Be Funny and Die

About a year ago, I went to a funeral for a dear friend.  It evolved into one of those come-up-and-say-whatever-you-like events.  This can be good and bad — with some lovely, spontaneous stories, some funny remarks, and a few digressions that probably should have remained silent and theoretical.  But that’s what you get at one of those open-mike events.

One of the less-distinguished offerings came from a well-meaning guy who said when he thought of our departed friend, he always thought about “the C word.”  He went on rambling about her for several minutes, with the audience a bit restive and disturbed.  Why?  Because you don’t mention the C word in a eulogy for a woman, leaving the crowd to come up with the obvious, highly offensive choice that begins with that particular letter, for God’s sake.  The guy talked on and on, finally coming to his point that C, when it came to our friend, stood for caring.  Then he ambled away from the mike and the whole congregation came close to passing out after holding our collective breaths for a good 10 minutes.

All of which I mention because I’m terrible about digressing myself, but also because the new show on Showtime now named “The Big C” used to be titled “The C Word.”  Then somebody got smart, but unfortunately not smart enough, and changed the name.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen it or heard about it, “The Big C” is about a woman who’s been diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma and given a year to live.  Laura Linney plays the main character — and, as usual, she’s wonderful.

During the first show, I felt intrigued by the premise of a comedy about a dread disease — which is a pretty gutsy, unusual call right off the bat.  Also, Linney’s character, Cathy, chooses not to undergo treatment, which is something else you don’t find discussed very often.  I found both these approaches to be fascinating and thought the show would be worth tuning into again.

Then, I read my friend Cancer Bitch’s blog.  CB is smart and funny and a native Texan, and we seem to agree on most things from a dislike of peppy self-affirmations and perkiness to an admiration of Nora Ephron’s early works.  However, CB took a much more hostile stand on “The Big C” than I did.  At the risk of putting it too gently, I might as well say she tore the show a new one: it was shallow and deeply offensive; it made cancer upper-middle class and pretty; it implicitly blamed the victim in its theme of Cathy’s former repression; it was ludicrous when it came to her chummy relationship with her doctor.

I think that was about it.  I felt disappointed after I read the blog, since I clearly hadn’t hated the show enough.  As the week wore on, though, it occurred to me I still gave “The Big C” credit for trying something so in-your-face different when it came to the holy scripture of the approved cancer narrative.

And, more than anything, I liked the Big C’s capture of the moments of crazy exhilaration some people experience when they’re diagnosed with the disease.  For some of us, there was at least a temporary sense of freedom from the ordinary cares and worries of our lives.  Life was urgent and vivid, and the only thing you needed to fear was the lurking danger in your own body; the rest of the formerly scary world looked benign, in contrast.  A great wind had swept through and scattered the insignificant pieces of life.

So, I watched The Big C again this week, trying to be open-minded.  After two shows, however, I have to say the series is beginning to piss me off.

You see Cathy’s craziness, her freedom from the constraints of her normal life.  But nothing else accompanies her wildness — no thoughtfulness or insights about life and death.  What bothers me even more, though, is that I found being diagnosed with a possibly fatal illness made me closer to my family and friends.  We had deep, intense, wide-ranging conversations.  We held nothing back.  We talked about how we loved each other and why.  It’s remarkable what you can say when the shackles of everyday life have gotten whacked off and you know your time may be limited.

But The Big C not only doesn’t do that — it does exactly the opposite.  By keeping her illness a secret, Cathy keeps her family and friends at an impossible and growing distance.  She’s free, all right, but she exercises her freedom to do the shallow, meaningless, vain and unimportant, all by herself.

Except for, of course, her doctor, who’s in on the secret.  And, with that relationship, I’m beginning to see Cancer Bitch’s point.  Cathy flashes her body at her doctor, asks him what he thinks and he says she has a great rack?  She sunbathes naked when she has melanoma, for Christ’s sake?  And, clothes on or off, she treats her bumbling husband like dirt and tracks her extremely obnoxious teenage son like a stalker.

Okay, so it’s only two shows out of 13.  There’s time to grow, time to deepen, time to do all kinds of worthy things.  But at the rate The Big C is going, I may start skipping the show and just tune into Cancer Bitch’s denunciations of it.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Please read one of my favorite earlier rants in which I go seriously ape-shit about Save the Tatas here
and here.

19 comments… add one
  • I was fascinated to hear your take on this show.  Laura Linney is a favorite and she produced as well.  I have not been able to watch myself because our televisions are in our B&B guestrooms!   I’ve been hoping the show would work because it’s so brave to do television about serious subjects, and I like to encourage that type of thing.  Sorry to hear you were disappointed.

  • I think a few people may keep the diagnosis a secret…….but I find that the most unbelieveable.  I think the wacky is kind of stupid wacky instead of exhuberent wacky. 
    I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but will probably keep watching.  I want to see how everyone deals with death, especially in fiction. 

  • I haven’t seen the show, but after reading your post it sounds like Hollywood has done it again. Created another implausible situation.  The title is just plain bad.

    However, I love Laura Linney. But…probably won’t be tuning in. Not just because I don’t have Showtime, but I’d much rather read about it on blogs. 🙂

  • I liked reading your take on the show. It was completely different than mine and it was cool to read it through other eyes. But, I have to admit, I still enjoy it. I love Laura Linney and I like the writing.
    I wondered how they would end this, because that can’t be pretty, though I would be perfectly happy if she miraculously survived. Then I read somewhere that they are exploring this topic in the stages of grief, and I kind of liked that.
    There are also fascinatingly creepy moments, like at the end of the first show where she sits in the swimming pool hole in the ground, which made me think of a grave. And I’m willing to go with the doctor flirtation (not a reality in my life!) the same way I suspend reality when I see a movie.
    By the way, I loved your line:  the moments of crazy exhilaration some people experience when they’re diagnosed with the disease.

  • Cindy A Link

    I’d never thought about being freed from the shackles of everyday life and was fascinated by your take on that.  I always thought it was more of a burdensome feeling when being diagnosed with cancer — like getting an additional and extremely heavy shackle.  My brother worked until he couldn’t get out of bed any more mainly because he was afraid of losing his health insurance.  I don’t think he ever felt freed from everyday worries.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I feel humbled reading your responses, Marie and Cindy.  Marie, since you are going through treatment at the moment and Cindy, because you’ve seen your brother’s struggle up-close.  I do think the responses are different for everybody and, in many ways, I only know my own — and have probably polished them with some kind of glazed nostalgia.  I think cancer, which was one big fear for me, did free me from other, smaller fears that had dogged me my entire life.  I also know that that was only one part of the spectrum; I was also scared to death.

    I’ve often thought I was the kind of person who was more afraid of life than death — and, in many ways, cancer did change that about me.

  • I’m with you, Ruth. I disliked it even before I tuned in (hard to explain why, but I did). And then, it left me feeling empty and puzzled. WHY would she keep it a secret? And why doesn’t she fight for her life, instead of just *accepting* her prognosis? Linney is a great actress, but the role given to her makes her lacking of any sort of inner reserves or capacity for reflection.
    Maybe I need to  tune into Cancer Bitch’s blog, instead, along with you.

  • Ruth, Thanks for opening up this discussion. It is something that people don’t often like to talk or think about. And by the way, glazed nostalgia is my favorite kind.

  • Alas, I haven’t seen the second and third shows, because we don’t have cable and I can’t find it for free on the internet. I felt the same freedom that you did, Ruth, when I was diagnosed. I likened it to the way a Jew feels going to Israel. (Back in Ye Olden Days, when we thought Israel could do no wrong.) You could be a failure in the US, but if you went to Israel, no matter what you did there, you were Good, you’d made aliyah. Aliyah is the term for going to live in Israel. It means “to go up.” If you leave Israel, it’s called “going down.”  Someone suggested leaving this out of the book, because it’s a complicated and problematic analogy. I always felt that if I went to Israel, no one would judge me. I was home free. That was the same way w/ a breast cancer diagnosis–I have breast cancer, you can’t expect anything of me. I intended to use that as an excuse the rest of my life but then  joined this damned breast cancer rowing team.  I feel shallow now because I didn’t have intense discussions w/ people after I was diagnosed.

  • I’ll jump in here and say I don’t really like the show. Showtime sent me the first 3 eps to screen for Film Gecko a while back, and they sat on my shelf for weeks.
    I don’t want to watch a show about cancer. Enough friends and family have died from cancer, that I just don’t think it’s at all funny or entertaining – even with the lovely Laura Linney in the lead role. And I certainly don’t want to watch a woman go through her personal cancer journey, alienating everyone around her in the process (I’m foreshadowing here, based on the first 3 eps).
    I do wonder if I’d feel differently if I’d had cancer in the past or if I currently had cancer. I’m shipping the episodes to my friend, Jen Singer ( – who’s had cancer and been treated successfully – to get her take on it.

  • NPR had a similar take on the show. Too bad–it sounded like it had real potential.

  • I suppose having a show about cancer at all is a step forward, but it sounds like they haven’t hit the mark well.

  • Well, our budget doesn’t allow for the channel, but I can see how this particular scenario might not work. Oh, and bless me … that eulogy part cracked me up.

  • Well, the good part about this show is that it can’t run for more than one season–since she only has a year to live and all.

  • NOT a show I am ever going to watch. Grateful, after reading this (and the comments) that I don’t have a TV or get Showtime!

  • I give the writers and producers a lot of credit for tackling such a meaty topic. And people have such a wide range of feelings and reactions to illness that they’re almost doomed from the start. If you make it too serious, then people might say it misses out on the lighter moments of cancer. Make it too funny and people might say it trivializes the disease. People may never agree on the appropriate way to handle the subject matter, but it’s an interesting discussion.

  • Fascinating. I worked in healthcare for years with patients who were dying, patients with stage IV disease and, while I think a show can be done to reflect the reality and the ironies and the insanity of disease (and often, the patients/family/professionals), it would take someone or a team that is very sensitized to the issue. Very sensitized. I have not seen this show yet; I’m curious. I think about The Wire, which has got to be one of the most incredible and amazing shows ever made. It was a critical and commercial success. I think that’s because the writers and producers/creators  were able to translate a full-on gut-level, real-world understanding of the issues through incredible acting, real characters, writing, plots and stories.

  • Meredith – Totally agree about The Wire. One of the best shows ever.
    I watched the whole series a couple winters ago, and it took me a little while to get into it, because it’s not a series you can watch and be doing something else at the same time. You have to be committed to focusing and following through with the story and characters. I plan to watch it again soon.

  • Sounds like I can skip this one. What a shame, it had such potential and I’m a big Laura Linney fan.

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