Way To Go: Writing a highly-charged comedy

Thursday 17 January 2013, 09:42

Bob Kushell Bob Kushell Writer

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Mel Brooks once said - and I’m paraphrasing here - “Cutting your finger is tragedy.  But falling down a manhole and dying… now that’s comedy.” 

He’s right. Heightened situations of hopeless desperation are far funnier than tiny, subtle moments of pain. 

So as upsetting as it is, death can be very funny. 

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And in Way To Go, the new BBC Three comedy I created about three hapless guys who start an assisted suicide business, we’ve definitely got death. 

So clearly, the show must be hilarious. I mean, I think Mel and I have proven that.

But ironically, in Way To Go, the heightened situations of hopeless desperation come less from those pulling their own plugs (or, in this case, yanking a lever on the McFlurry of death, a DIY contraption made from old shake machine parts) and more from the central characters - Scott (the InbetweenersBlake Harrison), Cozzo (Marc Wootton) and Joey (Ben Heathcote) - who find themselves hopelessly desperate enough to get themselves embroiled in a highly-illegal operation.

Marc Wooton, Blake Harrison and Ben Heathcote Three hapless mates: Cozzo, Scott and Joey

But why write a comedy about assisted suicide in the first place? 

I get that all the time. Probably because I wrote one.

A couple of years ago, I was celebrating whatever-cousin’s birthday, when in comes my wife’s 90-something year-old grandmother.

This vivacious, sharp, witty woman who would mercilessly destroy me in Scrabble, had in recent years deteriorated into a dried apple, propped up in a wheelchair, on display for family occasions.

And suddenly, my brother-in-law and I were arguing over whether we’d want to live like that or if it would be best to just, well... fall into a manhole.

I don’t want to say who debated which side (although if I have to spend the rest of my life as a flatulent, decomposing empty shell, please tie me to a hot air balloon and float me up to heaven), but we each made some salient points and avoided having to sing "Happy Birthday to You" to the cousin.

The subject was controversial, sensitive and highly-charged... which is when I knew I had a terrific comedy on my hands.

The truth is, I’ve always believed that when difficult subjects are handled with humour, people actually take things more seriously than if they are lectured to with dry, morose gravity. 

Blake Harrison Blake Harrison plays Scott, the vet's receptionist

So if Way To Go engages debate and gets people thinking and talking, then terrific. 

And if Way To Go makes people laugh simply because they enjoy watching a trio of brilliantly funny actors inhabiting hilarious characters in way over their heads as they help people kill themselves for cash, well, then that’s even better.

Because seriously, what could be funnier than that?

Bob Kushell is the creator and lead writer of Way To Go.

Way To Go begins on Thursday, 17 January at 10pm on BBC Three. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Looking forward to watching tonight because it's such a relevant subject in this day and age and made much more palatable with a comic touch.

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    Comment number 2.

    My wife was recently diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (or Lou Gehrig's disease). Your representation of a tragic condition is less than shallow without the slightest bit of empathy for the 5,000 sufferers in the UK. Oh, but that wouldn't get much of a laugh would it? Hilarious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Loved the first Episode! Does anyone know who sings the Theme Tune??

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    Comment number 4.

    Having written a suicide manual I can certainly relate to this program and yes it’s very sad but everyone has their reasons for committing this act!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Can't wait to see this. I've been struggling with a fairly deep depression for some time and have had several attempts at suicide - sadly none sucessful. I look forward to getting some tips for getting it right next time.

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    Comment number 6.

    If you're feeling in despair or suicidal it could make all the difference to talk to someone about how you're feeling. You could talk to your GP/ family doctor, or to somebody who is trained to help. Medical professionals and counsellors are there to help you deal with the problems you're experiencing. Please try to speak to your GP or to someone at the Samaritans, you can call or email the Samaritans at any time. The Samaritans' contact details are Telephone 08457 909090 Email jo@samaritans.co.uk Website http://www.samaritans.org

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The people in this episode who are unwell and seeking a way out using suicide do not, in the script give a balanced argument. Those contemplating suicide may do as a response to the demise predicted by their long term, life-threatening illnesses. Others think about suicide because they are depressed and cannot see a way forwards because of how distressed they have become. The hopsice movement in the UK offers excellent palliative care, and depression is a treatable condition with the right support from GPs, community teams etc.
    The best humour in this programme has come from how hapless the main characters are. The issues around this kind of subject should not be taken lightly and the decision to commit suicide is NOT funny. The deterioration in health, and emotional suffering is glossed over here and the whole thing becomes distasteful in my opinion.
    Poor choice of subject matter for a comedy, and unbalanced.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Hi afletch

    If you're feeling in despair or suicidal, it could make all the difference to talk to someone about what you're going through. You could talk to your GP/family doctor, or to someone who is trained to help. Medical professionals and counsellors will be more equipped to help you deal with the problems that you may be experiencing.

    Please try to speak to your GP, or talk to someone at the Samaritans, their contact details are below:

    The Samaritans Telephone: 08457 90 90 90 Website: http://www.samaritans.org/index.shtm
    Email: jo@samaritans.co.uk Text: 07725 90 90 90

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Thank you Auntie Beeb. But that's the problem - I speak to the Samaritans but they are confidential and cannot help with the underlying problem, I speak to my GP and he refers me to the community mental health team. I ask to speak to my community mental health team care co-ordinator and I'm offered an appointment in over 2 weeks time.

    There are no resources to help. With respect you have repeated the patter I have heard from a number of sources; A&E, crisis teams, mental health charities. These are all bodies that you bump into for a small period of time.

    What is needed if you really want to tap into dealing with the despair is someone who you can see and talk to and then see that same person again and talk some more. The reality differs greatly from the patter. And that is why I cannot resolve my dspair and seek my own solution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Sharp writing, great performances, stylish look. Hugely enjoyable, more please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    OK Beeb - given you have not dispalyed my post number 9 I guess you are struggling with its content. So feel free to delete it. I would if I could but I don't know how. Just do me a favour though - when you dream up those saccharine words at the end of the programme that are along the lines of "If you have been affected by any of the issues in this programme blah blah..." bear in mind that a token reference to the Samaritans may be of help to a few but it doesn't really go anywhere near. And DON'T MAKE A COMEDY OUT OF SUICIDE

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Hi afletch

    We’re sorry that your comment was temporarily hidden. The moderators were concerned and referred it to us. We only remove comments which break the House Rules and yours does not. So we have not removed your comment and it is now visible. To explain the advice from Auntie Beeb and us – the BBC as a broadcaster and we, the Central Communties team, are not qualified to offer any support or counselling to people with depression. We can only defer to professional organisations who are experienced in that field.

    BBC Central Communities team

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Thank you to everyone here for getting in touch. As the executive producer of Way To Go, let me begin by saying to Finemess that the intention of the show is not to laugh at the plight of anyone who finds themselves in the situation that you are in. I hope that we were careful in the first episode to treat the character who wished to die with sympathy and understanding. The show is really about the situation our characters face when confronted by someone who is asking for their help in dying and the moral, legal conundrum this creates for them when they themselves have financial and other problems. It is not only about getting laughs. I realise that it will not be to all tastes but we have aimed to be respectful of the serious issues involved. The programme was scheduled and signposted carefully in trails and billings to try and make audiences aware of what the show is about before they watched it. The character in our episode who has Lou Gehrig's disease is in all ways the most sympathetic character in the piece, played by a fine actor of some standing. We were not trying to get laughs from the character or his situation. I apologise for any offence that our show caused to anyone watching.

    More broadly speaking, it should never be forgotten that Way To Go is a piece of fiction and the characters and situations are not real nor based on real people. It’s our job in making fiction to reflect the world around us and the problems as well as the joys of living in the 21st century. Some comedy puts a rosy gloss on the world and some is a bit tougher and may not necessarily be for everyone. It is proper that both exist side by side. I don’t think we would be doing our job as a public service broadcaster if we said that some subjects are suitable for drama but never for comedy. It depends on tone, on talent and on appropriate scheduling. I believe that Way To Go is very well written, is sensitive to the difficulty of some the issues that it raises, and is often very funny. I believe that it is broadcast at the right time of the evening for its subject matter and on the right channel. We have done our best to bring it to life as well as we could. We have taken it through the various BBC processes that are set up to deal with sensitive material and made adjustments where it was felt necessary. Finally it's for the viewers to decide if they enjoy it or not. We have been particularly careful in our portrayal of the characters who are seeking a way out. They are in a state of depression or despair but are making a judgement based on their physical condition. Our main characters may sometimes be idiots but their "clients" are not.

    Thanks again for taking the time to post your thoughts here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Top show - very funny, cleverly written, great acting - original subject matter - and it's only one ep in - look forward to more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Oh how hilarious. making suicide into a comedy. Please forgive me if I decline to watch. My son killed himself just over 2 years ago aged 23. Believe me, there is absolutely no element of this tragic event that can be considered humorous.
    I have already been in touch with the BBC about putting a content warning on programmes with suicide in them to simply be kind to those of us left behind trying to deal with post traumatic shock flashbacks and was told that the current warnings are sufficient- actually they are not.
    To the person who conceived this programme: Some subjects are completely devoid of humour, and this is one of them. If you can't imagine how absolutely devastating suicide of a loved one is for someone to have to come to terms with, then at least admit it and have some compassion for those of us who, unfortunately, have had our lives destroyed, and leave the subject alone. I truly hope that you never have to find out how painful this is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Thank you, Reginald. I so appreciate it. Keep watching!

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    Comment number 17.

    I deeply apologize for the order in which these posts were placed on this site. I, of course, had expected my response to follow Reginald's comment (post number 14). My post was written and posted before Karen Cornwall's comment was ever added to the blog. Unfortunately, the computer chose to put my comment afterwards. I agree with Karen's comment that suicide is not a funny thing. And Way to Go in no way encourages such an act. However, I must echo the words of my executive producer, Jon Plowman (post number 13) who along with saying Way to Go never shows assisted suicide in a comedic light, "the show is really about the situation our characters face when confronted by someone who is asking for their help in dying and the moral, legal conundrum this creates for them when they themselves have financial and other problems." Aside from that, the people in the show who are considering using the business are extremely sick and often terminal. That said, I apologize again for any upset this may have caused.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Way To Go was very slick, very funny. Only one death, but a hint of more next week. What is difficult to take is the Dignity - In - Dying - soaked mindset of the producers and writer (Bob Kushell). They cannot imagine seeing the world in any other way. An elderly man with motor neurone disease who wants to die is a ‘character’ you identify with. Other elderly people with disabilities are seen huddled together in a ‘home’ being shouted at by a young physiotherapist. Obviously they are stupid not to have asked for death.

    The suicide machine is represented as a money making device because so many bright people will want it. Actually suicide merchants, though well publicised, don't seem to be rolling in money.

    It would be nice to be able to take the BBC commissioners responsible for the series by the shoulders and turn them around just to see what things look like from the other point of view.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Thank you for your reply, Bob. I do however have to restate my opinion that 'suicide' and 'comedy' do not, should not and ought never to be in the same sentence. Just because it is rare to be a parent in my situation does not mean that our feelings should be set aside for the purposes of entertainment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Does anyone know what the song is used on the credits?


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