March 30, 2011 at 8:19 am , by Amelia Harnish
First, Pam Murphy was a comedian. Then she got breast cancer. Now she’s merged the two for a one-woman comedy show about her life as a cancer survivor. Since opening last October at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (founded by Amy Poehler and friends) in New York City, Time Out New York named it the best solo show of 2010.
“The C Word” is only a half-hour long, but Murphy packs in more than a handful of hilarious characters drawn from her experience: the stoic doctor who lays out her treatment plan like a high-school football coach with a dry erase board. The friend who won’t shut up about the miracle “cure” she found on the Internet. The subway rider who refuses to give up her seat for the bald lady. And of course, the friend who tries to relate but just can’t—“My aunt had breast cancer. Well, she wasn’t really my aunt, but she was so close to my mom we called her my aunt, you know? We never saw her during her chemo. It was awful. But anyway, what I’m saying is, I totally get it.”
She also makes fun of herself, playing a counselor who develops a tailored coping plan just for her: “You’ll be able to lie around, eat a bunch of crap, watch TV, wallow in self pity and everyone you know is going to think that you are a brave little soldier, so that’s a win, win, win, win, win!” Also, check out this scene where she portrays a first date after breast cancer for another hilarious example.
“I don’t portray myself in the best light, either, because I didn’t write the show to say, ‘Look at me, I’m such a brave person,’” she says. “I just wanted to say, look, this experience sucks. Let’s talk about it.”
Murphy was aiming for honesty, and she totally nailed it, while still managing to get lots of laughs. She skipped the soul-searching and just focused on the reality—breast cancer isn’t fun. But she made it through, and now she’s making it funny.
Right now she’s doing two shows in Los Angeles at the UCB Theatre in Hollywood, and she’ll be back in New York City for two shows in April. But stay tuned because the show might be coming to a college near you very soon. Pam says she’s in the process of booking a tour of campuses across the country.
Read on for more of my talk with Murphy about her bout with breast cancer, why she decided to write about it and what she wants other survivors to know.
So you say in the show it took you three years to write it. When were you diagnosed? And how’d you decide to start writing about breast cancer, one of the least funny things on the planet?
I was diagnosed almost four years ago. It didn’t actually take me three years to write it, but it was an ongoing process. I was a comedian first. I had been performing here at Upright Citizens’ Brigade when I got diagnosed. And during that time, all my friends who are comedians were saying, “Write! You’ve got to write it all down.” So I would write things just because it was a part of my life—a huge part of my life for a year. I would jot down things that I thought were funny as I was going through it, and I decided to do it so I could just purge it from my mind. I really wanted it to be funny but also informative.
In the opening scene of the show, you talk about your “journey” and make fun of that analogy.
Yes. It’s a jab at that “what a journey” expression because people would say to me, “This is like a journey for you; you know, this is your journey.” And I felt like I was just born and this happened. [Pam found out after she was diagnosed that she carried the BRCA gene.] I’m just lucky that I live in this time, and I could do something about it. I don’t think it was a gift at all. I think I could’ve done without it. That’s for sure. Maybe this idea that everything is a gift works for some people. But for me, I think it’s okay to have negative thoughts. It’s okay to be mad. It’s okay to feel that this really disrupted my life. (Above, Pam during the opening scene of a recent show.)
What’s your advice for women who are getting through their treatment now?
This is your time to be really selfish. You don’t have to keep up a front or act like everything is okay. That’s what I think people feel the pressure to do. It works for some. Women have told me they worked every day and I’m like, you’re kidding me!
I was terrible. I literally just laid around all the time. I was sick, and I didn’t feel well. And other people would say, “You have to eat right” and “Are you exercising?” and “My sister has breast cancer, and she jogs five miles a day. What’s wrong with you?” And I would just think, “This sucks! I don’t feel good and I’m not putting up a front that everything is okay.”
But I made it through, and I’m lucky to have lived to tell the tale. I’m working really hard to get other survivors to come see the show because I think they’d really appreciate it.
Photos by Ari Scott