How Two Best Friends Turned a Breast Cancer Battle Into TV Comedy Gold
Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham wrote St. Clair’s cancer battle and its effect on their best friendship into the new season of their sitcom ‘Playing House.’ And it is riveting.
Lennon Parham is a big fan of Jessica St. Clair’s breasts. After all, she did pick them out for her.
The comedy duo have been best friends and professional partners since meeting more than a decade ago while studying at New York’s UCB Theatre, translating their simpatico sense of humor into an egregiously short-lived NBC sitcom, literally titled BFFs, and then the USA comedy in the same vein, Playing House, which debuts its third season on Friday.
Between Playing House seasons, the two typically suffer separation anxiety while servicing their careers as in-demand comedy scene-stealers; the pair counts Veep, Lady Dynamite, Review, Angie Tribeca, Bridesmaids, The House, Other People, and Curb Your Enthusiasm among their collective credits.
But there was no such distance to make the heart grow fonder before production began on season three. As St. Clair tells The Daily Beast, the pair had just finished editing season two, “and then literally seven days later I get fucking diagnosed with breast cancer.”
In September 2015, St. Clair was diagnosed with estrogen positive breast cancer. As she wrote in an essay for the Stand Up 2 Cancer website, she was feeding her daughter Cheerios the morning she found out. She had a mastectomy, and endured 16 rounds of chemotherapy.
During the 12 weeks of radiation that followed, she and Parham began work on the third season of Playing House, which will have St. Clair’s character, Emma, receiving a similar cancer diagnosis and Parham’s character, Lennon, fighting every step of it by her side.
When St. Clair got her diagnosis, her husband was traveling. So her first text was to Parham, who practically teleported to her side.
“My husband’s out of town and Lennon is there on the ground, and everyone at the doctor’s office thought we were lesbian partners until my husband showed up the next day,” St. Clair laughs. “Then they didn’t understand if we were in some queen bee scenario where the two of them were married to me.”
She then takes a pause for seriousness. Our conversation, like St. Clair and Parham, and like their wonderful series, is a wildly entertaining dance between sincerity and gut-busting hilarity, usually rooted in the same truthful story (and often that story is about Cheez-Its or Oprah). “And Lennon did not—and this is not an exaggeration—leave my side for the entire year.”
A mirroring storyline is introduced in the fourth episode of this season of Playing House.
Emma (St. Clair’s character) is reeling from the news of her diagnosis and is in a spiral, demanding that Maggie (Parham) tell her exactly what Debra Winger dies from in all those movies that Debra Winger dies from things—a very real obsession that St. Clair had after her diagnosis.
Maggie calmly and assertively brings the trip down the rabbit hole to a halt: “Cancer has chosen the wrong duo to mess with, I’ll tell you that much.”
The word choice of “duo” is purposeful. So often the cancer narrative in pop culture is about individual strength, pain, and fortitude. But the Playing House message is clear: This is something that a family goes through together, and often that family includes your best friend.
“The idea of writing about this was really terrifying,” Parham admits.
“We wanted to tell a story about how women come together and basically just do what needs to be done, surround each other with love,” St. Clair says. “And how even though cancer is a terrible thing and I would wish it on nobody, you do get a perspective on life that is so important. And not only do you change, but everybody around you changes.”
Parham is the first to demure on the credit St. Clair gives her for being constantly there for her during her treatment.
She mentions how sometimes she’d “tag in” others in their circle of Hollywood funny lady friends: June Diane Raphael, Casey Wilson, Danielle Schneider, Marisa Jaret Winokur; in other words your dream crew. “Sometimes I’d be like, ‘What? Why is Melissa Rauch leaving her taping of The Big Bang Theory to show up for five minutes to make sure I’m OK?’” St. Clair marvels.
But the more the pair talks about their experience, the more it becomes apparent that sharing these stories and this upcoming season of Playing House is St. Clair’s love letter to Parham, just as Parham’s insistence on always showing up was her veritable love letter to St. Clair.
Parham remembers receiving the initial text from St. Clair, saying she had cancer and that, “It’s fine, I’ll be OK.” Parham curtly sent back, “Where are you, you crazy person?” threw on her sweatshirt, and was on her way.
The day St. Clair got out of surgery, Parham didn’t bother to call before heading to the hospital because she knew St. Clair would tell her not to come. Instead she just showed up in the recovery center to give St. Clair’s husband a break.
“Just like, ‘Oh, I’m already here and I drove all the way to Santa Monica during rush hour so you have to let me see you,’” Parham recalls. “When your loved one or your best friend is going through it, you don’t know what to do. But you know you just want to be near.”
What St. Clair was going through is something that many cancer patients endure, but few talk about: She was embarrassed that she had cancer. She didn’t want anyone to see her being sick.
In Playing House, there’s a scene in which Emma tells her love interest, played by Keegan-Michael Key, that she doesn’t want him coming to the hospital with her. It’s based on a conversation that St. Clair really had with Parham the day before her mastectomy—“in the basement of Netflix, of all places, right after we had done a terrible pitch”—telling her that she didn’t want her to go to the hospital because she was afraid she’d lose it if she saw her there. Parham showed up anyway.
Their reputation in the oncology center together could be described as nothing short of iconic.
Early on in the process, Parham made a binder that said on it, “Cancer: You wanna roll with this?” “People were like, “Who are these ladies?” St. Clair remembers.
Every chemo session Parham would pack St. Clair in ice, as Parham puts it, “like a choice piece of holiday meat,” and feed St. Clair Teddy Grahams and Cheez-Its “like a baby bird” while reading aloud excerpts from old issues of Oprah’s O magazine to distract her from the pain.
“Lennon would be like, ‘October 2013: How to make a planter out of your old jack-o-lantern,’ and I would be like, ‘Yes!’” St. Clair remembers. “I was on so many drugs that I would be so vocal about talking back to the magazine. I would be like, ‘Oprah gets it, right Lennon!?’ And she’d be like, “Right. You’re screaming.’”
It was part of several “cancer hacks” that were passed down from other survivors. Freezing the scalp would help prevent total hair loss, ice packs on the eyes would freeze the eyebrows and lashes, and frozen booties and mittens staved off neuropathy in the hands and feet. They all worked.
It’s invigorating for anyone who’s gone through an illness like cancer to hear the warm humor with which St. Clair and Parham discuss the experience.
While comedy has certainly been explored as part of a cancer narrative in pop culture before, it’s so often dark and cynical and full of gallows humor, which doesn’t reflect the sense of humor myself and those close to me have had—and we certainly have had one. As Parham says, “Weird shit happens when shit hits the fan.”
So while the vulnerability that comes from reliving the harrowing experiences while laying on a hospital bed on a TV set wearing no makeup was a massive hurdle for St. Clair to clear—“I did wear fake eye lashes,” she clarifies, “I’m not an idiot”—they both knew that the only way for the comedy to work on Playing House was to make sure that each moment came from the truth of their experience together.
In the finale of the upcoming season, St. Clair takes out all the hair pieces she had been wearing during shooting and lets her hair show the way it really looked while the patches she had lost were growing back in.
When that was happening in real life, St. Clair didn’t want to leave the house because her hair made her look like Dog the Bounty Hunter. “And that’s true,” she says. “But I wanted to show it, because you know what? Everybody who goes through it looks a little bit like a Cabbage Patch Doll who’s been chewed up by the dog a little bit.”
Equally important to showing the vulnerability, though, was underlining the strength and the triumph that happens—sometimes very quickly. “Pretty soon after it all we got back in the business of having a good time, and that’s exactly what happens on the show,” St. Clair says. “After we get through this, by the finale we have a bunch of drag queens make us over as Tina Turner and we dance to ‘Proud Mary.’”
That shoot goes down as the professional highlight of the duo’s best friendship, the mechanics of which they are often asked to speak about with authority, but sometimes feel uncomfortable doing. Just like any pair of girlfriends, their relationship has had a tearful screaming match in the parking lot of Baja Fresh to temper every Tina Turner drag show.
Still, the cancer storyline in the new season of Playing House deepens the idea of the female best friendship, especially the way it’s portrayed in pop culture. As Parham says, “I think any example of two women showing up for each other, not backstabbing but being the way we are in the real world makes for a better environment.”
St. Clair mentions how Parham and their group of friends did superheroes’ work to make sure that St. Clair’s then-two-year-old daughter had no idea that anything was wrong with her mother. “But I can’t wait to tell her what all of my girlfriends did for me, and to have this show to show her.”
We end our conversation by discussing something that St. Clair, Parham, and I have discussed at length over the years: the role of Oprah in our lives. The first time we spoke, the pair was in the middle of an argument because Parham had deleted Oprah’s very last Favorite Things from her DVR before they had a chance to watch it together.
The obsession, it turns out, has been life-saving. One of the first calls St. Clair made after being diagnosed was to Christina Applegate, who beat breast cancer in 2008. St. Clair ended up using a surgical oncologist who had appeared with Applegate on the Oprah show.
“She got the Oprah signoff!” Parham says.
“People would be like, ‘Did you get a second opinion?’” St. Clair remembers. “And I’d be like, ‘Did you hear me? She was on Oprah!’”