The Big Sick and Obvious Child are heartwarming romantic comedies that understand our social-media era.
Social media has become the go-to response when asked what has changed social relations the most in the past decade. How film and TV have responded to this change has varied. From a marketing perspective, they’ve excelled, deploying social media extremely well for the purposes of raising brand awareness. But when it comes to representing the experience of using social media, they don’t always quite get it. Obviously, there are countless examples in contemporary film and TV in which characters talk about and use Facebook and Twitter. It’s an easy way to establish a rapport with the audience. And yet, I believe that it’s another medium better encapsulates the affective experience of social media. I would argue that stand-up has come to stand-in for social media. The two most recent examples of successful stand-up films are the newly released The Big Sick and 2014’s Obvious Child. Both films utilize stand-up comedy in a similar way and to similar effect. For instance, both films use stand-up to tackle divisive subjects such as abortion and Islamaphobia. They both put their subject’s perspectives front and center, which allow these cultural and political differences to have a voice. And both films begin with their protagonists doing stand-up. This is a very effective way of introducing the characters: allow them to present themselves. For both Kumail Nanjiani and Jenny Slate’s character Donna, their sense of humor is their defining feature; it’s their livelihood. So why not lead with that?
The opening of The Big Sick is a montage of footage and images from Kumail’s (the real Kumail) childhood in Pakistan, overlaid with a segment from his stand-up in which he talks about growing up in Pakistan. From the get-go, the film is acknowledging and welcoming the blurring of fact and fiction. It’s also a clever way of breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule that all creative writing books swear by. The film isn’t saying, but the character is. The same goes for Obvious Child. In the opening scene, Donna (Jenny Slate) is talking about her dirty underwear, thus establishing her humor and herself as uninhibited to her audience and the film’s audience. Her comedy is as self-aware as she is. So, if stand-up is a self-curated art-form designed to entertain and enthralling the audience, then it isn’t so far from the structure of social media. Isn’t Instagram sort of like a monologue in images, a portfolio of yourself? Just like social media, stand-up is centered around the individual. And it’s this person’s job to convey their funny and unique view of the world through observations, anecdotes, etc. Stand-up comedy has always embraced this blur of fact and fiction, person and persona. So, just like stand-up makes little pretense of being 100% accurate, neither does social media. Everyone knows that social media profiles are highly vetted to show your best and most follow-able self. Content curation is a legitimate job now.
How many films and shows capture that experience? And I don’t mean the teen shows in which a (usually female) character complains about not having enough subscribers or followers. What The Big Sick and Obvious Child capture are the vulnerability of putting yourself out there, on stage or online and hearing the feedback in real time. So if both social media and stand-up are both inherently about over-sharing in a deliberate and thought-out way, then when they over-share it’s unnerving. When Donna goes up onstage and tells the audience that she is having an abortion the next day, the audience is tense. They know that she is veering off from her usual routine, and yet they wait to see what jokes will come out of it if any. What makes her routine so moving and powerful is that abortion is viewed as a traumatic and life-changing event, and yet she is cracking jokes about it.
In The Big Sick, when Kumail goes onstage after coming back from visiting his ex-girlfriend Emily (Zoe Kazan) at the hospital, we can see his struggle to perform. Having seen part of his act earlier in the film, we can tell that can’t separate himself from what’s going on in his personal life. At this point, it’s just a job. And then, in the middle of his set, a frat boy yells out “Go back to ISIS” to the audience. He tries to ignore it and move on with his set, but Emilly’s mother (Holly Hunter) is in the audience and, seeking an outlet for her anger, takes matters into her own hands. What follows is like the live-action version of Facebook comments on an article about Islamophobia. In his following, stand-up gig, which happens to be his audition for the Just for Laughs festival, even more, distraught Kumail gets up on stage and admits that “it’s hard to do comedy when your girlfriend is in a coma.” Awkward laughs. “I don’t know why you’re laughing.” Seeing someone give up on trying to find the comedy in their pain reinforces the drama itself. He is a man who’s profession is comedy and if he can’t laugh about it then who else can? What does it mean when the performer stops performing, yet is still on stage? Is is still a performance? Is it an unrehearsed performance of grief? Of course, he doesn’t get into the comedy festival, but puts his performance on YouTube under the title “WORST BOMB IN HISTORY !!!!!!” Emily watches it once she’s woken up from the coma and starts to forgive Kumail for lying to her before she got sick.
Why do we write or read lengthy Facebook statuses about our depression? Why do we get up on stage listen to some comedian talk about their break-up? When trying to make something good out of something bad, and showing it to people, we feel less alone. Here’s to rolling on the floor laughing, with a tear in my eye.