Repeating a Repetition Repeatedly Once Again
By JASON ZINOMAN
It all started at a party when the comedian Tig Notaro approached Taylor Dayne, a singer whose star has faded since the early 1990s, and said, “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you, but I just have to tell you: I love your voice.”
Ms. Dayne bluntly replied, “Yeah, I don’t do that anymore.” Ms. Notaro bumped into her again nine months later, this time at a restaurant, and decided the best thing to do was to repeat the compliment, word for word. Similar result. Another year passed and it happened again.
The first time I heard Ms. Notaro turn these encounters into a virtuoso 11-minute tale, her most acclaimed bit, the joke appeared to be about celebrity vanity and pop nostalgia. It wasn’t until I saw Ms. Notaro seemingly botch the story in May that I realized it was much more interesting than that.
In the basement of the Ella Bar in the East Village, Ms. Notaro paused when she got to the third meeting with Ms. Dayne, froze for several seconds, then confessed she forgot what happened next. She made a self-deprecating joke and apologized to the next comic waiting backstage.
Time passed slowly. Ms. Notaro spotted a familiar face in the crowd and asked for help. Her friend shouted a reminder. Ms. Notaro started the story again, froze, joked and asked for help. As this series of false starts continued, patterns emerged in expressions, gestures, cadence. The joke had the same “Groundhog Day” quality as the meeting with Taylor Dayne.
Not all of the audience however was amused. As minutes went by, people start checking their watches and rolling their eyes. This atmosphere resembled what I imagine the first minutes of watching Andy Kaufman read the entire “Great Gatsby” onstage were like. The audience chuckled, then murmured. Was this all a stunt? And seriously, when was it going to end?
On the surface Ms. Notaro, a trim, rumpled Los Angeles performer who has one album, called “Good One”; a podcast called “Professor Blastoff”; and who regularly appeared on “The Sarah Silverman Show,” seems like a conventional and very sharp deadpan comedian. Like Todd Barry she has a hint of a Southern drawl and a deliberate delivery. But what distinguishes her comedy is how forcefully it turns inward, drawing attention to its form, testing its limits. An avant-garde impulse bubbles below the surface, straining to burst out. It sometimes does.
For instance Ms. Notaro made a Warholian video in 2008, “Have Tig at Your Party,” that is simply an hour of her, shot from the waist up, standing still in front of a green screen. As her eyes search the room, she looks curious but says almost nothing; the sound of clinking glasses and party banter are heard in the background.
Last year she performed one of the most bizarre and inspired late-night television sets I’ve ever seen when she finished a series of jokes on “Conan” by slowly pushing a stool across the stage for two minutes. On a Web series she interviewed Zach Galifianakis sitting a foot away from him. Out of this staring contest came a characteristic one-liner from her: “What’s the deal with ‘what’s the deal with’?”
Many comedians today specialize in creating and exploiting uncomfortable moments. But unlike most cringe humor, Ms. Notaro’s jokes are disarmingly sunny. Whereas Ricky Gervais would turn a solitary wait at the outskirts of a party into a drama of desperation, Ms. Notaro appears calm, comfortable in her own skin. Even when portraying monotony or futility, she puts you at ease.
The great theme explored in her work is repetition, which is an essential part of comedy, since it often sets up expectations that the punch line upends. This strategy puts the comic one step ahead of the audience, but Ms. Notaro can find humor just as easily a little behind. In her Taylor Dayne story, once the pattern of bumping into the pop star is established, she takes a long pause after saying, “You never are going to believe who is sitting there.” Her listeners laugh because of course they know. The mechanics of the joke make it obvious.
Repetition is also a great tool for absurdist artists. Everyone from Samuel Beckett to David Letterman has turned a mildly funny conceit into something fantastically silly by beating it to death. This is also part of Ms. Notaro’s repertory. One of her signature bits is an impression of an impressionist that is a joke on the fact that impressionists introduce their work by repeating the name of the person they are mimicking twice. So after saying she’s doing an impression of an impressionist, she says she is going to do an impression of an impressionist. And so on.
Seen in the context of her career the Taylor Dayne story becomes a sly tribute to the comic power of repetition, but it’s not only that. Toward the end the focus suddenly shifts away from Ms. Dayne. At the last meeting Ms. Notaro asks her writing partner, Kyle Dunnigan, to video it with his phone. He grudgingly agrees. But when they later watch the tape, the only audio is Mr. Dunnigan faking a conversation on the phone, repeatedly telling the imaginary caller where he is. “The person Kyle made up in that conversation,” Ms. Notaro explains, “was the world’s most difficult person that will not let the easy stuff slide.”
This exasperated line makes one wonder if Ms. Notaro is actually talking about herself and Ms. Dayne, who, after all, comes off as a difficult person who cannot gracefully take a compliment. That’s not to say she made up meeting her, and judging by Ms. Notaro’s chat with Ms. Dayne on a podcast this week titled “Reconciliation,” it appears she really did. But who cares? Taylor Dayne in this story is not real in any meaningful way. She’s a character. What matters more to Ms. Notaro’s comedy is how her pleasingly strange concepts are executed with such conviction that they seem to develop an eccentric logic all their own.
At a live taping of “This American Life” the same week of the fumbling story downtown, Ms. Notaro told it seamlessly. After she finished, a celebrity guest walked onstage. As the comic herself would put it, you are never going to believe who it was. That’s right. Taylor Dayne. She broke into a song, and Ms. Notaro looked genuinely surprised to see her and a bit unsure what to do. Then she let it slide and starting singing.