Cancer gets first TV comedy twist in "The Big C"

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Cathy Jamison wants a pool in her absurdly tiny garden. She has just been diagnosed with terminal stage 4 melanoma, and she wants that pool. Now.

Cast member and executive producer Laura Linney participates in the panel for "The Big C" during the CBS, Showtime and the CW Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, California July 29, 2010. REUTERS/Phil McCarten

Cathy, played by award-winning actress Laura Linney, is an uptight suburban teacher with an immature husband and a brat for a son. She is also the lead character in America’s first TV comedy about cancer.

But the “The Big C”, which debuts on cable channel Showtime on August 16, is less a fun series about battling the disease, and more a comedy about a middle-aged woman who has cancer and how she decides to live the rest of her life.

“Cathy is a woman who doesn’t really know who she is. She has the opportunity to find out, and so she takes it...She has a sense of liberation, which is odd given she is dying,” Linney told TV journalists.

Some 1.5 million Americans are expected to be diagnosed with some form of cancer by the end of 2010, and more than 569,000 will die, according to the American Cancer Society.

So as unlikely a topic for humor as the subject may seem, the creator of “The Big C” believes cancer is overdue for the dark comedy treatment.

“People who have dealt with cancer, or cancer survivors themselves, almost feel a little under-represented on TV. So I hope they will feel they have a hero they can laugh and cry with -- hopefully a little more laughter than tears,” creator Darlene Hunt told Reuters.

“I am hoping it will be a show for everybody. I think America is beyond ready for it,” Hunt added.

Hunt said she had little personal experience of cancer, but a comedy on such a taboo topic had a strong appeal to her.


Hunt’s favorite TV show is the 1970s army medical comedy “M*A*S*H”, which, while set in the Korean War, became one of the biggest hits on TV during the bruising Vietnam War.

“If they can do a comedy set in wartime, why can’t we do a comedy set around cancer?”, Hunt said.

“The Big C” starts with Linney’s character concealing her terminal diagnosis from everyone in her family, including husband Paul, played by Oliver Platt.

But she swiftly embarks on a series of changes to her ordered suburban life that answer her needs -- like cartwheeling in the school corridor, burning the hated but sensible couch, and getting that backyard pool built.

Cynthia Nixon, Liam Neeson and “Precious” star Gabourey Sidibe are also featured in the series.

Producers envisage setting each of a hoped-for six TV seasons to different seasons on the calendar (spring, summer, autumn, winter) and they expect to cover 18 months of Cathy’s life. They say they will not flinch from death, if need be.

“There is a lot of melanoma research going on that we are paying attention to because we want to handle Cathy’s situation as truthfully as possible,” said Hunt.

Executive producer Jenny Bicks, a breast cancer survivor, added; “If comes the time when she goes, she goes. We are not afraid of that.”

Platt said the show has a strong sense of irony, and noted that the only character who makes jokes about cancer is protagonist Cathy.

“The show asks an incredibly beautiful question -- why do we start to live beautifully (only) when we get a death sentence?”

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte