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Tim Cain column: Comedian Tig Notaro’s courage and talent goes above and beyond

By TIM CAIN

The greatest art can come out of the greatest tragedies.

In the early 1990s, people like me identified Julia Sweeney as a woman who’d created an annoying one-note character on “Saturday Night Live” Sweeney created androgynous “Pat,” and the joke was whether the puffy, bespectacled, whiny-voiced character was male or female, and how no one around Pat could guess the answer.

That’s it. That was the joke. It went on. And on and on. Imagine a joke not that funny to begin with being told over and over for three or four years. That was “Pat.” The character even got a movie, called by many critics the worst “Saturday Night Live”-based movie. And those critics have all seen “Coneheads.”

A few years later, Sweeney became a minisensation with her cutting-edge one-woman show, “God Said Ha!” In a piece that became its own cottage industry (stage show, double-CD album, book, movie directed by Quentin Tarantino), Sweeney detailed her experiences with cancer. Her brother was diagnosed with a terminal case, and Sweeney developed what her brother called “sympathy cancer.” Sweeney’s brother and parents wound up sharing her small Los Angeles bungalow while the patients received their treatments.

The result was a poignant yet hilarious series of stories. Sweeney was bold enough to step out of the Pat costume and reveal herself, and created some fascinating and fantastic art in the process.

Fast-forward to 2012 and another person, on the same coast, with yet another cancer diagnosis.

A couple of months ago, comedian Tig Notaro came into my orbit. Not because of hearing her, but because of hearing ABOUT her. Her friends, fellow funny people Louis C.K., Bill Burr and Ed Helms all threw out comments on Twitter about an amazing comedy set she had done. Louis C.K. Tweeted “in 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.” Comedian Patton Oswalt Tweeted a link to an audience member’s blog about the show, which described it as an overwhelming evening.

One of the blessings of social media is the ability to quickly find out about something amazing like Notaro’s set. But one of the curses is the realization that however much you’d like to experience the art, there’s no chance. So the work drifts off into legend, whether the legend be accurate (Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys “Smile”) or of undetermined value (Jerry Lewis’ “The Day the Clown Cried” film).

But in an improbable twist, the Largo, the club where Notaro performed her legendary set, recorded the show. And in an equally improbable twist, Louis C.K. himself convinced Notaro to allow him to sell the audio recording of the set on his site.

Louis C.K. has done some remarkable things in the past five years. His TV show “Louie” earned an Emmy last month (he’s been nominated for five total), just recognition after three seasons on the air. In November 2011, he released a standup special digitally for $5, a revolutionary move of trust and belief in his audience. He said he’d sold $1 million worth of the show in three days, at $5 per download. He did the same in May with a new show.

His Tweet was one of the keys in bringing Notaro’s success to the masses. His next move, convincing a reluctant Notaro (as much as perfectionist as most standups) to allow him to release the set on his site. The cost: $5. (And she’s donating a dollar from each sale to breast cancer research.)

But all of this would be simply interesting trivia and a primer for a potential business model but for Notaro’s performance. Which is, in a word, breathtaking.

Notaro was performing at the Largo the evening of the day during which she was told she had cancer in both breasts, and it had spread into her lymph nodes. And rather than go onstage and do her normal set, she was essentially going to process it in front of an audience.

The very idea of it gives me the willies.

Whether it’s Julia Sweeney or Tig Notaro or the Millikin actors earlier this month in “The Little Dog Laughed,” it takes phenomenal courage to get naked in front of people, physically and/or emotionally. It’s what good artists strive to do all the time. And sometimes as an audience, we’re treated to an artist going above and beyond where even the most revealing artists go, and we’re left with something like “Tig Notaro Live.”

(She says the title rhymes with “give” rather than “hive,” because “live” is something she wants to do.)

On his site (louisck.net), the comedian who pushed the release of the set writes, “The show was an amazing example of what comedy can be. A way to visit your worst fears and laugh at them. Tig took us to a scary place and made us laugh there. … She proved that everything is funny. And has to be.”

It’s not a ha-ha laugh-riot set. We know the background as we start listening, but it’s easy to pick up on the audience’s uneasiness as Notaro says, “I have cancer, hi, how are you?” There’s some nervous laughter, and the start feels a little awkward. But before long, Notaro hits a stride in describing dealing with ludicrous situations, and even provides a little sympathy for her audience, which is processing her news as much as she is. (At one point, she breaks off a thought and says to apparently some specific member of the audience, “It’s gonna be OK. It might not be OK. But I’m just saying. It’s OK. You’re gonna be OK. I don’t know what’s going on with me.”

There are plenty of chuckles and, as unlikely as it might seem, some true belly laughs in the set. My favorite moment comes when Notaro is talking about questioning why she’s even going to the grocery store. (And the subtext is she’s had much additional terrible news, with the cancer diagnosis being more piling on.)

“Why am I doing this? Nourish my body to stick around to get more bad news? Gotta keep myself alive so my ears work and I can hear horrible things.”

Notaro goes between soul-bearing and deliberately pulling herself out of what she’s doing, knowing there’s an audience in front of her that came for laughs, and everyone in the room is dealing with her confusion and despair. At one point, when she vocalizes the possibility of abandoning what she’s doing, an audience member calling back is caught on mike. “This is (expletive) amazing. It’s beautiful. Do not stop,” he says, followed by a solid 25-second ovation from the rest of the audience.

The man spoke for a lot of us.

Would my reaction of excitement at this release be the same if Notaro hadn’t had a double mastectomy and been declared cancer-free earlier this month? One would like to think so. The art, after all, is the art. This story is a little better since it apparently has a happy ending.

And there’s an interesting local connection with Notaro. She cancelled a number of dates in order to deal with the treatment of her cancer, including a scheduled Oct. 2 date at Millikin. It will be interesting to see if she can actually be brought here, or if Internet fame means her days of performing at colleges are long past.

timcain@herald-review.com