‘The Big Sick’ Finds Complex Stand-Up Success

Making a stand-up movie is hard. ‘The Big Sick’ makes it look easy.
Big sick
Amazon Studios
By  · Published on June 15th, 2017

Elliott Kalan, comedian and former head writer of The Daily Show, recently said on his podcast The Flop House, “there are few things I find less funny than someone doing stand-up in a movie.” The episode in question was about this year’s disastrously-reviewed stand-up film The Comedian, and the comedy in question was some of the worst ever attempted on-screen. Yet right before The Comedian’s February wide release, another stand-up movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Kumail Nanjiani’s semi-autobiographical The Big Sick — a rom-com about how Emily Gordon, his eventual wife, needed to be put into a coma shortly after they broke up — not only makes its stand-up work, it’s a vital part of a great movie.

There are many other stand-up films – some bombs, some the film versions of “comedian’s comedians.” Man on the Moon, Funny People, King of Comedy, and even Mother’s Day join The Comedian in its subject matter. While not necessarily qualities of all the aforementioned movies, stand-up films often treat the acts as built-in audience-pleasers while the acts themselves just aren’t funny. The off-putting, pathetic anti-comedy (and not alternative/anti-humor, a different thing) of Robert DeNiro’s The Comedian is a perfect example of the latter. That film’s schtick mostly insults hackwork, offends people with a sense of humor like bad movie science offends scientists. It’s a terrible gamble including stand-up in your film unless you’re certain of its purpose, because not everyone may know enough engineering to double-guess The Martian, but everyone knows (and prizes) their sense of humor.

In contrast, Nanjiani’s stand-up is soft, sweet, and almost entirely backstory-defining. Similarly, the rest of The Big Sick’s comic crew has material that functions as their personalities. Bo Burnham’s character is the exact kind of slim, ball-busting, above-average, clever white guy that would get picked up at these clubs by those pushing him to bigger things. The revolving male anchor of SNL’s Weekend Update usually falls into this category. Aidy Bryant’s childhood-plumbing set gives her a gimmick that’s clever and in between Burnham and Nanjiani’s scope. Finally Kurt Braunohler’s hokey dive bar open mic mainstay is the butt of everyone’s joke (a role shared with Ed Herbstman’s long-since-peaked hometown hero).

Not all of these comedians need to be immediately funny, but we don’t want them to bomb either. It’s emancipating not expecting the stand-up to do the film’s heavy entertainment lifting. Like Don’t Think Twice’s improv crew, it’s building a sense of community. Ray Romano serves a bit of the same purpose in his role as Emily’s father. He appears as the dadliest being among dads, an anti-comedy god whose very ineptness at humor helps make us appreciate people trying to improve upon their comedy. By showing us the egregiously bad, but making them sweet punchlines of their own, the stand-up sets by the main character feel like something fresh in the film’s comic repertoire. Comedy is everywhere in The Big Sick and if it wasn’t, its characters would crumble. These are the people surrounding Nanjiani, those that shape him.

The second quality that The Big Sick subverts is that of the smug stand-up. That means that films typically show us a snippet of a joke, cut to an audience response rarely connected to what we’ve just seen, and expect us to buy it because hey, the character is a comedian. A notable exception, as The Flop House co-star Stuart Wellington points out, is Obvious Child, which actually does this well. Its stand-up scenes feel like an act. They’re also tied to the events of the film, fitting in organically and allowing those scenes to underplay to the diegetic audience.

The Big Sick works too. It follows suit in its grounding, especially during a climactic scene that you may expect – considering most movies with notable protagonist professions climax with an intense scene of them at work (racecar drivers, spies, doctors, bomb techs, quarterbacks). But it does more than that, really integrating the stand-up conceit into its core. Kumail is a stand-up not like some rom-com protagonists are “graphic designers” to afford their penthouses, but like someone in The Hurt Locker is a soldier. It’s something that informs his actions and his relationships with people. His ego is ever-present, his language is humor. Without them, he’s useless and unarmed.

The film toes the balance of ego between a stand-up’s necessary self-importance and its romantic lead’s self-involved belief that “hey, maybe this girl won’t hate me once she wakes up from this coma.” It has all the potential to be creepy, but it’s endearing because we can feel the fragility of his veneer. Look at his impotency during his struggles with his traditional family’s attempts to arrange his marriage. Here, who he is means nothing. Personal talent — pride — is moot when choice is eliminated.

So when he cracks jokes at the dinner table, it’s the stand-up permeating his being, spreading to his world in its entirety. It’s both beautiful and tragic. An episode of Louie says comedy isn’t a job, it’s a calling. But neither is quite right where movies are concerned. Treating stand-up as something in between, a profession with inevitably personal implications, allows us to tolerate (even enjoy) segments of sets during the narrative because we can understand its necessity.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).