Emily V. Gordon, Comedy Shepherd, Talks The Big Sick & The State Of The Modern Rom-Com

Photo: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images.
In The Big Sick, a Judd Apatow-produced romantic comedy that arrives in select theaters June 23, a young woman named Khadija (Vela Lovell) sighs, exhausted, when Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself) rejects her. They're both Pakistani-Americans who have been set-up as a potential match; in an ideal world, their meeting would lead to marriage. It's probably the billionth time Khadija has had to play this game.
"Don't you ever wish you could find someone so you can relax?" she says. At this, I made a mental footnote: Emily V. Gordon probably wrote that. The story is really about Gordon's relationship with Nanjiani — Khadija isn't all that germane to the plot. But she's a fully realized character, and that's all courtesy of Emily Gordon.
Gordon is a heavily used mental footnote in my life. Tangential to just about every bit of pop culture I hold dear, the North Carolina native is an asterisk above most of my references: *courtesy of Emily Gordon. When a co-worker sent me a clip of the comedian John Early this week, I wrote back simply, "Produced by Emily Gordon!!!" It was a clip from The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, a popular comedy show that aired on Comedy Central for two seasons. Gordon did, indeed, produce it. She's also written for The Carmichael Show, Rookie Magazine, and dispenses advice on a Tumblr called Do You Think You're Pretty, when she's not busy maintaining her own podcast called The Indoor Kids, which she hosts with her husband Kumail Nanjiani. She also wrote The Big Sick with Nanjiani, the romantic comedy that sorta-kinda looks like it's going to redefine the genre.
I first heard of Gordon in 2013 during an episode of the now-defunct podcast The Champs. Comedians Neal Brennan and Moshe Kasher interviewed Nanjiani, who mentioned his wife Emily in passing.
"She's lovely — she's difficult to not love," Kasher said when Emily came up. "She's like the most likable person in the world," Nanjiani agreed. Indeed, it seems almost every comedian on every podcast I listen to (WTF with Marc Maron, Comedy Bang! Bang!, You Made It Weird, The Nerdist, and The K Ohle, among others) shares this opinion. Gordon is a fan of comedy, but it feels more like comedy is a fan of her. Comedians speak of her with a childlike reverence. I have heard her referred to as a "den mother" of the community, but I would use the word "shepherd" instead. She's not here to take care of the industry. She's changing it.
In 2008, shortly after the real-life events of The Big Sick took place, Gordon held a workshop in New York City about the destructive power of the mainstream romantic comedy.
"I created this workshop for women about the ways that rom coms mess with our expectations for relationships. I loved it. No one else did," she wrote in an Instagram caption of the experience. In the accompanying photo, Gordon sits in front of a poster brandishing a Sharpie. Her surroundings are less-than-attractive: stained yellow walls and a vacant audience. (She had to bribe friends to attend.)
"I didn't really have a blueprint for how relationships were supposed to go," Gordon tells me 9 years later, in 2017. She loved rom coms — as many do, and with good reason — but they didn't provide much of a map for real life love. "I had a blueprint for the falling in love part, but then they always end when the couple gets together." Romantic comedies are always about the catalyst. How did the relationship come to be? Very few detail the tectonic shifts that occur when two people merge their lives.
The Big Sick isn't about the "falling in love" part. The movie details a period in the early part of their relationship when Gordon's health declined for seemingly no reason. In fact, Gordon's not sure if The Big Sick would be called a "romantic comedy," per se, although she admits that she'll accept the title. (Her favorite rom com is Say Anything, for the record, although she doesn't believe Lloyd and Diane will have a lasting relationship.) For a large chunk of the movie, the female protagonist (called Emily Gardener in the film, played by Zoe Kazan) is in a medically induced coma. Nanjiani then has to hang out with his girlfriend's parents at the hospital. In this particular romantic comedy, it's boy meets girl. Boy woos girl. Then, boy woos parents, figures that are usually anathema to the whooshing, swooping love of this genre. The parents push the movie into more realistic territory; after all, lovers don't exist in a vacuum.
Or, in Gordon's words: "You're not ever falling in love with just one person," she explains. "You are kind of falling in love with the people they came from." Kumail in the movie has to win over the Gardeners, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, just as much as he has to win over Emily.

You're not ever falling in love with just one person. You are kind of falling in love with the people they came from.

The Big Sick is also not really about sex. For a two-hour film, there's almost no sex on camera. There's no making out against doors, no sex position montage, no strategic concealing of on-camera nudity. Maybe it's the parents factor — moms and dads are a quick route to a dead libido. Or maybe it's the sickness factor — Emily is fighting for agency over her own body, so hanky-panky would be a little weird. The film is kinder for it, though. The lack of coitus makes it seem polite, respectful, even.
"We kind of liked that this is an old school romance. You know [Emily and Kumail] have sex. But you don't really see it," Gordon adds. "We know they're attracted to each other." It's as if the movie trusts us to know what happens when two people fall in love.
I wonder, during my second time watching the film, if the lack of sex is partially why the movie feels so strongly pro-women. Quirky women in comedies often fall into the "hapless" stereotype — she's always losing her keys! She's running after the morning L train! By contrast, Kazan as Emily Gardener is witty, like, genuinely witty. She's wary of Kumail's big romantic gestures. ("I love it when men test me by my taste," the character says when he shows her his favorite black and white film. The line is Kazan's, but Gordon tells me that as a certified nerd girl, this was a regular occurrence in her dating life. "They're like, 'Well, let me welcome you to my pop culture!' Half the time, you've already seen it.")
"I love that Emily in this movie gets to be funny," Gordon says. "I like when women are funny in movies. It's so often — women are either serious, or funny. And they don't get to be both. And sometimes they get to be neither. A woman's job is to laugh at a man's joke."

I like when women are funny in movies. It's so often — women are either serious, or funny. And they don't get to be both. And sometimes they get to be neither. And that a woman's job is to laugh at a man's joke.

Though both she and Nanjiani wrote the movie, Gordon oversaw most of the women in the film when it came to the writing. (Asterisk!) Emily doesn't just "get" to be funny — her real life counterpart wrote her that way. Khadija was probably supposed to be an accessory to the narrative. She's not though; Khadija is as much a fully realized character as Emily herself.
Gordon tells me she, Nanjiani and producer Judd Apatow struggled with this character who went from crazy to perfect back to crazy before Emily was handed the reins. "Judd called me one day and said, the character's yours. You figure it out." Watching the movie, it's easy to tell that there's a woman writing for Khadija.
"What we wanted to show is that what Kumail's doing is affecting other people, and Khadija could just as easily have her own movie," Gordon adds. "I kinda fell in love with that character a lot."
That's Emily Gordon for you, keeping watch on the strays and the peripheral characters who might otherwise be ignored. I get the sense that's the role she plays in the comedy community as well. As a booker and producer of comedy shows, she regularly plays comic Mancala, dropping the talent where it needs to go.
"I'm a real lover of comedy," Gordon says with the same reverence as the people who speak of her. "As a booker I got these supreme joy of putting people on stages, putting people on stages, putting people on television that I loved."
She's also friendly, used to be a therapist, and has been married for the entirety of her time in the comedy community. Q.E.D., she's a maternal presence in this industry, courtesy of her gender and position."I very much always just wanted to shepherd other people's talents, " she muses. "And I think that's what ends up making you a den mother."
She's not at the front of the pack, but she's gently circling it, guiding it where it needs to go. Emily Gordon may not be in The Big Sick — save for a cameo at the very end that you'll catch if you have an eagle eye — but it has her mold.
*Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misstated that Gordon wrote the line "I love it when men test me by my taste." Kazan came up with the line.
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