, and she wanted to have a lot of female comics on the show, too. We wanted it to be a good comedy show, but also a good place to just hang out for comedians, and that's sort of what it became.
At no point did it feel like here's the big break, because it went from doing standup with these people to then writing for a show, then to being on a small show in a small part, then having a small part in a slightly bigger show. I was lucky that I was ready for each little step. And it wasn't until I went back and looked, and I was like, oh, I guess that show was kind of a big deal.
The movie is called "The Big Sick", and it's based on the real life experience that Emily and I had when we were first dating, and she got really sick and went into a coma for eight days.
Hi, I'm looking for Emily Gardner.
- She's checked in. We need to put her in a medically induced coma.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Coma.
It's sort of a love story about these two characters meeting, but it's centered on that chunk of time at the hospital. And it's a comedy.
Her notes weren't just notes. It was like another perspective on the whole thing. And I was like, oh, this is not my story, this is our story. I think it would be a very incomplete story if Emily wasn't writing this movie. Her perspective as a woman completely changed the movie.
There's a scene in the movie where Emily and I are first dating and she has to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. And so she's trying to leave to go to a diner nearby to use the bathroom.
EMILY GARDNER: You're being so weird.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: How am I weird? I want to sleep while it's sleep time.
EMILY GARDNER: This is normal. Girls go to get coffee in the middle of the night. Have you never had a girlfriend before? This is what it's like.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Are you OK?
We've had so many women point out that scene, like, all the time, being like, oh my god, that exactly is what happened to me. I've never seen that in a movie.
Even though rom coms are generally seen as targeted towards females, most of them are still from the guy's perspective. It's a bunch of dudes trying to guess what a woman would do. Well, then get a few women writers in there.
Here's the big thing. Having more women writers, more women directors, more women executives, more women in positions of power, you don't just do that to make a more equal society. You do that because the product will be better.