'The Big C' Treats Cancer as Comedy

PHOTO Laura Linney is shown in a scene from "The Big C."Courtesy Showtime
Laura Linney is shown in a scene from "The Big C."

Cancer, comedy: just putting the two words next to each other seems wrong, like playing Katy Perry at a funeral.

But making the wrong feel so right is Showtime's speciality. (See: "Dexter," "Californication," "Weeds.") Now comes "The Big C," which premieres tonight on the cable channel, about a teacher (Laura Linney) who finds out she has stage four melanoma and decides she doesn't want to do a damn thing about it.

VIDEO: Laura Linney stars in Showtimes cancer comedy, "The Big C."Play
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Well, that's not entirely true -- Linney's character, Cathy Jamison, doesn't want the pain, the helplessness, the ordeal of treating cancer. (She tells her doctor that she especially does not want to lose her lovely blond locks of hair.) Initially, she doesn't even tell her estranged husband (Oliver Platt) or her family about her diagnosis.

But she does use the disease as an excuse to "grab life by the balls." That means installing a full-length swimming pool in her too-tiny front yard, adopting a diet of desserts and liquor, using sick practical jokes to con her son into learning valuable life lessons, and spilling red wine on her beige couch with abandon.

This is not a teary, hug-filled, "everything's going to be OK" portrayal of terminal disease. This is "well, I'm out of here soon, so I'm going to ditch this type-A facade, do a few cartwheels, pour a drink, light up a cigarette and have some fun."

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"I don't think people are going to watch it thinking she suffers nobly with a tear in her eye," said John Benjamin Hickey, who plays Cathy's eco-extremist brother, Sean. "I think really outrageous and extraordinary things happen in the first season of the show that will put to rest anyone's notion that this is going to be dark and serious."

For example: midway through "The Big C's" pilot, Cathy's teenage son walks into the bathroom to find what looks like his mother dead in a blood-filled bathtub. He runs away screaming -- while she slips into a robe and smirks, relishing her comeback for an earlier prank in which he pretended to chop off the tip of his finger while cutting vegetables. She then shoves him back into the bathroom, pours a pot of chili in the toilet, and tells him to learn how to use a plunger (sans the help of his iPhone, which she steals). She locks the door, turns up "I'll Take You There" and dumps half a bottle of red wine on the sofa before stretching out with a smile.

If she weren't sick, her behavior might make her seem so. But it's clear that Cathy is at a loss for how to handle her new reality. Her life is such a mess that tacking cancer on at the end turns the tragedy into a farce. She just separated from her man-child of a husband. Her actual child treats her with no respect. Her brother voluntarily eats trash from fast-food garbage cans. Her students tell her she's incompetent. And, drum roll please, she has cancer.

"I do think that it's darkly comic that she didn't realize how kooky her world was until now," said Darlene Hunt, who created "The Big C" and serves as co-executive producer with Linney. "So cancer kind of becomes the window into this new perspective. If you're going through a tough time, it would be nice to turn to someone who's really going to help you through it. To realize that you don't have anyone, while it's sad, the comedic version is 'Jeez, these people are nuts, who am I going to go to?'"

Initially, Hunt's humorous take on cancer didn't resonate with the industry or her peers.

"I was really discouraged by my representatives, to be honest, and by some of my writer friends," she said. "They really didn't see it."

But then she had her first child, and her own mortality hit her in the face. Hunt said she would cry over her daughter's crib because she was terrified of dying and leaving her baby behind. Translating those feelings into the relationship between Cathy and her son, Adam, made "The Big C" more appealing to Showtime.

"When I pitched the show initially, Cathy didn't have a son," she said. "I had been writing for the broadcast networks and I felt like that might have been too sad, I was trying to keep it lighter. After reading the draft, Showtime gave me one note: 'Could you give her a kid?' Because they felt that relationship would make the show more complex."

"So I thought, what if she has a kid and looks around and realizes, 'This kid is an a**hole. Is that who she's going to leave to the world?'"

Hunt found support from the show's cast.

"It's not making light of cancer," said Reid Scott, who plays Cathy's boyishly cute, still-learning-the-ropes doctor. "It's making light of the situation of cancer. I think the concept was long overdue. We've seen shows about cancer but they've always been such downers. They try to instill hope. This shows the erraticism that happens with people's emotions."

Cancer survivors agree that "The Big C" brings a welcome dose of levity to a topic often talked about in hushed tones. Jen Singer, who was diagnosed with stage three non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2007, fought back by blogging about the absurdities of her treatment (belting out Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" during a bone marrow test) and challenging friends and family to send her wacky wigs (a blue Marge Simpson number ranks among the best).

Now in remission and writing a memoir, "If Cancer's a Gift, Where Can I Return It?" Singer, a mother of two, said she "would have loved" to have "The Big C" around during her fight.

"I devoured memoirs on cancer for that reason," Singer said. "The funny ones were the ones that touched me. If I didn't laugh, I would have been crying all the time."

Ultimately, Hunt hopes that "The Big C" resonates with audiences the same way. In her mind, the show could never have been anything but a comedy. She won't shy away from confronting Cathy's death -- her plan is for "The Big C" to run for six TV seasons corresponding to seasons on the calendar. But the aim is to uplift, not to drag down.

"To use comedy to laugh during a dark time is such an amazing thing," she said. "Personally, I wouldn't want to watch a drama about cancer. Especially being a mom, I don't like to get that sad that often."