Life & Culture

'I’ve always been seen by other people as Jewish'

Michael Showalter, actor, comedian and writer, reveals how his own family story prompted him to direct the hit film The Big Sick


My experience of comedians is that they’re rarely funny to meet. I’ve interviewed Ben Stiller, Bobcat Goldthwait, Ricky Gervais, Rob Schneider, Robin Williams and Woody Allen, and they were all interesting, intelligent individuals, but not exactly a barrel of laughs.

Now, thanks to the Princeton-born Jewish comedian/writer/actor/filmmaker Michael Showalter, I know why.
“They [comedians] are less inclined to want to be funny with non comedians,” he explains over the phone from America. “So when people meet comedians, they’re often struck by how unfunny they are in person. Like, ‘I thought you’d be funny?! Why are you so serious?!’”

When they are funny, outside of performing, is when they’re together, he says. The stand-up comic/actor Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, understood this when they wrote their autobiographical screenplay, The Big Sick, and it was partly the verisimilitude of scenes set in a comedy club which helped bring Showalter — who usually writes/co-writes his own screenplays — on board as director.

“I liked [the idea of] showing the way comedians talk to each other; the way they’re so sarcastic,” says the 47-year-old father of twins, reflecting his upbringing by academics who encouraged him to be analytical. “There’s a lot of competitiveness, and they insult each other as a way of showing their affection. I know from experience, that’s how they are.”

Now Showalter, who’s probably best known to UK audiences as one of the stars/co-writers of the Jewish summer camp movie satire, Wet Hot American Summer, and its 2015 Netflix spin-off series (another is due in August), has a hit — and potential Oscar contender — on his hands. It is his third romantic comedy, after The Baxter, starring himself, and the Sally Field vehicle Hello, My Name is Doris, and like his previous films, tries to bring the genre closer to reality.

When I tell him Charlie Kaufman, the Oscar-winning writer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, once told me he thought Hollywood romantic comedies had probably spread a lot of unhappiness, because of the unrealistic expectations they raised around love and relationships, Showalter agrees.

“People want the kind of perfect, idealised version of love and relationships that movies and television give them . . . and I think people spin out and spend a lot of time working for that. And in my experience, that’s not how it works.” Thus, Showalter’s films “hint at the idea that it’s not supposed to be like that . . . That the success strategy lies, actually, in embracing the imperfections.”

The hurdles for Nanjiani, playing himself, and Emily, played by Zoe Kazan, in The Big Sick, are high. When she is put into a medically-induced coma after succumbing to a mystery illness, he finds himself dealing not only with her anxious, protective parents, but also his traditional Pakistani family, shocked by his secret relationship with an non-Muslim American woman.

The script melds comedy and drama, and Showalter was excited about its breadth of subjects, including family, immigration, cultural identity, and what it means to be American.

Importantly, it hit him on a deeply personal level, as he saw in Nanjiani and Gordon’s relationship the crisis that had erupted over the marriage of his own Jewish mother, the feminist critic Elaine Showalter (nee Cottler), and Episcopalian father, English Showalter, a Yale-educated professor of French Literature. The ramifications were profound, and led Showalter to encourage the married screenwriters to punch up the racial and religious friction in their script.

Recalling what had happened, Showalter says his mother’s side of the family had “excommunicated her” for marrying his father. “And so she did not speak to her family for almost two decades. It wasn’t until she made an effort to have a reconciliation with them that the family came back together. So I didn’t meet anyone on my mother’s side until I was 11 or 12 years old.”

I ask whether this affected his feelings about Judaism. “Yeah,” he exclaims. “I think I felt resentment towards her family for doing that, basically. And to the extent that the religion was central to that, that came along with it. So I wasn’t raised with any of the traditions of being Jewish, because there was a lot of hurt around that, for her.”

He grew up with mainly Jewish friends, though, and has acquired a large Jewish following thanks to Wet Hot American Summer, which he and director/co-writer David Wain based on their experiences at Jewish summer camps in the 80s. Although he identifies with both of his parents’ faiths, Showalter says: “I’ve always been seen by other people as Jewish. I’m not sure why. I’ve never advertised that I’m Jewish, or anything like that.”

Still, he admits that through having a Jewish wife, Anne Kalin Ellis (whose father is Methodist), who “more strongly identifies as Jewish, I think, probably, I have become more interested in [Judaism].” 

Are they giving their twins, born in 2011, a Jewish upbringing? “I think they’ll have more than I did, for sure,” he says. “And I will learn with them. I think it will be pretty secular but I would like for them to feel . . .” He breaks off, briefly catching his thoughts. “We’ll probably take part in some of the traditions of Judaism, and see how it goes.” 

Meanwhile, in a career that has been somewhat up and down, Showalter is now enjoying a moment of instant success with The Big Sick (Wet Hot American Summer was a critical and box office flop, but subsequently achieved cult status), and it feels good. But also a little baffling.    

“As someone who’s done a lot of stuff, part of you is like, ‘What’s different about this?’ But we worked really hard on it and I couldn’t be more proud of it. And it’s exciting when people send you an email and say, ‘Your movie resonated with me.’ It seems to really be connecting with people.”

The Big Sick opens on July 28

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