In the movie of your life, what’s the defining childhood scene we flash back to?
I was in the second grade, and the teacher wasn’t in the classroom yet. We weren’t supposed to leave or go to the restroom if the teacher wasn’t there, but I had to pee really, really bad. The teacher just never came back, and then I was like, “All right, I have to run to the bathroom and do it.” So I ran to the front of the class, but it was too late—I just started peeing. And I was making this sound while I was peeing, “Ahhhhhhh!” Everyone just shut up and watched me. It was like stand-up. I was standing in front, facing them. In a way, it was my first performance.
Your career has progressed from stand-up comedy to TV to a leading role in a movie. How do you feel about acting?
Acting at its core is silly. It’s like you’re playing pretend. Ultimately it’s lame and stupid, but I love it and it’s important to me, so I take it seriously. There will always be someone who talks about the importance of acting, but then you’ll see their movie and it’s fucking horrible. You don’t get to talk like this, you know?
What do you say to your friends when they make something bad?
I’ll find the right thing to say that’s not really lying and not really a compliment. It’s the kind of lie that wouldn’t hold up in court but would hold up on The People’s Court—like, we know what you fucking did, but you don’t go to jail for it. I’ll say something like “That was such an interesting story.”
Are you hard on yourself when it comes to your own output?
I try not to be too hard on myself about stuff I’ve done in the past. I’m always hard on myself in the present. But once it’s done, if you’re judging it, you’re just living in regret, you know? I don’t think being hard on myself is necessarily a good thing; I just can’t avoid it.
You and your wife, Emily Gordon, wrote The Big Sick together. It’s your love story—including Emily being in a coma for a week. When Emily was really sick, was there a part of you that thought she wouldn’t make it?
Oh yes. The hardest thing is when it’s something that’s such a big part of your life. Someone’s sick and there’s truly nothing you can do about it. It’s such a profound helplessness. It’s a person you love, a person who’s normally responsive and has feelings, who might go away because of some body thing. The truth of it feels so vulgar—the fact that we come down to some fucking cells not working right and then this beautiful world just goes away.
There’s a scene in which you ask your friends, “Is it okay that I’m not there right now?” Emily is in a coma, your relationship is on-again, off-again, and you’re doing comedy. Do you ever contemplate an alternative time line in which you don’t go back?
Emily and I talk about that. She’s like, “What if I hadn’t gotten sick? Would we still be together?” I don’t know. And you can’t say, “Well, thank God you got sick.” She would say, “When we were dating, the idea that you would tell your parents about us seemed so outside your reality that unless something like this had happened, I don’t think we’d ever have done it.” Maybe we wouldn’t be together. I was just scared. I didn’t know what the fuck. I had no version of my life that made sense. I was just living day to day.
So what made you go back?
When she was going under, I remember thinking, If she comes out of this, I’m going to marry her. It’s like being in a horror movie, but it’s also devastatingly sad. Part of it is that you get sucked in. In the movie, I go back because of guilt, but then I stay because I realize I’m in love with her. In reality, I think it was both. I had this guilt that was so self-involved, that guilt of “I should’ve been able to see this coming; why did I not understand how sick she was?” I still have that.
The film doubles as a story about young creative people trying to make it. When did you know you had the goods to succeed in comedy?
It must have been in Chicago. I started in comedy at a point when there were a lot of people who were very good at it. I was lucky in that I didn’t have a bad set until I’d been doing it for three or four months, whether it was because of my nervous energy or the fact that I really worked on my jokes. I wasn’t ever like, “Oh, I’m going to make it”—and whatever “making it” means keeps evolving—but in the beginning I realized I have the ability to write jokes that are different from other people’s.
I’ve never played a 7-eleven clerk or a Dunkin’ Donuts guy. I try to do parts not defined by ethnicity.
Do you think any of the roles you’ve played are racist?
I play a lot of food-delivery guys. I’ve never played a 7-Eleven clerk; I’ve never played a fucking Dunkin’ Donuts guy. I try to do parts that aren’t defined by ethnicity. I did a string of small parts in big comedies—too many of them, and I’m not going to do those anymore—like Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Central Intelligence and Fist Fight. I did them because I wanted to get better at acting and make connections. I was trying to find stuff where the joke is not my character mispronouncing words or swearing wrong.
What’s the funniest experience you’ve had on a big-budget set?
I’ve definitely worked with people multiple days in a row and then realized they think I’m Kal Penn. They would talk about how much they loved Harold & Kumar. The number of us is so small that people just think “brown guy.” The guy from Life of Pi—I get confused with him all the time. I was working with Karan Soni, who’s a very funny Indian actor, and he said he’d done some movie and someone thought he was me. I was like, All right, finally!
Do you dislike confrontation?
It depends on the day. Like, what the fuck is it going to take for you to see me as me and not some other person? Sometimes people will come up to me and say, “Hey, that joke of yours is really good” and it’s Aziz Ansari’s joke. I’ll be like, “Oh, that wasn’t me. That’s the other one.” I say that a lot. It’s me being like, You know what? This awkwardness is going to be all yours. I’m not going to feel awkward about it.
Does it frighten you to be a visible person of color in the age of Trump?
I think it would be more scary if I wasn’t a visible person of color. I think being a known figure protects me a little more. It’s much scarier to be like that guy who got killed in Oklahoma—it’s fucking terrifying. I’m a lot more aware of my ethnicity in other states and cities than I am in Los Angeles. We have a vague, quick little joke about that in the movie. My brother and I are arguing when a family looks at us, and we say, “It’s okay. We hate terrorists.” That’s basically a little joke, but as a brown person in America, you are aware of your ethnicity every waking moment.
Since you have a sizable platform, do you feel you have a political obligation to speak out?
I used to think I didn’t have any duty to stand up for anybody, but things are so scary now, I just feel the urge to do it as a person. It’s crazy, but I also feel I’m probably not convincing anybody with this stuff. I don’t think if I tweet, “Hey, Trump is causing brown people to be demonized in America; it makes us feel unsafe and my mom is scared to leave her house,” it will convince anybody who’s a major Trump supporter. I’m preaching to the choir.
How do you stay sane in this climate?
I think you have to find balance. I was reading an interview with an expert on totalitarian regimes. He was saying you should give yourself a half hour a day to look up stuff that’s going on and focus on one thing that can be your thing. Focus on health care, art, transgender rights, Islamophobia. Have that be the thing you want to try to protect in what little way you can.
In the film, you’re an Uber driver. Have you had any other bad employers in your life?
[Laughs] I had a shitty boss who was just a dick. She loved the power she had. I was working at the University of Chicago, and she would write letters and put them in my record like I was a fucking kid and she was a principal. I made the websites. Yeah, I know it’s stereotypical, but I was bad at it.
Do you have any unfinished comedy bits that you haven’t been able to crack?
There’s one story about how Emily woke me up in the middle of the night and said, “What’s that smell?” She couldn’t figure out what it was because it’s hard to google a smell. There’s no Shazam for smells, you know? And anything in Google is like “Are you the only one who can smell it? You’re going to die.” Or “Can other people smell it? Everyone’s going to die.” But she convinced herself it was probably a wire inside the wall that was on fire. So we called 911 and were like, “This isn’t serious. Please don’t send anybody, but we think there’s something.” Two minutes later, three fire trucks show up at our house and I have to open the door. I’m like this little guy, and these fucking firemen say, “Oh, the smell—do you mean the skunk?” I yell up to Emily, “Honey, it was a skunk!” And she says, “Oh right. Yup, that’s what that is.”
Comedians are known for being sharply attuned to pain. Is it worth it?
I’m fairly neurotic. I’m a worrier. I feel a lot of guilt over everything. And honestly, this election has changed me. I’m a generally optimistic person and I think things are going to turn out fine. Last year, seeing all the negativity flying around changed my outlook. I realized that progress isn’t guaranteed. People have to work for it. Since World War II, the world sort of knew what was right and what was wrong—we were moving in the right direction. Now it feels as though we’re going backward.
My mom was 17 when she had me, and I think one of the challenges of my life has been figuring out how to grow up.
You and Emily got married almost exactly 10 years before The Big Sick’s premiere date. What have you learned after being with someone for a decade?
What’s been good about marriage is that it allows us both to be better versions of ourselves. She allows me to be a better person, and I hope I allow her to do the same. The other thing I learned is that relationships aren’t static; they’re always evolving. We’ve gotten better at being married to each other. I’m also excited to see where it goes. We’re going to be together forever. My parents are still together and her parents are still together. I’ve always thought of marriage as something you do only when you definitely want to stay with the person.
With all that has happened—a marriage your family considered sacrilegious, a career in comedy instead of medicine—how are you getting along with your parents?
For them, my life didn’t make a lot of sense, which I understand because it doesn’t make any sense. They would watch my stuff and not talk about it, but they visited me on the set of this movie—the first time they ever visited me on a set. I didn’t give my parents enough credit. I really thought this was something we wouldn’t be able to work out, and we’re still working it out, but the fact that our relationship has evolved in this way means they’ve made compromises I didn’t think they were capable of. I underestimated them.
Getting back to the movie, Emily’s mom, played by Holly Hunter, has this great line: “We’re all just winging it.” Is that a personal motto?
Yeah. I think that’s one of the things the movie is about. You know when you’re a kid and your parents are superheroes who can do anything, and then you grow up and realize they’re just trying to figure it out? I have friends who now have kids and they’re like, “I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m just trying to keep this thing alive!” My mom was 17 when she had me, and I think one of the challenges of my life has been figuring out how to grow up. You have to figure out how to have an adult relationship with your parents, how to see them as peers. Part of seeing each other as grown-ups is knowing that nobody knows the secret.
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