“Any idiot can write voiceover narration to explain the thoughts of a character,” screenwriting guru Robert McKee warns Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation. But what if that protagonist happens to be an overemotional stand-up in a romantic comedy? Everybody knows the one about a comic vomiting his or her internal monologue on stage to a rapturous audience, and when these tropes are overused, it’s the storytelling equivalent of gags about airplane food.
Not so with The Big Sick. The coma-centric dramedy, starring and co-written by Kumail Nanjiani, does stand-up right by doing it wrong. In real life, Nanjiani is a hot joke-teller with a Comedy Central special and a long history on the New York circuit. In the film, though, the actor plays an Uber driver with a nail-biting hobby. He approaches 10-minute nightclub slots with a tremble instead of a swagger, and he murmurs material that’s believably sloppy, sanitised and impersonal. Due to his nerves, the microphone remains cradled in the stand.
The lukewarm performances are, of course, intentional. On the Nerdist podcast, Nanjiani revealed that The Big Sick’s director, Michael Showalter, organised a test shoot at a live venue. Nanjiani did his usual routine, crushed it, and was informed by Showalter it was too sharp to be used in the film. Thus, in the end product we witness a pro sacrificing his ego and depicting the amateur he once was. “It was the worst fucking thing,” Nanjiani reflects on the experience. “It was by far the toughest part.”
Tellingly, the real Nanjiani took inspiration from Four Weddings and a Funeral. Back in June he tweeted: “I started stand-up cuz of Hugh Grant’s best man speech in the beginning. My first few comedy years is me doing my best Hugh Grant.” In the classic Richard Curtis/Mike Newell rom-com, Grant’s bumbling oaf stammers and stutters because it’s charming and endearing. Likewise, The Big Sick takes a tough career like stand-up and presents the viewer with someone who feels the weight of every eye in the shadows. It’s rom-com 101: be relatable.
Nevertheless, comedians-turned-actors repeatedly stumble into the trap of overselling their evening job. The Big Sick’s producer, Judd Apatow, couldn’t resist it with Funny People, in which Adam Sandler gives a duff stand-up performance early on, only to have his mojo back within 30 minutes in a moment that stinks of wish-fulfilment. Similarly, in Top Five, Chris Rock plays a comic who, in his first gig in years, steamrolls at the notoriously intimidating Comedy Cellar. Off-screen, Rock famously workshops material for months before filming it, but his movie avatar may as well be living out a fantasy sequence from The King of Comedy. It’s an act of fiction within a fiction.
Meanwhile, in The Big Sick, Kumail faces a daunting audition for Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival and finally taps into the kind of confessional material that would elicit groans from Robert McKee. A lesser screenplay would resort to overwritten, supposedly off-the-cuff one-liners, the kind of bon mots one conjures up days afterwards in retrospect. Instead, Kumail breaks down on stage, sobs into the microphone, and dies a thousand deaths.
Ultimately, it comes down to honesty. The Big Sick brings Nanjiani’s memories to life on the big screen in a way that feels fresh and authentic. Even the smallest details ring true (Bo Burnham’s careerist character, CJ, is presumably a nod to TJ Miller), confirming once and for all that only stand-ups should play stand-ups. What’s more, the film astutely sneaks politics into the stand-up arena. During a gig, a drunk stranger heckles Kumail and shrieks, “Go back to ISIS!” Though it was written before Donald Trump’s election, this scene is especially timely: Holly Hunter defends the Pakistani-American comic with a rant that’s poignant and cathartic, but confesses her shock that such open racism exists. Kumail, though, has witnessed it all too often.
By the end, Kumail has woken up and won back his comedic confidence, stemming from his attempts to mend his relationship with Emily. The preceding two hours may as well have been a setup for a heartwarming, emotional punchline. And why not, when the delivery is as clean and precise as this? It just goes to show what every working stand-up intuitively knows: always end your set with the strongest material.
Published 25 Jul 2017
By Grace Wang
His latest stand-up special, Homecoming King, articulates what it means to grow up as an outsider.
Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan star in this winning rom-com based on personal experience.
By Grace Wang
The comic’s latest special will make you more compassionate towards your most embarrassing thoughts.