How Do You Make a Good ‘Cancer Comedy"?


The trailer for Seth Rogen’s upcoming 50/50 dropped this week, and the film, based on Rogen pal Will Reiser’s real-life struggle with cancer, seems to beg the question: how can comedies successfully “do” life-threatening illnesses without being, well, horrible? What is the best way to craft a comedy with heart that isn’t so coated in saccharine it gets covered in (metaphorical) bees, but also isn’t “Porky’s with chemotherapy?”

Terminal illness has long been a staple of dramas and rom-coms; I will throw down for Stepmom forever and always, not so much Kate Hudson’s A Little Bit Of Heaven (though based on the film, I would argue that Whoopi Goldberg should also be God in real life). Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Love & Other Drugs vacillated wildly between a touching, illness-centric drama a la Love Story, and a slap-sticky comedy starring their butts. Over on TV, Laura Linney’s The Big C goes after cancer via the dry, sardonic route, though the over-all tone remain serious. As Newsweek put it, “The Big C is, essentially, a half-hour drama with some quippy dialogue.”

The real fear about “cancer comedy” is that, once a film gets coated with too much syrup, it tends to promptly pitch headfirst in a shallow pool of it and drown. Even if a movie’s jokes tend toward gallows humor, plenty of well-meaning filmmakers botch the precarious balancing act required by a protagonist that is starring into the abyss, even as their hospital gown gapes comically open in the back. Exhibit A: “Patch Adams made me want to spray the screen with Lysol. This movie is shameless. It’s not merely a tearjerker. It extracts tears individually by liposuction, without anesthesia,” Roger Ebert raged upon the film’s release. “If this guy broke into my hospital room and started tap-dancing with bedpans on his feet, I’d call the cops.” As for The Bucket List…well, let’s just say if you’re going to watch it, please remember to bring a bucket. That being said, Mike Sampson’s 50/50 review over at JoBlo is a rave one, claiming the film is “intensely emotional and raw while also being extremely funny and romantic…50/50 holds its own and creates a winning film about cancer and how it affects those diagnosed with the disease and everyone around them. And yes, you’ll cry.” Well, I would hope so. This isn’t Jake Gyllenhaal’s bare ass we’re talking about here.