Interview: Tig Notaro
by Will Coviello
La Nuit Comedy Theater
10 p.m. Friday
5039 Freret St., 231-7011; www.nolacomedy.com
Comedian Tig Notaro is becoming a familiar face on Comedy Central.
For a TV personality and resident of Venice Beach, Calif., comedian Tig Notaro is not the best name dropper. Talking via phone in advance of her first stand-up gig in New Orleans, she doesn’t mention she’s close friends with Sarah Silverman until asked, although many Comedy Central watchers would recognize her as Officer Tig from The Sarah Silverman Program. And Silverman is producing a TV pilot starring Notaro, which they hope will begin airing this summer.
Instead, Notaro mentions that her great-great-grandfather was mayor of New Orleans: John Fitzpatrick. One term: 1892-1896. His administration’s accomplishments included presiding over the electrification of streetcar lines and the creation of the city’s public library system. (A fan of boxing, he also refereed bouts, including a couple involving the renowned heavyweight John L. Sullivan.)
When asked about Silverman, the story starts with pants, and becomes about pants.
“I met her like eight years ago,” Notaro says. “She came up to me at a party and said she liked my corduroys. Then I saw her at a show in New York and then in L.A. a year later and she said ‘hi.’ I wore the pants for a while. I actually ripped them while I was on stage in San Francisco, because I have a habit of sticking my hand in my back pocket, and the pocket just ripped off. I was like ‘Did y’all just hear that?’”
Notaro’s standup act is marked by an unflappable deadpan voice and complementing casual attire. When competing for a spot on the 2003 season of Last Comic Standing, she appeared in jeans and T-shirt and riffed on the “Do not disturb” signs at Mexican resorts, which in Spanish read “No moleste.” Many versions of the bit about using the doorknob banner to repel would-be molesters are posted online, all with the same slow deliberation on the efficacy of the sign, some with accounts of people who have tried to explain the translation to her, and sometimes a sweater jacket over the T-shirt.
Being unassuming is her shtick. Notaro released a DVD titled Have Tig At Your Party. It features her from the waist up, standing and occasionally saying something to the camera, so viewers could put it on their TV, and every once in a while, she pipes in with “Oh, look who just came in,” or “This song is cool, turn it up.”
At 39, she’s hitting her stride, getting more TV exposure — recently on Comedy Central’s The Benson Interruption and NBC’s Community — and touring regularly, but she got where she is now on a slow and steady course. She was born in Jackson, Miss., and grew up in Pass Christian, where her mother, an eccentric artist, painted donkeys and clowns on the back of their home. She took the nickname Tig from her brother’s mispronunciation of her given name Mathilde. Later the family moved to Texas, and Notaro eventually dropped out of high school. She didn’t go to college but got a facsimile experience, living with two friends attending the University of Texas at Austin. The trio later moved together to Denver, and then to Los Angeles, where one of them wanted to break into TV production. In her late 20s Notaro tried standup comedy for the first time and loved it.
“It was the first time that everything really clicked for me,” she says. “I feel like it came naturally to me. I did really well the first time. It actually startled me when people laughed.”
Infused with confidence, Notaro’s second try was in a competition, and she bombed. But she kept at it, becoming a regular at Los Angeles open mics, where she both met other comics and weathered the pitfalls of on the job training.
“One time this woman in the audience thought she was at an improv show,” Notaro says. “After 10 minutes she started yelling ‘strawberry’ at me. Like I was going to work that in. I was like, ‘You’re at the wrong show.”‘
Working in the trenches also built a network of friends and comedians. Notaro met Zach Galifianakis on the circuit and has worked on a film project with him. She and frequent writing partner Kyle Dunnigan still hit out-of-the-way open mics to work out new material.
Notaro is working on a pilot called Tig Has Friends, which features standup and celebrity guests. First she interviews members of a band or the cast of a film or TV show separately, and then she rehashes the results with the whole group together.
She’s also releasing a CD in 2011 after signing to the indie-rock label Secretly Canadian. One of its artists is a fan, and she’s the only comedian on the label.
“It helped me as an artist to remember that you have to get your career to a certain point before you can go out and expect anyone to get behind you,” she says.
Notaro expects to release the album simultaneously with the pilot if it gets picked up. She’s taking it all in stride, however, with the understated confidence that it’s not a matter of if she hits the milestone but when.