Who would think "cancer," then think "comedy"? Yet from the moment it debuted last year, Showtime's The Big C has enchanted viewers with its refreshingly direct and unapologetically funny approach to fatal illness. It doesn't hurt that the versatile Laura Linney plays irreverent history teacher Cathy Jamison, diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma, nor that the series boasts an equally accomplished cast of costars. As Season 2 begins (Monday, 10:30 PM), the show's creator, Darlene Hunt, talks to More about past episodes and what's in store.
MORE: I’ve read that you got the idea for this series when you became a mother.
Darlene Hunt: That was my inspiration. I had a general meeting with the producer Vivian Cannon, and at that meeting, she said.,“It’s time for a cancer comedy.” As soon as she said “cancer comedy,” I liked the idea. I’m not a cancer survivor, but I use laughter to get through hard times in my own life. I thought that this could be really special. But I had to find a way into the material.
I went home to my newborn, my first child, and I had this overwhelming sense of my own mortality and I got so sad thinking about how I wouldn’t always be in her life. So for me the show at its core is about the plight of us all. Cancer is a secondary topic.
More: Whose idea was it to cast Laura Linney, who is so remarkable in the role?
DH: The president of Showtime at the time. He said, “I know Laura Linney doesn’t do television, but this might appeal to her.”
More: Some very good, famous actresses are now saying they give priority to television, because the best writing is in television.
DH: I’ve heard that sentiment, and as a TV writer it makes me feel good. Cable TV also allows writers extra freedom. We got an offer from Broadcast television and from Showtime for The Big C, but I thought that on cable I can go to darker places. I don’t think Broadcast would have put it on the air.
More: You were lucky to get such a great cast. How did Oliver Platt, who plays Cathy’s husband Paul, get involved?
DH: Oliver Platt—I adore that man. He was Laura’s idea. We had a sushi lunch early on and she had a list of actors she wanted to work with. She said Oliver Platt made her laugh harder than anyone else.
More: And Gabourey Sidibe, the star of Precious? Will she be back this season?
DH: Definitely. She’ll have a bigger role this season.
More: Her relationship with Linney’s character is really interesting. I like how tough Cathy is with her.
DH: Part of that comes from my friend. She was working at a homeless teen shelter, and I asked her, “What would you do if you had a limited time to live?” She said, “I’d just help the kids I worked with by offering them cash.” So when Cathy says, “I’ll give your $100 for every pound you lose”—that’s where that came from.
More: I also love the character of Cathy’s homeless brother, and the actor who plays him.
DH: John Benjamin Hickey—he’s in The Normal Heart on Broadway. He just won a Tony! Originally, I pitched a hypochondriac sister, but it was just one joke. It wasn’t deep enough. So I asked if I could change it to a homeless brother. I have friends who have that brother. A lot of families have that one member you’d like to control but you can’t.
More: Did Linney bring in Liam Neeson, in the episode where he guest-starred as the looney bee therapist? And did he improvise any of that? Because it was so different for him, this kind of tentative character.
DH: Yes. Laura and Liam are friends. We got a lot of actors that way. I don’t think he improvised, it’s all in the script as far as words, but he brought his own thing to it. He had fun with it. But he did seem quite nervous. He was surprised at how fast we move in TV.
More: Who else would you like to see on the show?
DH: We were just brainstorming that. For me, Lily Tomlin—I worship the ground she walks on.
More: Some of your writers are cancer survivors, or have close family members who are. Was that done deliberately?
DH: They were not hired specifically for that reason. It’s just because it’s hard to get a group together and not have someone affected. So they just bring moments to share. We got a unique perspective on what a moment of diagnosis felt like from one writer. And a guy who wanted to take care of his wife, the ways he overdid that. Their contributions are so personal and unique.
More: What did you watch as a kid? Were you influenced by any particular shows?
DH: M*A*S*H. First run, reruns.
More: M*A*S*H would definitely be a precursor to The Big C, considering the way it moved between humor and pathos or tragedy. And as funny as your show is, it ended last season on an extraordinarily sad note, when Cathy’s teenage son finds the storage locker of future birthday, Christmas, graduation presents she has wrapped for him. As a mother of a son, I found it very realistic—the boy’s refusal to deal with his mother’s illness, then just collapsing all at once.
DH: That goes back to my inspiration for the show, the point of view from being a mother. I hope the finale of Season 2 is as funny and as moving.
More: What can we expect this season? How will the show evolve?
DH: There will be more to the relationship between Paul and Cathy—I’m so proud of that. We get to see them working together as a couple, and how much he cares about her, wants to take care of her.
More: I love what he calls being the caretaker—“I’m your cancierge.”
DH: We used that joke until we couldn’t do it anymore, too much!
More: How about Cynthia Nixon’s character, who ends up having the homeless brother Sean’s child. Will she be back? And will she be as awful?
D.H: Yes. Rebecca—we had her back for Season 2. We always saw her as a narcissist, but a friend of mine with cancer told me about her friend who made the diagnosis all about herself, and it made me think we didn’t go far enough with Rebecca.
More: Yes! That happens a lot—people glomming onto your illness to make it about them.
DH: She plays an important and true role.
More: I was surprised that you killed off the mean neighbor, Marlene, last season.
DH: It was heart-breaking for us, because we love her. We’re bringing her back in Season 2. She’ll be around. But we’re tackling the taboo of death. The more death the better. I have a personal goal of getting over my own fear of death. I’m 40. My best friend just had a double mastectomy, another friend was just diagnosed with cancer.
More: What reaction do you get from viewers battling cancer?
DH: So far, it’s mostly positive. I’ve read a couple of reviews from people who said they had cancer and felt it wasn’t enough about cancer. They wanted more. I definitely appreciate that, but that’s not what our show is. I feel like we’ve just kind of opened the door on this subject matter. If someone else wants to create a cancer show, great. There's room for more.
More: Is this the first year The Big C will be eligible for an Emmy?
DH: Yes. I mailed off my ballot today!
More: Did you vote for yourself?
DH: I voted for myself in every possible category.
More: Well, I hope you win a batch of Emmys—there are a lot of possible nominations. But you’re also an actress. You were in I Heart Huckabees—with your idol, Lily Tomlin—and Hung and Parks and Recreation on TV. Do you plan to continue acting as well as writing?
DH: Parks & Recreation is one of the reasons I can still call myself an actor—they keep coming back to me! I don’t have the need to act the way I used to, but writing is hard. Sitting in a makeup chair feels very good. So I’ll keep at it for a while.
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