For Kumail Nanjiani, a morning drive around Chicago’s North Side “has been a very nostalgic time for me today,” the comedian and actor said Wednesday, while in town to promote his autobiographical new film “The Big Sick.”
“I honestly wish I was here longer. I got here last night and leave this afternoon. My wife worked around here,” said Nanjiani, gesturing to the Loop setting where we chatted on an open-air Michigan Avenue plaza.
The entertainer smiled as he noted, “We just drove by two of my old apartments — in Lake View and Wrigleyville,” and he shared memories of some of his favorite culinary outposts.
The native of Karachi, Pakistan, recalled frequent visits “to Grafton in Lincoln Square, and Devon Avenue to go to the Pakistani restaurants. I love that place. … I also love Chicago Mexican food too. … But my favorite taco place —right under the Irving Park L — is now shut down. That made me very sad.”
Asked if he finds good “Paki” food in Los Angeles, where the “Silicon Valley” star now lives, Nanjiani shook his head. “Not very much in L.A. There is a place now that is kind of close to us, but other than that, there’s no good Pakistani food out there. New York and Chicago are where you’ll find very good Pakistani food.”
Nanjiani’s Chicago history goes back to the reason he moved here initially: “I moved to Chicago because of its strong comedy scene — and I wanted to pursue a career in comedy,” noted the entertainer, recalling his early stand-up gigs at clubs like Zanies and the old Lake Shore Theater (now the Laugh Factory), as well as the former Lincoln Lodge, plus occasional shows at iO Theater and Second City.
In “The Big Sick” (opening Friday), Nanjiani plays a young Pakistani-American who lives in Chicago, where he’s working to break into the city’s comedy scene. His very traditional Muslim parents don’t think much of his career dreams and are adamant about him marrying a nice Muslim girl who also would be of Pakistani descent.
After he begins dating and then falls in love with Emily (played by Zoe Kazan), Kumail keeps that secret from his family. When Emily falls desperately ill and into a coma, her parents rush to Chicago from North Carolina, fully expecting their daughter will not recover from her mysterious illness.
The overall details of “The Big Sick” mirror what happened to Nanjiani and his now-wife, Emily V. Gordon, who co-wrote the screenplay with him. Thrilled that Oscar winner Holly Hunter agreed to play Emily’s mother — and ditto for Ray Romano as Emily’s dad — Nanjiani noted that casting helped him, Gordon, producer Judd Apatow and their director Michael Showalter (“Hello, My Name is Doris”) “maintain the tone we wanted to hit.
“Our film is about grown-ups dealing with real issues. Often, good comedy comes from people being in situations they can’t seemingly handle. That’s what we were trying to achieve. And, speaking of Holly, her ‘Broadcast News’ movie was really the template for the tone we wanted.”
Nanjiani’s real-life parents are depicted in the film as well and are proud of what the couple have achieved. “It is a little strange to see an important part of your life depicted on the big screen,” he said. “But they do love it.
“As for Emily’s parents, we sent them a link and they watched it five times in one day — the first day they got it! I think it takes a bit of time to get over the initial shock of seeing such a crazy time of your life up on the screen.”