Do cancer and comedy mix? Darlene Hunt thinks so. The creator of Showtime’s new hit dramedy The Big C explains how the show is able to find humor in terminal illness.
Written by Denis Faye
When Darlene Hunt first started conceptualizing what would become Showtime’s new dramedy The Big C starring Laura Linney, she ran into a happy problem; she couldn’t really follow the old adage “write what you know,” given she’d never experienced cancer.
The actor-scribe, whose writing credits include 90210 and Will & Grace, thought long and hard about where to find inspiration. She finally found it in, of all places, her newborn daughter.
“Every time I look at her I start crying,” Hunt explains, “because I want to be with her for the rest of her life, but I’m not going to because I’m going to die.
“This, to me, is a show about the mortality we’re all facing and there’s nothing like having children to help confront your own mortality and to realize that you aren’t going to be here forever. In some ways, it’s a show about cancer, but in many ways, not at all.”
Hunt took a moment to talk to us on the set of The Big C about how such a controversial show came to be, how to make the unfunny seem funny, and why crying is part of her note-taking process, regardless of how awkward that might be for her producers.
What is the genesis, exactly, of such a controversial show?
I had been writing pilots since 2001, and I had a deal to develop a show with Sony. I sat down with a producer named Vivian Cannon and started talking about ideas we would love to see that we didn’t think we could get a network to buy. She said, “I think it’s time for a cancer comedy,” and I immediately glommed on to that. I just knew there was something great about that idea, and at the time I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t know what my personal stake in it would be, but it really spoke to my tone and how I like to write.
I often reference Steel Magnolias [Written by Robert Harling] and say, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion” because I just like to find comedy in dark places. M*A*S*H was my favorite show growing up, and I wanted to do something that was that ironic and interesting. So when she said “cancer comedy,” I said, “Let me go away and think about that.” I’m not a cancer survivor myself so I knew that I wouldn’t be the person to write the story about someone treating their cancer with a sense of humor. I marinated on the idea and Vivian sent me articles, funny perspectives on cancer and eventually, I came up the idea of the character Cathy who is diagnosed with a terminal illness and decides she hasn’t been living the life she wants to and decides to do it with the time she has left.
Photo: © 2010 Showtime
Laura Linney in The Big C.
I’m assuming you wanted to have cancer survivors in your writer’s room though. How’d you go about that? It’s a dark thing to look for on a resume.
That’s true that I wanted a cancer survivor in the room to add a certain perspective, but I didn’t anticipate how easy that would be. When we were interviewing writers and accepting sample material, we got so much material from writers who had dealt with cancer and written about it in the forms of essays and scripts, so I really didn’t have to pursue writers who knew the subject matter. It was easy to find.
Jenny Bicks [Men in Trees] is our showrunner, and she’s a survivor. Toni Kalem is on the staff, and she’s a breast cancer survivor. Mark Kunerth’s wife is dealing with brain cancer. But I will tell you honestly that not one of those three people was hired because of their cancer experience. We were attracted to them as writers, and it just so happened that they’d all dealt with cancer.
Are you ever worried about taking the jokes regarding cancer too far?
No, I don’t, because the truth is, we’ve never made cancer the butt of the joke, whether from my point of view or from the writers who have survived cancer. The humor has just never come from that place. We get humor more from character, from plot, from Cathy, who realizes she’s on borrowed time, and maybe from some crazy risks she decides to take. The humor comes more from action, character, and dialogue than making fun of cancer. I don’t even know what those jokes would be.
How do you work the balance of gut-wrenching and funny?
We’re constantly policing the tone of the show. When I pitched it and sold it, we had offers from ABC and Showtime. I decided to go with Showtime, partly because I’d never worked in cable before, and I wanted to try it out. And also because I thought they’d allow the show to go to a darker place. Like I said, my tone has always been dark comedy, so that’s where I go naturally. In the writer’s room, they are always double-checking. Is it funny enough? Is it dark enough? We’re always going back and forth and trying to ride that line. But we have to check in with ourselves less and less as we go. We’re finding that sweet spot.
You took a big gamble here, despite not being an established show creator. What was going through your head when you were working on something so risky?
It’s funny, the advice I give is, “Write what you know, even if it doesn’t seem like you know what you know. Write what you’re drawn to and then find your own unique way into it. Also, be fearless.” While I hadn’t had a series on the air, and I’m kind of a novice in that way, but the truth is that I’ve been in this business since I graduated college as an actor.
I felt that one of my weaknesses was that as I was developing pilots every year, sometimes I would fall into the trap of worrying too much about what the networks wanted, and I’d censor myself. What are they looking for this year? What do they want? Whereas the first year that I wrote, I just wrote what I wanted to write, then I just started slipping and getting away from that. It’s a really interesting thing that happens. You can tell it’s happening, but you can’t stop it.
But then I figured nothing I’d ever written had been picked up, so I was just swatting at flies anyway, and since I was attracted to this idea, I figured, “Let’s just go for it.”
But isn’t it a little scarier to write a project when you write from the heart? When you’re more emotionally attached to the script, it’s a lot more damaging to get rejected.
Everything I write feels like the birth of a child for me. I can’t tell you how often I cry when I’m on the phone with my agent. I’ve cried through note sessions at the studio. I usually keep it together for network notes, but I have been known to sob through phone calls. That’s just the way I do it. I explain to them, “Look, I’m just an emotional person, but I’ll go away and try to make this work.”
That being said, I actually love getting notes because, by and large, I really do think that studios and networks have fairly good instincts and can make a project better. It really comes down to learning to interpret notes. But I do get emotional as we go through this process because it is kind of my heart and soul on the page.