How Tig Notaro turned tragedy into comic gold
When the US standup reacted to being diagnosed with cancer by talking about it onstage 48 hours later, little did she know it would make her a star
The more that the comedian Tig Notaro relishes telling a joke, the more deadpan her voice gets, flattening into a slow monotone with long pauses between words. It’s the kind of delivery that makes unspectacular anecdotes about, say, running into an early-90s pop singer memorable and funny, with set-ups as enjoyable as the punch lines. So when she walked on stage at the West Hollywood club Largo on 3 August and said over the applause: “Good evening, hello! I have cancer, how are you?”, people were whooping and cackling for a long time before they realised that she was serious.
The half-hour of untested material that followed, about 40% of which was improvised, recounted the previous four months in Notaro’s life: she had contracted pneumonia; the antibiotics she was prescribed led to a life-threatening infection in her gut; a week after getting out of hospital her 65-year-old mother tripped, hit her head and died; she and her long-term girlfriend broke up; and then she found out about the cancer. The Largo gig happened two days after being told the disease had spread from her breasts to her lymph nodes and one of the reasons she went ahead with it is because she thought it might be her last.
An old formula for comedy is tragedy plus time, but, as Notaro said early on in the show: “I’m just at tragedy now.” What’s hard to believe is that she turned the material into something both laugh-out-loud funny and, because of Notaro’s courage and her lack of self-pity, life-affirming. She joked about a double mastectomy being her “forced transition”, about cancer-specific greeting cards and about her mother being sent a questionnaire asking her to rate her hospital stay after she had already died: “Mmm… not great.” At one point, she apologised for bumming everyone out and offered to switch to something lighter. A man shouted: “No! This is fucking amazing!” and everyone cheered. The Emmy-winning standup and TV star Louis CK, who was watching Notaro from backstage, tweeted the next day: “In 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night.”
Largo is a small club, but the performance’s subsequent word-of-mouth success has changed everything for Notaro. In September, she signed a book deal with the HarperCollins imprint Ecco. In early October, Louis CK put a recording of the set on his website, priced at $5, and it has already been downloaded 75,000 times. And dying people keep telling her she’s changed their lives. “A woman said that I was her nephew’s favourite comedian, and that he has a terminal illness, and that after he heard my show he felt like he could carry on,” she says. “It’s non-stop like that. I’m so blown away.”
Notaro, who is 41, grew up in Texas and Mississippi, dropped out of high school after failing three grades and started doing open-mic nights at LA coffee shops and laundromats in her mid-20s. She has appeared in American TV comedies Community, The Office, and as a regular on The Sarah Silverman Program, and last year she recorded a comedy album with the indie label Secretly Canadian.
Two months on from her explosive gig, Notaro tells me her cancer is now in remission and her prognosis is “great”. She was recently asked, with close friend Kyle Dunnigan, to help write a sketch series for Comedy Central with its star, Amy Schumer. An alumna of the reality TV competitions Last Comic Standing and Reality Bites Back, Schumer is another rising star of US comedy. Now she and Notaro have moved into a two-bedroom apartment in New York, and when Dunnigan asked to sleep on their sofa, Notaro went one better. She ordered bunk beds for her room, despite the fact that Dunnigan has been dating Sarah Silverman for a year and, as she points out, their combined age is 83. Silverman recently joked that her mother passed on strict instructions to Dunnigan to let Notaro have the bottom bunk.
Silverman and Schumer both like their material to shock, but Notaro’s style is gentler, usually gravitating towards the absurd and the mundane. She likes repetition and jokes about jokes. On Conan O’Brien’s talkshow last December, she pushed a stool around the stage for two minutes, creating a noise like whale song.
Now, she says, she doesn’t know who she is as a comedian, which she finds both scary and exciting. She won’t be scheduling any more standup for a few months and probably won’t turn her Largo set into a touring show, although she wants to expand on a part about the saying that God never gives you more than you can handle. (“You know what, I think she can take a little more,” she imagines God telling horrified angels. “Just trust me on this.”)
Meanwhile, during the past couple of weeks, she has been enjoying getting her life back for the first time since early spring. Tonight she has her first rehearsal with the band she and Dunnigan have formed; they plan to play “ridiculous” covers of artists such as the Go-Go’s and Olivia Newton-John. They will also continue to record their podcast, Professor Blastoff. Tomorrow, she’s leaving for Louisiana to shoot a film written and directed by Ryan Phillippe. It’s a life that she described on stage in August as ”unbelievable”.
Sometimes, a revelation about what’s important evaporates in the face of day-to-day concerns, but when asked if she still feels the same thrill at being alive two months on, she says: “Oh my gosh, times a bazillion trillion” in a voice as cool and unhurried as ever. “I can’t think of what could possibly be a problem now. I can’t. I really feel like a lucky person.”