PLAYING HOUSE: Jessica St. Clair & Lennon Parham Talk Making Cancer Funny

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Playing House returned last week with the two-episode premiere of season 3. The season kicked off with Emma and Mark’s relationship heating up as Maggie dealt with stress at work – and a new love interest in the form of hot British Dr. Ericson.

At the end of episode four, Emma goes in for her first physical as an adult in an attempt to find out more about Dr. Hot ‘n’ British, only to have a lump detected during her breast exam. This sets up one of the season’s overarching plotlines: Emma’s battle with breast cancer and how it impacts not just her but everyone around her, especially Maggie.

I had the opportunity to talk with stars/co-writers/real life best friends Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham about this storyline, which is based on Jessica’s own real life battle with breast cancer (that’s why there was such a long gap between seasons 2 and 3).

Nice Girl Leah is also a breast cancer survivor.  She handled it with such grace and humor that she kept us all in stitches even though we felt like we maybe shouldn’t be laughing at her boob jokes. But humor is a powerful coping mechanism, and, of course, Playing House is a comedy. So we wondered, how hard was it to make cancer funny? Was it therapeutic or was it difficult to live with it in real life even as the characters were going through it in fictional life?

Here’s what the stars had to say.

Jessica St. Clair: Well, first of all, that doesn’t surprise me that you guys were laughing through it because I don’t know what it is, but in these high-stakes moments, some of the funniest things happen.  And so, really, like from the get-go, there were ridiculous moments.

We realized the doctor thought that we were a lesbian couple because my husband wasn’t there at that time.  And we kept talking about our daughter and our insurance and all.  So that happened.  And Lennon told her that we were so happy I was going to get to keep my nipples because I’ve always been really proud of my nipples.  And suddenly, we’re discussing how I have the perfect ratio of areola to nipple.  And why is that happening?  That’s so stupid.  And then, Lennon ends up picking out my boobs because I have a panic attack about which implant feels most like my own.

So, as these things were happening, I was making a mental list because, as comedians, we’re always like looking out for what’s funny and ridiculous about life.  And so, I was making this mental list of things that were funny about it.

When we got into the room and told the story, then other people were laughing.  And we’re like, “Okay, so it’s making our friends laugh.”  We were still worried about, would people have permission to laugh, you know, because it’s – even when we talk about it in the press you have to sort of give the audience permission to laugh about it.

And I think once we started writing the scenes, we realized that we were able to capture both the heartfelt moments and the funny moments within a scene, because we also wanted to be very authentic, because you don’t want to make a joke out of things either that weren’t purely funny.  We were obviously dealing with life and death.

So it was – we wanted it to be authentic, to be to our experience, and also, to be, what’s the word, optimistic, because for us, we decided that there was no way cancer was going to take us down.  I think that is my experience with most women who are going through breast cancer.  They have a real kickass mentality to them.  And they’re like, “Let’s just get this over with, and then get back to the business of having fun.”  So, that’s sort of the journey we take our characters on because that’s the journey we were on.

Lennon Parham: Yes.  And I’ll say, I from the beginning, you know, I mean I was next to Jess, so I wasn’t going through it.  But it did not feel funny to me at all.  And I was in a real like get-shit-done place.

And so, when it came time to like talk about if we were going to write about it, I initially was like, “No way, like this isn’t funny, like we have a choice about what our character’s experience and why would we ever want one of them to get cancer, it’s the worst, right?”

But then, we started to think about like a person, a young woman, who was sitting on her couch, and just got diagnosed, she’s in the middle of chemo, and she sees her story, there are pieces of her story like authentically represented and reflected back to her, and that she would feel less alone, and that started to move us through it.

And then, while we were doing it, I remember, in particular, we were writing, I think we were writing a scene where we (meet) the oncologist and it was really hard to improvise.  It was hard to write.  It was hard to edit.

We just burst into tears.  We sat there holding each other’s hands and realized that there’s nothing else.  This journey was important to go on just for the two of us because when you’re in it and you’re going through it, you don’t really process it because you just have to, again, get shit done.  So I hadn’t really moved through that emotion.  And I was able to do that in the process of writing the show.

Playing House airs Fridays at 11/10c on USA Network. The entire season is also available to binge on video on demand, and the USA Now app.

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