I caught up with Bob Kushell, the writer responsible for new BBC Three comedy Way To Go about the way the series has been received.
Since news broke last November about BBC Three's new dark comedy, one about assisted suicide, the tabloids had a field day with one tory MP criticising the show for treating suicide as a "matter of fun”.
On the 24th January, on my way into work I tuned in to 5Live Breakfast to hear Bob Kushell, creator and writer of Way To Go, talk about the show. The interview was more of a debate about the issues that surround the show with Stephen Green (leader of Christian Voice) shouting suicide statistics at Bob Kushell over the phone. What struck me was that Green had not actually watched the show, and therefore how he felt he could contribute to such an argument is beyond me.
After the interview I wanted to find out more about the controversy surrounding the show, so I got in touch with Bob Kushell, best known for his work on The Simpsons, Anger Management and 3rd Rock From The Sun, and offered him a chance to speak out about it here on my blog. Thankfully he obliged.
First of all, for those who haven't watched it yet, what Way To Go is all about?
The show is about two stepbrothers Scott (Blake Harrison, The Inbetweeners) and Joey (Ben Heathcote), who, along with their friend Cozzo (Marc Wootton), start an assisted suicide business, helping extremely sick people end their lives before succumbing to the vagaries of their diseases.
Each of these mates are in dire straits of their own: Scott's girlfriend breaks up with him because his life is going nowhere; he dropped out of medical school because he couldn't afford it and won't take a government grant, believing they should be giving him an education for free. He's now working in a late night pet clinic, as an assistant to a sexually-harrassing veterinarian. Joey, meanwhile, is a degenerate gambler, who owes his money-lenders thousands of dollars. They plan on killing him if he doesn't come up with the money in the next two weeks.
And finally there's Cozzo, who recently lost his job and is making little money as a freelance shake and soda machine repairman. His wife Debbie is pregnant and, despite the fact that she's a cop, they don't have enough money to start a family. When Scott's neighbor says he'll pay Scott a lot of money to help him kill himself, this motley group of fellows find that the only way out of their own personal predicaments is to get involved in the assisted suicide business, which is their own way to go! And when characters are in desperate situations, it’s easy for them to be funny.
How did you come up with the idea for the sitcom and were you surprised when the BBC decided to commission it?
My agent, Mark Gordon, suggested I write a dark comedy for cable and I harkened back to a lengthy discussion I had with my wife's brother the week before about whether or not, if you're very sick, it was best to live out your life in agony or die peacefully and in your own control. Thus, the idea for assisted suicide came up.
As I began developing characters for the project, I realized I needed a sensible character at the center of the show, someone with heart and warmth, who the audience could believe in and trust to carry out the harrowing tasks of his business. A reluctant hero. And out came Scott. But there was no way the character of Scott would help someone kill themselves, unless he was faced with a life or death decision himself. So out popped Joey, his slightly older, but incredibly immature stepbrother, who – fearing his own death - desperately needed Scott to help him pay back his money-lenders. But Scott is no murderer. He needed a Dr. Kervorkian-style machine that would allow his “clients” to off themselves. Thus, Cozzo was born – an out-of-work shake machine repairman who could build such a device.
But Cozzo would never get involved in such a scheme – especially since his wife, Debbie, is “a copper.” That is, until Cozzo learns Debbie’s pregnant and is concerned they don’t have enough money to raise a family. The needs of one character led to the creation of another. And, yes, as the writing of the series progressed, the more the sex-obsessed, intellectually-challenged character of Cozzo began to resemble me. Alas, says my long-suffering wife.
The show has come under a lot of criticism recently, with one story saying the show deals with suicide as 'a matter of fun'. How would you respond to that?
I’ve always believed that comedy can be found almost anywhere. Almost. There are some subjects that even I, with my dark sense of humor, find too extreme (ie. pedophilia; or anything, really, that involves the abuse of children).
That said, I don’t believe assisted suicide falls into, or is anywhere near, such a category. Especially when you consider the act is voluntary and, at least on Way To Go, only carried out by those people who are extremely sick and often terminal. But still, how can there be humor in that? Well, the truth is, there isn’t. In fact, none of the humor comes from assisted suicide at all. I mean, that’s obvious, right? Everyone knows the topic of assisted suicide can’t tell jokes. But from the controversy that has surrounded the show, you’d think it could.
The fact that the comedy comes one hundred percent from the characters and their reactions to their disturbing situation is completely neglected. (As is the fact that those taking their lives are dealt with great warmth, honesty and reverence.) Like any writing, it begins and ends with the characters. Suffice it to say, the stakes are high for this trio of desperate characters desperately looking for a way out of their desperate situation. So if there’s anything funny about Way To Go, and I think there’s a lot, it’s the characters. Not assisted suicide.
Does it annoy you when people can't look past the 'controversy' and simply enjoy it for the comedy that it is?
I think it's very hard for people to separate their deeply personal feelings from what they're watching on TV, particularly if it's supposed to be comedy. You can't make people laugh if they don't want to.
Nobody who's dragged to a comedy club finds themselves falling on the floor in hysterics. Comedy is extremely subjective, and the darker and more controversial the subject matter is, the more baggage from their life the viewer brings into the experience.
So, no. I totally understand if someone can't look past the controversy and ultimately enjoy the show. If they don't like it, they don't like it. Comedy is very polarizing, in the best possible way. And a comedy about assisted suicide is understandably not everyone's cup of tea.
How, if anything, would you do differently if a second series were to be commissioned knowing how some of the public have reacted?
If - and please God when - Way To Go gets commissioned for a second series, I wouldn't change my approach to the show or subject matter in any way.
The characters will continue to experience the difficulties of life, as bizarre as those experiences may be, and change and grow as a result. As I've said, the comedy comes entirely from the characters. The subject matter is strictly the background for what I hope is a portrayal of young people struggling to find a way to go in their lives, as we all are.