Survival of the Funniest
Tig Notaro turned her annus horribilis—her mother’s death, a serious breakup, and breast cancer—into a fearless stand-up set, mesmerizing fans new (Lena Dunham) and old (Louis C.K.). With her career in hyperdrive, she’s trying to find her footing.
Has anyone been more up and down this year than Tig Notaro? A little-known comedian nine months ago, Notaro, 41, stepped onstage at the West Hollywood club Largo in August and delivered a set for the history books. She had material, of course: in 2012, in quick succession, she contracted a life-threatening intestinal disease, mourned her mother’s passing in a freak accident, broke up with her girlfriend, and, when it seemed like the prophecies couldn’t get any fouler, ended up in a doctor’s office at Cedars-Sinai, diagnosed with breast cancer. But less than six months later she’s a cult icon: writing a book, working on a comedy series in New York, and making the rounds on late-night TV. “Everyone has the moment that brings them to the next level,” says Notaro, cocking her head.
What’s particularly spectacular about Notaro’s rise is that she wasn’t known as a personal-journey comedian at the time: she was Steven Wright-ish, with a lone-weirdo affect, doing absurdist bits like pushing a stool around on Conan O’Brien’s show and silly jokes about Chastity Bono’s changing his name to Chaz—“basically he just kept the Chaz and cut off the titty.” But with her set at Largo, she’s transformed herself into a kind of Richard Pryor. “Tig is now in the heads of hundreds of thousands of people who don’t see her as a comic—she’s now their favorite person,” says Ira Glass, host of This American Life. Louis C.K., who was also performing at Largo that night, wrote, “I was crying and laughing and listening like never in my life. Here was this small woman standing alone against death and simply reporting where her mind had been and what had happened and employing her gorgeously acute stand-up.”
Today, at her small, modern loft in downtown Los Angeles, Notaro, who has never been interested in going to the deepest, darkest places in her comedy or life, has been doing photo shoots and interviews on this bizarre turn of events. A lesbian who works the soccer-player “boi” look, with a kind, sweet manner that doesn’t seem completely reconciled with her deep-seated self-image as a rebel, Notaro was raised in Pass Christian, Mississippi, and then outside Houston by a gregarious mother and dry-witted stepfather, an attorney. (Tig’s a childhood nickname; her given name is Mathilde.) “My mom was a freethinking artist—she was wild and would do anything to get a laugh from me,” says Notaro. “She’d go in reverse through a drive-through so I could order from the window: ‘Hi, can I get a milk shake?’ ” Notaro frequently treed herself climbing in her backyard, despite her daredevil nature, and loved Amelia Bedelia, the zany housekeeper in a hat trimmed with daisies. “I liked how she took everything literally: when she got a note to draw the drapes, she’d set up an easel and actually draw the drapes,” she says.
But Notaro wasn’t innocent for long. The year that John Lennon died (she was nine), she started guitar and decided to become “the fifth Beatle.” She also started smoking and a few years later began failing out of school. “I failed eighth grade twice, and then they moved me up to ninth grade. Then I failed that and dropped out,” she says. “My teacher would hand me a test, and I’d grade it myself with an F, then put my head down on the desk.”
Picking up odd jobs, like tending to kids in day care, Notaro drifted to Los Angeles years later—“maybe ’96, or ’97, but I’m a dropout failure.” She had never tried stand-up, but L.A. was the land of open mikes. Within two weeks, she was on a stage at a coffee shop with her first joke: “My name’s Tig. A lot of people have trouble understanding it, especially over the phone. I was on this call with this guy, and he goes, ‘All right. I don’t feel comfortable calling you this, but I’ll see you tonight, Pig.’ I was like, ‘Oh, to tell you the truth, I don’t feel real comfortable with you calling me a pig, either, because my name’s Tig,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I said, Pig,’ and I said, ‘No, it’s Tig with a T,’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Tit,’ and eventually I said, ‘Yeah, that’s right. It’s Pig Tit.’ ” She smiles wryly. “Based on a true story.”
Pedaling through L.A. on her bicycle (she rides a motorcycle now, proudly explaining that she doesn’t have a license), Notaro began hitting stand-up clubs at least five nights a week, without compensation (“No one was paying for Pig Tit,” she says) and taking parts on pilots such asComedy Coliseum, a U.F.C.-like show. “We were raised on hydraulics, and a guy in a diaper would come out, with props like a hula hoop or a fire extinguisher, and we’d have to make jokes about it,” says Kyle Dunnigan, Notaro’s current writing partner and castmate on the show. Notaro also played a cop on The Sarah Silverman Program—“Tig has always gotten the most amount of laughs with the least amount of words,” says Silverman now; “she has brilliant material, but she could kill just talking to the crowd”—and toured internationally. As a lesbian devoted to a brand of comedy that involves patience with a joke, without looking for a quick in and out if she hasn’t heard a laugh, she’s faced hard rooms. Comedian Amy Schumer, a close friend, says, “Looking masculine and being gay, the challenges of the road are 20 times harder for Tig than other female comedians. People fear what they don’t understand.”
But terror related to the physical body, the fear of dying, is an altogether different kind of fear. In February 2012, when Notaro contracted pneumonia, then an intestinal disease caused by the bacterium C. diff, her insides became so wasted that she started losing half a pound a day. Then, in March, her mother died from a fall. “I found myself in Texas, in my mom’s closet, picking out clothes for her to wear in her casket,” says Notaro. “I kept thinking how sad she would be if she knew I was there, in her closet, worried about my own death.” Processing her feelings through writing was the only way she knew to cope, but when she showed her material to Glass for consideration on This American Life, he didn’t think it was there yet and recommended that she try to work it out onstage instead.
It took her breast-cancer diagnosis, in July 2012, to push her onstage at Largo. Notaro was in the shower before she went to the club, thinking about her act when she realized that what she needed to do was address the issue head-on. “Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer,” she said seconds after stepping up to the mike. She exhaled, then waited a bit: “Oh my God.”
In the set, she speculates about how her diagnosis will impact her dating life (“Do I go online and just make a profile? ‘I’m single, and I would love to meet somebody, but this is just weird timing. I have cancer. Serious inquiries only’ ”) and mentions a man on the street who called her “sir” recently (“Usually I have a sense of humor about that,” she says, but “I just got diagnosed with breast cancer in both breasts; that’s how much I’m not a man … not today, not a man”).
The audience was mesmerized. “I saw people grabbing their own faces in fear,” Notaro says. “Other people were knee-slapping. Everyone was processing it in their own way, on their own time.” And after Louis C.K. put up the set for sale on his site, fangirls came out of the woodwork—Lena Dunham later tweeted about the set, “Surer than ever about art’s job #Tig #Tig #Tig”—and established comedians have been supportive. The comedy community has lost beloved members to tragic deaths in the past few years—Greg Giraldo, Patrice O’Neal, Ron Shock, and Mike DeStefano, among others. “When you’ve logged your hours on the road, it feels like you’re almost in an army, and when someone dies, that person seems so hard to replace,” says comedian Greg Fitzsimmons.
The attention unsettled Notaro. “I’m a pretty private person, and this blew the doors off of being a private person,” she says. And then the best possible outcome presented itself: after a double mastectomy—without reconstructive surgery, since she “can relate to two scars more than two fake breasts”—the doctors said her body seemed to be free of the cancer.
When she describes her state of mind now, Notaro says she “feels like a newborn baby born with all the experience in life,” contradictory as it sounds. “Like a baby who has gone through everything already but has a clean slate to start over.” She’s not sure what the future holds. “The big picture of my story is that you never know what’s coming around the corner,” she says. “I need to sit down, take a deep breath, and connect with where I feel there’s humor these days I could push a stool around Conan’s stage for the rest of my life, but some of my other jokes … ” She pauses. “I just don’t think I connect with them anymore.”