Tig Notaro turns pain into laughter
Comedian Tig Notaro’s life was in turmoil when she took the Largo stage. The next 30 minutes changed everything.
By Deborah Vankin
Comedian Tig Notaro’s downtown Los Angeles loft is oddly intact considering she is moving across the country in the morning.
She’s about to start a new job with Comedy Central, she has a new book deal with Ecco, her debut comedy album, “Good One,” is now No. 2 in its category on iTunes, and reporters from Vanity Fair and the New Yorker are calling later about a new comedy recording of hers on Louis C.K.’s website.
Still, as she relaxes on the taupe couch that divides her industrial-modern kitchen and airy, sun-lit living room, Notaro seems utterly unflustered. She’s eager to open up about the collision of life-altering highs and lows she’s experienced this year. But first, she’s got some sound effects to let loose.
“Broing!” That’s a spring, she explains. There’s a rusty-sounding clown horn: “Burrh-burrrruup!”
Then she spits out one last sound — “Phweesh-Phwipt!” — punctuating it with a snap of her fingers before flicking both thumbs over her right shoulder.
That’s the sound of a double mastectomy.
A bittersweet smile washes over her face, as if to say: “Yep, I just did that.”
Notaro is a master of the art of counterintuitive comedy. In August at L.A.’s Largo, during a now-famous performance being hailed as a stand-up tour de force, she announced to the world, onstage: “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer.” Laughter rumbled through the room. “Hi, how are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer,” she repeated. More guffaws. And then the room fell silent with the collective realization that Notaro might not be kidding.
The candid 30-minute set astonished the audience and sparked a storm of media attention.
C.K., at Largo that night, tweeted that Notaro’s act was among the “truly great” sets he’d seen in his 27 years of doing comedy.
“I was crying and laughing and listening like never in my life,” he wrote on his website. “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 voice to her own death.”
The set sparked an immediate, almost manic degree of interest in the comedian. But Notaro, who isn’t on Twitter and says she doesn’t read blogs, was unaware she was going viral. After the show, she went to bed. She woke up. And then she was famous.
“My phone didn’t stop bleeping. I thought there’d been a natural disaster,” she says. “I was so confused. There were literally hundreds of emails — from friends, fans, strangers, book deal offers. I woke up to a whole different world.”
Last week, Notaro released the uncut recording from that night as her second comedy album, “Live,” on C.K.’s website. It retells Notaro’s absurd succession of bad luck leading to her diagnosis: she contracted pneumonia this spring … followed by a near-fatal bacterial infection … followed by the sudden, accidental death of her mother … followed by an emotional breakup with her girlfriend — all within four short months. The cataclysmic events — as bizarre and circuitous as one of her trademark bits — came on the heels of a particularly momentous time in the comedian’s career.
Notaro, who’s been performing stand up for more than 15 years and had a recurring role on “The Sarah Silverman Program,” hit a crazy-good career run last year. She released “Good One” to critical acclaim, toured internationally and became a regular on the late-night TV circuit. Her podcast “Professor Blastoff,” with comedians Kyle Dunnigan and David Huntsberger, debuted in a No. 1 spot on iTunes mid-2011. She did an NBC pilot earlier this year and had a role in the movie “In a World” with Rob Corddry and Nick Offerman.
Life was good for Notaro. Until it wasn’t.
“I just couldn’t believe what was happening,” she says. “I thought: It’s absolutely impossible to have cancer now! I was just at a loss.”
What hasn’t been lost on Notaro is how the bizarre repetition of bad luck that befell her mirrors the structure of her comedy. But she isn’t wasting time reading into it. “It’s the epitome of what random is,” she says.
Still, she acknowledges, “It’s been brutal, very unreal. But you find the humor. It’s there.” Her soft tone and measured cadence belie the pain in her eyes.
Leaning back on her couch, Notaro chuckles recounting the morning after her double mastectomy in September. It was a typically sunny L.A. afternoon and she awoke, groggy, to the sight of more than 20 friends and fellow comedians gathered around her Cedars-Sinai bedside — Sarah Silverman, Riki Lindhome, Megan Mullally and Missi Pyle among them. The private room was thick with flowers and one (undoubtedly ironic) balloon.
Notaro asked her friends if one of them would perform some stand-up to lighten the mood. Before any of them could take her up on her offer, one last comedian friend, Natasha Leggero, rushed in, flustered, complaining about L.A. traffic. That gave Notaro the perfect opening to make her own money-joke: “I … just … got … my … entire … chest … cavity … removed,” she mumbled. They all cracked up.
Notaro is relieved to say that her health prognosis is positive after the successful surgery; the cancer hasn’t spread. And it led to a communication from her estranged father. He read about her illness in the news.