Tig Notaro’s tragedy + time = tough act to follow

But the comic, whose set about her cancer went viral, remains as honest as ever


MONTREAL - Tragedy + time = comedy.

You can take that to the bank. Many comics do and have done, whether it’s others’ pain or their own (for example, Richard Pryor’s wincing brilliance on his addictions and tumultuous life).

Tig Notaro hacked that formula like a surgeon with a bone saw in the summer of 2012 when she went onstage at an L.A. club called Largo and opened with, “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer.”

The set, which exploded her already solid career as a comedy writer and deadpan performer, became the album Live, selling briskly on iTunes and, before that, briefly, on the website of Louis C.K., who was backstage at the club that night and declared Notaro’s set “one of the greatest standup performances.”

In the recording — where Notaro doubles and triples down by noting the cancer of both her breasts came in the wake of a bad breakup, pneumonia, a C. difficile infection and the unexpected death of her mother — you can hear people laughing with increasing uncertainty. One audience member, she notes, is full-on aghast.

“It’s OK,” she consoles. “It’s going to be OK. It might not be OK.”

Notaro invokes the equation in the show: “Tragedy + time = comedy. I am just at tragedy right now.”

Only now, right now, it’s tragedy + time = a hard act to follow.

Speaking in October to Ira Glass of This American Life, which featured an excerpt from her show, she said she decided to do the now-famous cancer set because “I really had the fear that if I walked away from this opportunity to perform, I would never be able to again.”

Talking to Vanity Fair in January, she summarized: “Everyone has the moment that brings them to the next level.”

At this level, she’s got a clean bill of health and a film deal with U.S. cable outlet Showtime, she performed a story about her mother’s death on The Moth Radio Hour on Vermont Public Radio on the weekend, and she’s back at Just for Laughs for a string of one-woman shows and a slot in a Saturday-night gala hosted by her friend Sarah Silverman.

But yes, she feels the pressure.

“That night when I talked about cancer and losing my mother in the middle of it all, that was just such a departure from my normal show, and after that I really didn’t know what was going on with me. I was kind of having this fear about what people expected and wanted of me,” she said in a recent interview with The Gazette.

“My first show back, I did in Iowa City, Iowa, and I had my concerns backstage that I was going to be letting the audience down because it was not going to be an hour-long show of cancer and my mother died and I’m single.

“I had to let go of that and hope that however they knew of me, hopefully I can put on a good enough show that they’ll feel like if they came in hoping for cancer jokes all night, that they’re still good without an hour of cancer jokes.”

In the end, honesty is where she started and where she has stayed.

“I had that show and I did that album, but that’s not who I am and who I will be doing shows as always. It’s not going to be just a packed cancer show. It’s just me wanting to do what I think is good and what I think is funny, and so my new material ... it’s honest, but it’s really a lot of silliness as well, and that makes me really happy to do.”

Her new show is called Boyish Girl Interrupted, which will tip her fans to the return to material that springs from her androgynous looks. Beyond that, though, she doesn’t give a lot of detail.

“It’s not a hugely themed show: talking about my life and observations and where I’m at right now. I’m still figuring things out. I wish I had way more information about it.”

Being comfortable with the unknown is something she’ll also capitalize on in her next project, a documentary for Showtime based on a tour in which she’ll perform in people’s homes. She said executive producers are sifting through submissions and she will begin the tour in August.

“Whether it’s a theatre or living room ... neither is more terrifying to me,” she said. “I like awkward moments, and being in somebody’s living room or basement or dusty attic doing a show kind of excites me.”