Kumail Nanjiani And Emily V. Gordon Have Some Experience With This
Last week, like everyone else, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon were trapped in their house, feeling helpless. So, like seemingly millions of their fellow Americans, they decided to start a podcast. Except Nanjiani and Gordon, unlike most of us, actually have some experience with the situation at hand. Gordon has a rare disease that nearly killed her—a story recounted in 2017’s The Big Sick, the semiautobiographical film she and Nanjiani wrote together—and left her immunocompromised; from time to time, over the years, she and Nanjiani have had to isolate themselves to protect her, and so what is new to us is slightly more familiar to them. Plus, the two of them are professionally funny, which helps.
In the debut episode of Staying In with Emily and Kumail, the two of them relay tips for living indoors and for managing anxiety while doing so (Gordon, in a past life, was a therapist). They talk frankly about their fears and their marriage and their workout routines; they argue and make up and start arguing again, mid-episode. The podcast is consistently endearing, actually useful, and often hilarious; they plan to donate all the ad revenue to charity, and to keep recording until we’re all allowed to go outside again. “Honestly, you feel a little bit helpless and you don't know what else to do,” Nanjiani told me over the phone last week. “Nobody globally has gone through this kind of thing together all at the same time. Usually when people feel isolated, it's a very lonely feeling and you obviously go through it alone. But now it feels like everybody is going through it all together.”
Here is the rest of our conversation:
GQ: Why do this podcast now?
Emily V. Gordon: I think because I was a therapist for eight years, I’ve noticed that my conversations with friends and my conversations with people online lately have been more in the variety of coping and giving people space to cope however they want. And giving people space to understand that it's going to be a process. And I do feel like that's maybe not something people are talking about as much. And yeah: We're all in this unique place, but we're kind of in group therapy together.
Kumail Nanjiani: We’re also doing it to help ourselves cope. I mean, there's no blueprint for this. We don't know honestly what we're doing either. But we're just talking it out and then hearing from people going through it. And some people say, “Oh, wow, I had that exact same sort of feeling,” or “Okay, mine was slightly different. It was like this.” Because the hard thing is: Community is what we need right now, and it's the one thing that we literally cannot have. Also, honestly, it's something that we can make and put out there every week, and it'll be something that we can sort of look forward to doing.
As opposed to recording, say, a cover of “Imagine.”
Nanjiani: Well, I cannot sing. Neither of us can sing. That's definitely the main reason. You know, I see some people and I think it's a very valiant effort—
Gordon: Wait, what's a valiant effort?
Nanjiani: What I'm going to say. Which is: I think there are people who are trying to put on a very brave face and guide people through this thing and be like, “Oh, this is how you should do it, and this is what you should do.” I think that's valiant. But I also think all those people are going through it together. It's not like they've processed it. They're not from the future. Nobody knows what the f*** they're doing or how to handle this. So our approach definitely was more like, “This is something worth struggling with and thinking about, and let's all work through it together.” We have some experience of self-quarantining, so we have little tips. But listen, we're in week one of this thing, you know? What's going to happen? Think of how long this week has been! Remember last week? I don't remember Monday. I honestly don't know what Monday was like. I think it might have been raining here?
Gordon: I openly admit that my own coping often comes by helping other people cope. And that's just always kind of been my thing. So the selfish aspect of it is, I'm helping myself cope by in turn talking to other people about it.
Nanjiani: Though we're not trying to guide people through this thing, because we honestly are stumbling through it ourselves.
The first episode of the podcast is called “Fumbling for Normalcy.” On a scale of one being actually normal and 10 being, well, a global pandemic, where are you guys right now?
Gordon: It's funny. I am a writer and I write from home. So my schedule, very sadly, has not changed that much. The biggest change is that I'm cooking a lot more. But frankly, I have a very strict routine of waking up, going into my office, working, taking a break to work out. But the part that I miss is seeing friends.
Nanjiani: Yeah, I mean, you do have a routine and so you're used to that a little bit. But you don't do that exactly all day, every day. The fact that you cannot break that routine right now is very, very bad. For instance, tonight we're doing date night. So we're going to get dressed up, we're going to cook.
Gordon: And be in our house!
Nanjiani: Yes, it sounds very bad, but I've been excited about it for like three days. We'll send you a picture of us dressed up.
Gordon: I'm going to wear, like, a full evening gown.
Nanjiani: But the hard thing with this is there's truly no way to process this. Usually there's a trauma or something, right? It might be really hard—you have to process it and then come through the other side. There's no coming through the other side for this thing. For me at least, I just have to not think about it. That's really the only way to get through it.
Kumail, you said on the podcast that you had, basically, a two-week freakout at the beginning of this, followed by a full-blown panic attack. Have you been better since?
Nanjiani: Well, yes. But at least three, four times a day, you have the thought where you're—because, you know, we're humans, we're generally pretty adaptable, we're like, “I do this, and this,” and we have this routine—but three or four times a day, it hits, where you're like: This is so crazy that you can't go outside because there's a disease going around killing people. That's f***ing insane! Nobody prepared you for this, you know?
Gordon: Just earlier I was looking through photos on my phone, just like slightly older photos, and I saw, like, nights out with friends where I was taking photos, and I started crying. Because I was like, “When's that going to happen again?”
Nanjiani: When I look at pictures of people on Instagram, like Throwback Thursday or people with other people—it just feels like an alternate universe.
Emily, you talk on the podcast about the fact that you are immunocompromised and how that, paradoxically, has made you feel a little more zen about this than many other people. I wonder if you could explain a little further what you meant by that.
Gordon: I still obviously have moments of being emotional and freaking out. But I do think, if you have been lucky enough to not have your body kind of surprise you in a horrifying way—I use the term “betray” sometimes, but it almost feels too strong—but if you've been lucky enough to not have that happen, and if you've been lucky enough to not be chronically sick, I think it's kind of fundamentally shocking that anything bad could happen to you. But I am just a little more used to the body being something that is fragile and could go wrong at any time, and it could be quite serious. And it's not a badge to hold. It's not a thing to brag about. But I do think having that experience, I am oddly a little calmer now because I know what that feels like. I know what that experience is. It's not new for me. And I noticed when I went in to get the treatment that I get every month—and the only people that are there, other than myself, are other people who are there for treatment—they were all calm as well. They were all fine, too, because all of us are kind of like, “Yeah, this is a little more normal for us than it is for other people.” I don't wish it on anybody. And I'm not happy or bragging that I've got that experience, but it is part of it. So I've been, overall, I'd say much calmer than you.
Nanjiani: [Long silence] Oh, you want me to agree?
Gordon: Yeah, I do. [Laughter] But it does not help my physical health to be stressed out about it. So my only option is to not be stressed out about it.
This might not be the most relatable part of the conversation, but Kumail, this was sort of supposed to be your movie-star year: You guys made Little America, you had The Lovebirds coming out in theaters in April (it will now premiere on Netflix), and then The Eternals in November. As you noted on the podcast, you appeared very jacked on the cover of Men's Health earlier this month. Have you allowed yourself to feel any disappointment about professional stuff amid all this personal terror?
Nanjiani: [Laughter, deep sarcasm] Yeah, I was like, “Man, I was just figuring this shit out! This is a poorly timed global pandemic. I don't know where other people were going or what their trajectories were, but for me, no, it could not have come at a worse time.”
Gordon: “Could've been better, like, last year, or maybe two years ago.”
Nanjiani: “Yeah, why did this not happen when I was doing open mics in Chicago? It would have been such a treat.”
Well, it probably is fair to say that there are any number of people who felt like they were on the verge of something when this came along.
Nanjiani: Yeah. I just think it's in perspective. And I felt that very, very acutely when the Men's Health magazine cover came out. And I tweeted about it because I have to. But this other stuff was so much bigger. I mean, I wonder how people are going to be different coming out of this thing, no matter how long it takes. Like, are our priorities going to be different? I don't know! There's just no way to know, you know? And here's the thing. We've seen what's going to happen here, because we saw it happen in China, and we saw it happen in Italy, so we sort of know what the next few weeks are going to look like. But nobody's come out of this to the other side yet with a blueprint of what things look like after something like this. So that's a really unknowable thing right now. There's no examples for us to look at.
Gordon: Do you know what I was thinking about? In the movie Independence Day, when they figured out how to besiege the big monster ship, and then they're like, "Tell everyone, we've got the answer!" We need that.
Nanjiani: If anybody is reading GQ and knows the answer to any of this, please call in!
Kumail, you mentioned on the podcast that you've found yourself crying while lifting weights. I found myself wondering if that was a recent thing or if somehow it actually goes back a while.
Nanjiani: No, it's pretty recent. [Laughter] When I first started lifting weights and crying, that was for very different reasons. That was just physical pain, whereas this—I don't know what it is. Sometimes it feels good to do it, but it doesn't feel good to do it. The working out always feels good. It just feels like a moment where you can truly not think about anything else. You're just sort of like, "I hope I don't hurt myself with this weight, because if I dropped this weight on my foot and I break my foot, what, are we going to go to a hospital? We're not going to go to a hospital! What's going to happen?"
I appreciate how open you guys have been and continue to be with your lives. Has it been tricky at all, in terms of negotiating what’s private and what’s public? Because the level of honesty on your podcast is...high.
Gordon: Well, as you've been asking this question, we've been looking at each other like, "Hell, maybe he's right."
Nanjiani: We have not thought past this global-pandemic ending. But I guess at some point, you have to go out in the world.
Gordon: We don't want to live our lives publicly in any way, shape, or form. We are quite deliberate about what we choose to share with people and what we do not choose to share with people. And before the Big Sick came out, none of my friends even knew that I was sick. And so both of us had a real reckoning in that year of kinda becoming the person who is known for being a sick person from this movie. And I think at this point, I've found a good balance of, how can I be helpful to other people? How can I get what I need? And how can I have anything that could be of use to anyone else? And I think when you are feeling under duress, which I think we all are, oddly I think that helping, or doing your best to help, sometimes helps you feel better. And so some of it is selfish. Some of it is like, we're hoping to help other people because we want to feel better too. And we're quite deliberate about what we choose to share, what we don't. We've got plenty of shit in here you guys are never going to see.
Nanjiani: Yeah. And I will say, Emily was a therapist, but that wasn't just a profession. Emily is that personality type. You are the person who randomly, at a party, [would] meet someone who we don't know and they'll just start talking about their cat that just died. But Emily is just that type of person, where people really want to share things with her. And I've heard from so many people who have texted me, my friends who Emily doesn't even know, saying that the stuff that you were saying about self-care, and just coming at it from the therapist angle, really made them feel a little bit more comfortable.
I'll end this by asking you guys the same question you guys asked each other at the end of the first episode, which is: Anything you want to plug?
Gordon: [Laughter] I'd like to plug not hoarding supplies.
Nanjiani: If you can afford it, donate to places if you can.
Gordon: Check in with older people that are in your area and see if they need anything.
Nanjiani: Check in with your friends who might be lonely. And we also want to plug our podcast, [announcer voice] Staying In with Emily and Kumail.
Gordon: I'm just plugging staying in.