How I Created ‘The Big C’ and Learned to Write From Passion

Cancer was never and will never be the punchline in this show — instead, I looked in other areas: dialogue, character quirks, outrageous choices made by a desperate woman

As a writer, I get ideas from many places. Sadly, out of my ass was becoming an all-too-frequent location to borrow from. Not the greatest way to come up with ideas that were supposed to rocket me to TV writing stardom. But what can I say? I was mentally stretched thin and creatively fatigued.

I had written eight pilots … half hours, one hours, single cameras, four cameras … sometimes two or three in one season. It’s a great way to make money and not have to get dressed for work. But when only one of those pilots (my first) got made, and none were picked up to series, it was getting a bit … .depressing.

So here I was in 2008, with a studio deal in place for me to come up with my next idea for a TV show when I had a general meeting with a producer named Vivian Cannon. This was one of my first meetings since I had my baby who was two months old, and what I remember most about that meeting was noticing how put together and fresh faced Vivian looked while I felt overtired and unkempt as though motherhood had left me just a shell of my former self and I would have to work long and hard to create a new identity.

I was barely present during this meeting and had no intention of working with Vivian because her mere existence made me feel badly about myself. But I perked up just a little when we started talking about ideas that we wanted to write about but didn’t think anyone would buy.

Vivian said, “I think it’s time for a cancer comedy.”

This appealed to my laughter through tears sensibility. Not only was "M*A*S*H" my favorite TV show of all time, but I had previously pitched an idea based loosely on my childhood about a family who reconnects in the waiting room of a hospital while their patriarch is dying. No one I pitched it to found it as funny as I did. But now I sat across from someone who just said “cancer comedy.”

I liked this Vivian. I told her I would go away and think about it and if I could find my take on the concept I’d let her know.

I believe that all writing should be somewhat autobiographical and yet I am not a cancer survivor. A puzzle.

I mentioned the idea to my representatives and they thought it was terrible. So I put it out of my mind and ignored Vivian’s emails. Then one day I looked at my new beautiful perfect innocent baby and started crying. I wanted to be with her for the rest of her life and yet was overcome with an enormous sadness realizing that wouldn’t be possible — because I would die (hopefully!) before she would.

That was my way in.

I could write a show about a woman suddenly faced with her mortality. She would find herself with a terminal cancer diagnosis and yet, in fact, it would be a show about the truth of life which is the certainty of death.

Originally called “C is for Cathy,” my reps still didn’t get it but I proceeded. She’d live in Minneapolis because my sister-in-law lives there so I was somewhat familiar and since it was a show largely about “time,” setting it in a place with noticeable seasons was important. I pulled together characters as I always do from pieces of myself, pieces of friends, etc.

We planned to pitch the show to three networks and one cable channel — Showtime. But after the first two network pitches I realized the joke was on me.

The most important part of pitching a comedy is to make your audience laugh and frankly, I had no jokes. I clearly made the network execs depressed as I discussed the concept too philosophically and that made me depressed which made the studio depressed and then Vivian asked me if I was, indeed, depressed and I admitted that I was so she canceled the other pitches until I could find my funny.

Cancer was never and will never be the punchline in this show. Instead, I looked in other areas .. dialogue, character quirks, outrageous choices made by a desperate woman … and so I revamped the pitch and made myself laugh. In turn I made the final network and Showtime laugh and they both wanted to buy the pitch.

Although going with cable meant a lot less money for me, I was anxious to try on the freedom that cable allowed. Namely, using curse words and writing episodes that were more than five minutes longer than the commercial laden network shows.

After turning in the finished pilot, Showtime had only one note — give Cathy a kid. That’s right. In the first draft of what became "The Big C," she was a married woman with no children. Although being a mom had been my inspiration, I had made her childless. I was still playing it safe, worried about making her plight too sad.

But the powers that be claimed they liked stories that were complicated and messy. So I said what I always do after a notes session: let me go away and think about it. (I used to say this through gasping sobs fearing I’d never be able to address the note, but I’m getting stronger.)

I wanted to find a way to make her a mom and yet somehow access the comedy of her plight and so I thought what if … it wasn’t "Terms of Endearment." She wasn’t saying goodbye to perfect innocent children, but in fact, she suddenly realized that she had raised an asshole, a sullen nasty teen, and had a limited time to change his course. There was humor there — albeit dark.

So that’s the story of the pilot. The rest sort of fell into place. Laura Linney came on board and I bowed down in gratitude. The writers’ room was filled with talented writers who adopted these characters as their own. And we began telling stories.

I’ve learned from this process never to pull an idea out of my ass. To dig deep and write from passion.

There are critics of the show and I love them for caring. And then there are fans. I’m especially touched by those who have said they’re inspired by Cathy and have been motivated to make changes in their own lives,moms who have said the show resonates with their complicated feelings of motherhood, and those touched by cancer who have said thank you.

I mean, I’m a writer, so there’s a nagging part of me that challenges me daily to hate myself and feel overwhelming shame, but I’m proud of this show and for those who are watching — thank YOU.