Five questions for comedian Tig Notaro
Brian Mansfield, Special for USA TODAY10:21 p.m. EDT July 19, 2013
Last August, Tig Notaro walked onstage at the Largo in Los Angeles and said to her audience: “I have cancer. How are you?”
What followed was 30-minute set that comedian Louis C.K. described later as “an amazing example of what comedy can be.” Notaro kept her audience emotionally off-balanced by relaying a string of incidents so horrible she couldn’t possibly be serious: Stage II cancer in both breasts, coming on the heels of a debilitating bacterial infection that caused her to lose 20 pounds, and the sudden death of her mother. But Notaro was serious. Except she was also funny.
Notaro’s show immediately became legend in comedy and cancer circles. Within two months, she appeared on Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show, with stitches from her surgery still in her chest. She also got a book deal and a Showtime documentary.
This week, Notaro, 42, released that show as Live — as in, “to keep not dying.” She’s now in remission. She also spoke with USA TODAY’s Brian Mansfield, who got his own cancer diagnosis last year, about six weeks before Notaro’s.
Q: How long did it take you to go from “I have cancer” to “I’m going to announce that I have cancer in one of my shows”?
A: The day before is when I decided to do the show.
I had originally booked for the week before, which is my regular show. Then I got diagnosed and I called to cancel, because I obviously was not in a great mood. The owner of Largo suggested moving the show to the following week in the event that I felt like performing. I thought he was crazy, but I said, OK, fine. He said I could cancel it last minute, so there was no pressure either way. So we moved the date.
Then I went and met with my oncologist. That’s when I found out the stage and all the information about what was going on. After that meeting, I got a text from the owner asking if we were doing the show the next night, and I texted back, yeah.
I had the fear that it would be my last time to perform. My life had fallen apart so quickly that I didn’t have too much faith. I didn’t think that I had cancer when the doctors thought maybe I did, but when I was diagnosed with it, I thought, “You know what? My whole life is falling apart, why wouldn’t I be dying?” And I wanted to perform again. So that’s how the show came about.
Q: Many people fear being defined by their cancer. It’s one reason some people hate to go public with their diagnosis. And you’ve already been referred to as “the cancer comedian.” How much of a concern was that for you?
A: That, to me, is such a lame term — “cancer comedian.” It’s lazy and lame. It’s like “that girl comedian,” “that black comedian.” It’s a dead end. It’s pointless to even hover around that.
But to be associated with my story and what I went through and how it has possibly helped other people, I’m very proud of that and what has come out of it.
Q: You’re doing a documentary for Showtime called Knock Knock. It’s Tig Notaro, and you’re taking submissions from fans to do your show at their houses. What kind of offers are you getting?
A: There’s an executive producer handling that. After it gets to a certain point, they’re going to have me sift through the things that they’ve chosen, just because there are so many submissions, I couldn’t possibly have time to go through all of them.
I used to do these tours, where I would go to my fans’ homes to do shows. I always thought it would make for really good TV. I’ve done it in backyards and basements and rooftops and lofts. Kitchens, driveways — whatever they set up, I just show up and do a show.
Fans submit videos and pictures of their house. We review the tapes, then we choose the houses and set up the tour. They invite their friends and put out food and drinks and have a party. Every house I’ve gone to has been nothing like what I imagined I was going to. I’m always so anxious for the surprise that I’m walking into. To me, whatever you think is best, the coolest place to do a show, then I’m there.
Q: You’ve got roles in a handful of upcoming movies, including In a World…, which opens next month. What do you play?
A: In In a World…, I play a sound engineer, alongside Nick Offerman and Demetri Martin. It’s not a huge stretch from myself. I don’t think anyone’s going to see me and go, “Oh, my God, I didn’t even recognize her!”
In Walk of Shame, I play a woman that works at an impound place that has taken Elizabeth Banks’ car. They have me in some repulsive mullet, and I get in a fight with Elizabeth.
Then there’s a movie called Shreveport, written, directed by and starting Ryan Phillippe. It’s a thriller. I’ve never done anything like that, so it’ll be a new thing. I know he’s really happy with it, so I’m excited to see a final cut.
Q: Let’s assume you stay in remission permanently: If you had the choice about the cancer, would you do it all over again?
A:I am so glad I had cancer. It is the weirdest thing for me to say.
It was hard for me to start admitting that to myself and to everyone. But I am so glad I had cancer — what it’s done for me, what it’s done for other people. I feel really good and excited about life. And because my life is so good and I have so many options, I like to be in the public eye and be helpful in ways that I can.