Tig Notaro gets the last laugh
GETS THE LAST LAUGH
After Tig Notaro was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, her stand-up act went from surface-level observational stories to self-revelation of a different sort — as told on her second comedy album, recorded just days after her diagnosis. Three years later, cancer-free and engaged to be married, Notaro is on the road with a new act, Boyish Girl Interrupted, which she brings to the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Thursday, May 28. On the cover is a portrait of the cool comedian by Kate Lacey.
Afew days after being diagnosed with cancer in both breasts, Tig Notaro did what many people in the same situation can only fantasize about doing: She got on a stage and spoke frankly about her diagnosis, and the four terrible months leading up to it, in front of a crowd of 300 people who empathized with her, laughed at the funny parts, and cheered her on. That 30-minute set, in 2012 at Largo in Los Angeles, became her second comedy album, Tig Notaro: Live. (“Live” is pronounced with a short “i,” in the active verb form.) She underwent a double mastectomy, and since then, Notaro’s comedy career, which was already on an upward swing, has exploded. She wrote for and appears on the Comedy Central hit Inside Amy Schumer. She’s a regular guest on Conan and This American Life. She has a popular podcast, Professor Blastoff, with Kyle Dunnigan and David Huntsberger. She recently released a tour documentary, Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro ,on Showtime, and directors Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York made a documentary, Tig, about Notaro’s life after cancer treatment, that premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Now Notaro is on tour with a new act, Boyish Girl Interrupted, which will be recorded in Florida for an HBO special, just a few days after she brings her dry wit to Santa Fe on Thursday, May 28, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center.
“When I had cancer, I would kind of tell anybody, just for shock value, I guess,” Notaro told Pasatiempo. “When I would go out to dinner and the waiter would ask how I was doing, I would say, ‘I’m OK. I have cancer, but, you know.’ I didn’t like to stay in the mode of ‘I’m fine.’”
In a video that appeared on Conan, in which Notaro visits various locations in Hollywood, she mentions her mastectomy to a diner waitress. The utterance earns her an open-mouthed stare. In Santa Fe, when a person has cancer, they are often offered a ridiculous amount of kombucha tea, with the insistence
Of course, you want to hear positive things, but I needed a more realistic reaction, someone checking to see how I actually felt instead of constantly hearing, “You’re going to beat this.” I wanted to be able to take a breath and have concern or fear or questions.
that the bottled bacteria is better for the body than chemotherapy. The cancer patient is also informed of the healing power of crystals and of the deadly threat of negative thinking on one’s prognosis. Though Notaro said she didn’t receive too much of this kind of well-intentioned but silly medical advice from friends and family, she was sometimes overrun with positivity. “Of course, you want to hear positive things, but I needed a more realistic reaction, someone checking to see how I actually felt instead of constantly hearing, ‘You’re going to beat this.’ I wanted to be able to take a breath and have concern or fear or questions.”
In the months leading up to her diagnosis, Notaro had already spent quite a bit of time in hospitals. First she had pneumonia and then she developed a life threatening C. difficile infection. She lost 20 pounds from her already slim frame. After that, her mother fell, hit her head, and died. And then Notaro’s girlfriend broke up with her. In Live, she mentions that there is a rule in humor that comedy is tragedy plus time. That night, in front of all those people, she took one of her signature long pauses and then said, “I’m just at tragedy right now.”
On stage, Notaro is relaxed and sarcastic, even droll. She has been compared to Steven Wright and the late Mitch Hedberg, though those comics relied more on one-liners, and Notaro is a storyteller. She does not talk about politics or current events. One of her most famous riffs is about running into the ’80s pop star Taylor Dayne multiple times over the course of a year, and offering her the same compliment (“I love your voice.”). She has said that prior to her four months of personal hell followed by cancer, her life had been relatively smooth sailing, with ordinary waves. This is a modest downplaying of her success. Notaro grew up in Mississippi and dropped out of high school after repeatedly failing the ninth grade. Though she was popular and well-liked, she detested school.
“School was not for me. I didn’t fit in with the rules and activities — and I think it actually took getting out of school to realize I was a smart person. I thought that when I got older, I would have all these regrets, because I remember being told all the time that I would regret my performance in school and dropping out. But honestly, I just don’t. Even before I was successful at stand-up, I didn’t regret it.” Now, though her life is exceedingly busy and often hectic, it lacks the conventionality of most people’s workaday routine. “It’s my structure, my interests,” she said.
Just a few months after her surgery, Notaro began dating comedian Stephanie Allyne, and the two are now engaged. Planning a wedding while on tour has been a challenge. Conversations about it occur in an endless email thread between Notaro, Allyne, Allyne’s mother and sister, and Notaro’s stepfather, brother, and four male cousins. “They are these fifty- and sixty-year-old guys in Mississippi that are like my brothers,” she said. “It’s been this fun experience to have everyone on both sides of the family so excited, with 10 people chiming in constantly with different ideas. We’re all meeting up in about a month in New Orleans to iron everything out.” The Tig documentary details the beginning of Notaro and Allyne’s relationship, as well as Notaro’s interest in having a child, despite the fact that it would require fertility treatments that could cause a recurrence of her cancer.
Among Notaro’s current projects is a memoir for Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. Collecting her thoughts for the book has been “very helpful in kind of a therapeutic way,” she said. “It’s centered on when my life fell apart and a lot of my relationship with my mother. I’m fine with talking to people in interviews or socially about the deep emotional parts of my life, but it’s a very different feeling when you’re sitting alone on the couch and raking through them privately.” She said that though there is definitely comedy in the book, she didn’t feel the need to balance heavy information with a joke to make readers more comfortable.
“When something struck me as funny, I’d pepper that in, or if I had a funny story, I’d tell it, but in general, I didn’t want to put that kind of pressure on myself, and I don’t think it would come across as authentic if I feel like I have to make it funny.”