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Comedians and Others Are Joking About Cancer PDF Print E-mail

IT takes a lot of particles to form a wave. Julia Sweeney, the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member, speaking self-deprecatingly of her pioneering 1996 one-woman Broadway show about having cancer at the same time as her brother, said, “When I was doing ‘God Said Ha,’ people would say, ‘You’re finally making cancer funny. People haven’t done that before.’

Comedians and Others Are Joking About Cancer
Marisa Acocella Marchetto

A cancer theme has zigzagged from Broadway to cinema to TV. The cartoonist Marisa Acocella Marchetto turned her own   experience with breast cancer into semi-comic fodder in a graphic memoir, “Cancer Vixen” (Knopf), excerpted here.

Comedians and Others Are Joking About Cancer
Chris Helcermanas-Benge/Summit Entertainment

Anna Kendrick and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the movie “50/50,” written by Will Reiser, who had spinal cancer.

“But I didn’t really see it that way. I mean, I found ‘Love Story’ pretty funny.”

The existence of (not to mention the critical and commercial success of) the frank new cancer comedy film “50/50” prompts the question, “How did we get here?”

You can draw a line, however tenuous, that starts with Edith Bunker finding a lump on her breast and ends at Debra Winger languishing melodramatically in “Terms of Endearment.” Or one that zigzags from Murphy Brown to Samantha in “Sex and the City” to Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) in “The Big C.” Or even one that starts with the mother of a cancerous baby praying to a god she calls “the Manager of Marshall Field’s” in Lorrie Moore’s gorgeous 1997 New Yorker story “People Like That Are the Only People Here” and ends with David Rakoff riffing on the word “schwanomma” in his recent book “Half Empty.”

But by what scarily graphic and blunt route do we end at Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “50/50” manipulating a surgery scar so that it “talks” like Kuato, the “Total Recall” humanoid?

Securely located in the Judd Apatow bromance genre, the funny and affecting “50/50” puts a young radio producer, Adam (Mr. Gordon-Levitt) and his foul-mouthed chauvinistic friend, Kyle (Mr. Rogen), through a narrative arc of trauma and heartbreak and hostility after Adam is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer.

We see the two men use Adam’s cancer to pick up women; we see Adam’s mother drop the “C card” in an effort to get someone to lower the air-conditioning; we see Kyle tell Adam that, were he his girlfriend, he’d be pleasuring him “every 30 minutes and baking you cookies.” And, oh, there’s a Patrick Swayze joke, too.

Will Reiser, who wrote “50/50,” was told that he had a rare form of spinal cancer six years ago while working on “Da Ali G Show,” and lived through the experience with his real-life best friend, Mr. Rogen. “I was 25 at the time,” Mr. Reiser said. “I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t have the emotional tools.”

So, in a world in which Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief were an increasingly hoary comic meme, in a world in which people were publishing books with titles like “I’d Rather Do Chemo Than Clean Out the Garage” and “Not Now ... I’m Having a No Hair Day,” Mr. Reiser and Mr. Rogen adopted a coping mechanism not dissonant with the times: they joked about the funny cancer movie that they might one day make.

Ask any purveyors of cancer comedy for the names of who they think paved the way for them, and you’ll get different answers. Jenny Bicks, a breast-cancer survivor who wrote Samantha’s storyline on “Sex and the City” and who now is on the crew of “The Big C,” said, “Julia Sweeney made it O.K. to say, ‘This happened to me.’ ”

Fran Drescher, whose 2002 memoir “Cancer Schmancer” included a chapter about losing her 19-year-old Pomeranian and her uterus in the same year, said: “Richard Pryor and Gilda Radner. They found the funny bone and allowed people not to be so scared.”

The comedian and podcast host Marc Maron (who, though never diagnosed with the disease, tells a joke about a cancer scare he had after eating licorice one day) points to the late comedian Robert Schimmel, who used to tell an unprintable joke involving the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Dolly Parton.

Mr. Reiser cited Larry David. “Without Larry David, there probably wouldn’t be a movie like ‘50/50.’ ” The seventh season of Mr. David’s show “Curb Your Enthusiasm” saw the curmudgeon get into a literal drag race with his girlfriend Loretta’s doctor so that Mr. David could break up with Loretta before she was given a diagnosis of cancer.

“That’s Larry’s character’s way of dealing with life,” said Vivica A. Fox, who played Loretta and who said she had no qualms about the material. “He’s someone you want to strangle.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 7, 2011

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Marisa Acocella Marchetto, author of the  graphic memoir, “Cancer Vixen,” was jealous of her husband's success, a mischaracterization of the super-heroine in her book.

Read more http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=e994e031362f56e7271721a50246b345