Tig Notaro on combining humour and personal tragedy
Tig Notaro

Claire Black meets  the American comedian who turned her personal tragedy into a show that left its audience in a state of awe and was downloaded more than 100,000 times.

Tig Notaro
[American comedian Tig Notaro. Picture: Jane Barlow]

Tig Notaro was taking a shower when she realised what she had to do. It was 3 August, 2012. In the four months prior to that day, Notaro had been laid low with pneumonia followed by a brutal bout of a life-threatening intestinal infection, her long-term relationship had ended and her mother had died after a freak accident.

Bad luck doesn’t cover the half of it. And then it got worse. Notaro, then 41, was told she had stage II breast cancer. Just days before she stood in the shower she was told the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.

As the water tumbled down the plug hole, Notaro was wondering how she was going to get on stage and do a stand-up routine. It seems a reasonable enough dilemma. I can’t help thinking that most people wouldn’t even have tried. But Notaro decided that the only way it could work was if she was completely open, no dithering, no debate.

So a few hours later, she bounced on stage at Largo, a club in Los Angeles, and introduced herself: “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?”

What followed was a 29-minute set that fellow comic Louis CK, who was watching from backstage, claimed was “one of the greatest stand-up performances I ever saw”. The audience was shocked, disbelieving, enthralled, upset and never anything other than totally on Notaro’s side.

When, about half-way through, she apologised for depressing everyone and offered to lighten up, someone shouted, “No! This is f***ing amazing.” Notaro had transformed tragedy into something tender, moving and genuinely life-affirming.

In the following six weeks, news of Notaro’s set went viral and the recording of it was downloaded more than 100,000 times. You can still find it on iTunes and really you shouldn’t miss it. Even though you know the story, you’ll still feel like those audience members felt – slightly disbelieving of what you’re hearing, slightly in awe of what you’re witnessing. In that single set, Notaro had, it was claimed, redefined stand-up.

With claims such as that, perhaps it’s unsurprising that Notaro still sounds vaguely bemused by what has happened to her. Physically she’s well – she is in remission. But emotionally, despite her laid-back style, Notaro speaks in a drawl that is almost monotone and utterly devoid of self pity; it’s clear she is still making sense of what she has been through.

It’s not that mining tragedy for comedy is anything new, nor is using stand-up as a kind of therapy, but what made Notaro’s performance so incredible was that she was doing it with so little rehearsal. Everything she said was raw, her feelings really were being played out as she spoke.

“I was on stage that night pretty convinced that I was going to be dying and that that might have been my last performance,” she says now.

“I was taking that chance that my last might be my worst and most awkward show ever, but I also felt that it would be the most honest I had ever been.”

The next day, when Notaro woke up, she was pretty confused by the barrage of phonecalls,
e-mails and book deal offers. She wasn’t on Twitter, so she didn’t realise that the video of her set had gone viral. Nor did she understand then that her set was career-defining.

Notaro grew up in Texas and Mississippi. She was always, she says, a “funny kid”, she just didn’t realise that being funny could be your job. It wasn’t until she moved to LA in her mid-twenties that she started doing open mic nights.

In the months since that August night, work offers have poured in. Notaro has written a sketch show for Amy Schumer with her friend, Kyle Dunnigan, with whom she also produces a podcast, Professor Blastoff. She is also writing a memoir, capturing what happened during those crazy months last year. Stand-up, though, she set aside.

“I didn’t really start doing stand-up again until three months ago,” she says, explaining that after having a double mastectomy and radiotherapy she wasn’t in any physical or emotional state to be getting on stage. “I just disappeared from the stand-up world. And then there was so much attention on me that I didn’t feel comfortable even trying to tell a joke. I felt so under the spotlight. It took me a while and I wasn’t sure really what I had to say.”

I can’t think of a scarier time to be making my Fringe debut, but Notaro sounds untroubled. When I ask what her expecations of Edinburgh are, she pauses for a second, then says: “I don’t have any, to be honest.” I believe her. I believe her too when she explains that although a lot of comedians have told her that it can be hard, “I’m not putting that kind of pressure on myself. I’m just coming over to do some shows and to enjoy myself.”

She adds: “When it comes down to it, I’m still the same comedian I always was. I didn’t have the big transition that people suspected or that I wondered about. I still like ridiculous and silly things, I’m not a real heavy or dark comedian. It was just a one-night thing with that show at Largo.” Extraordinary circumstances, I say. “Yeah,” she says, “it was a place I had never been before in my life and so I was just working with what I had at that moment. And now is a different moment.”

Still, though, coming back to stand-up hasn’t been easy. She says she felt “brand new”. “I felt so insecure, so unsure of myself and what I had to say. Any little thought I had I would try to see what I had to say about it and a lot of the time it didn’t go anywhere. It was very discouraging. About a month ago I started to hit my stride, I started to see some progress. So I’m going to be showing up to Edinburgh very raw, just trying to scramble and get some stuff together. I probably should put more pressure on myself but I’m just not. This is the best I can do right now.”

Sarah Silverman described Notaro as being the kind of comedian who even when she has great material is actually at her best when she’s just shooting the breeze with the audience, just being herself and following her own interest. That is why she got away with spending almost her entire slot on the Conan O’Brien Show just pushing a wooden stool across the stage. Really, that was it.

“I couldn’t believe I got that to translate and get people on board with that,” she says, explaining that audiences now request that she does it. “They shout, ‘Push the stool’. I’m like, do you understand what you’re asking me to do? You have paid $30 to come and see me and you’re asking me to push a stool around the stage? Then when I do it the crowd starts cheering. It’s so funny.”

With everything that Notaro has been through in the past 12 months, there can’t be anyone less in need of a dose of perspective. But still, knowing how to follow that momentous night last August can’t have been easy. I mean, Notaro is the woman who has redefined comedy – how does anyone live with those expectations? “I thought more about it before I started doing stand-up again,” she says. “But after that I realised that night in August is something I feel pretty confident that I’ll never achieve again. It was a moment in time. And now I’m just going to go back to who I am. I don’t have to be number one. I think I just want to do what amuses me and makes me happy.”

I can’t think of anyone who deserves that more.

MORE INFO: Tig Notaro, Gilded Balloon Teviot, 6:45pm, until 25 August.