Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon talk about their coma comedy ‘The Big Sick’
Paging Dr. Candyhands.
Dr. Candyhands to the ICU.
This is what Emily Gordon remembers from her weeks in a medically induced coma – being treated by a physician whose hands were Jolly Ranchers.
It’s how her subconscious, filtered through a layer of drugs, registered the sticky tape on her wrists and arms used to anchor the tubes that were pumping her body full of antibiotics that, as it turned out, she didn’t need.
“I was fighting my way out of it on a daily basis. I could hear people around me, I knew they were there,” she said, “but my brain came up with all of these weird scenarios to make sense of things.”
Gordon’s ordeal — she nearly died after being misdiagnosed with a lung infection that turned out to be an autoimmune disease — is addressed in an improbably hilarious and touching new movie called “The Big Sick.”
She cowrote it, along with (now) husband and actor Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”), who at the time was her boyfriend, and on her blacklist.
The movie playfully recounts a tumultuous stage of their courtship — centered on Nanjiani, a Pakistani-born Muslim who conceals the relationship from his religious family and hides from Gordon the fact that he doesn’t have the courage to tell his family about her.
It comes to a head just as she’s rushed to hospital, with Nanjiani thrust into the position of being in charge of her care.
All of this occurred about 10 years ago — Gordon jokes that she just passed her 10-year comaversary.
Fast-forward to today: The two are married. How do Nanjiani’s folks (they live in North Jersey) feel about the union?
“Things are great. They really love Emily, and they warmed to her very quickly,” he said. “They were able to separate the issue they had with me marrying someone outside the culture from the person.”
“I wasn’t trying to lure him away,” Gordon said.
“Even though they were initially disappointed, they knew Emily wasn’t the cause of the disappointment,” Nanjiani said.
“That was me,” he said, laughing.
The intervening 10 years have also complicated life for Muslims in the United States, which makes “The Big Sick” feel almost astoundingly timely (it also touches on health-care issues).
Nanjiani, still working as a comedian, said a lot of his stand-up material now wrestles with the idea of American-ness, and how he fit in as a naturalized citizen of Muslim heritage.
“When I write, I write to the thing in my life that I’m trying to figure out, and that’s what I’m thinking about, what group I belong to,” he said.
“Part of me is like, I don’t know what it means to be an American. If part of being an American is telling me I’m not one, then maybe I don’t need to feel American,” he said.
“But that impulse is American,” Gordon said. “That sense that you don’t need other people to validate you. That independence. That is American.”
All of this may make “The Big Sick” sound political, but it’s not. Produced by Judd Apatow, it filters everything through a comic sensibility. It follows Nanjiani as he flits back and forth from the hospital to his work as a comedian. And Gordon’s father is played by Ray Romano, who bonds with Nanjiani during the long weeks caring for Gordon (in the movie, Zoe Kazan).
“The Big Sick” is about folks warming up to one another amid difficult circumstances, which Nanjiani says reflects the best and truest spirit of the country.
“I think America is an experiment, and I like to say that while it’s not perfect, it’s the experiment that’s furthest along. It’s a truly international country, a melting pot in a very true sense, and it’s mostly people trying to negotiate how to live with people who have different points of view.”
The movie also gives sideways insight into health care. Gordon was changing jobs at the time, and, on a whim (she had always been very healthy) bought short-term bridge insurance to carry her through to her next job. It may have saved her from being bankrupted by medical expenses — even so, the bill after insurance payouts was $200,000.
Gordon laughs at the absurdity of it.
“I was billed for using an out-of-network anesthesiologist. The procedure was covered but the anesthesiologist was not. And I’m trying to explain to them – I was literally not in a position to choose, I was in a coma. They said, ‘We’ll take that into consideration.’”
Nanjiani checked Gordon’s hospital on Yelp and argued with the family (her mother is played by Holly Hunter) about whether to move her to a more highly rated facility.
“My parents were raised to be very trustworthy of doctors. When I was in a coma, it was really Kumail who was questioning everything,” Gordon said.
“Yeah, because I was raised in a place were authority was not to be trusted,” Nanjiani said. “I was the one saying, ‘Guys, maybe this hospital isn’t the best.’ “
It was Nanjiani who provided the physicians with tiny clues — seemingly incidental lapses in Gordon’s motor skills — that led to successful diagnosis and treatment. A decade later, Gordon has arrived at the combination of therapies that works for her and is in excellent health.
“I still have a little trouble dealing with the concept that my body betrayed me, that, in a weird way, it turned on itself. And I feel like my (autoimmune disease) is always this dragon that I try not to wake up. But I’m good.”
If you go
THE BIG SICK
R, 119 minutes.
Playing at Madison Art Cinemas.
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