Comedian and Cancer Survivor Tig Notaro Knows How To Tell a Good Story

Comedian, actress, and writer Tig Notaro gained a following in the comedy world for her goofy, sometimes self-deprecating, all-the-while engaging yarns about her family, growing up in Mississippi, a gentleman’s comments about her "little titties," and her experiences at hotels in Mexico. This was the sort of material fans who attended her live "Tig & Friends" show at LA’s Largo Theater back in August were probably expecting.

What casual (or not-so-casual) comedy fans were not expecting was Notaro beginning her set by saying, “Thank you, I have cancer, thank you.” She then proceeded to recount her diagnosis of Stage Two breast cancer, the most recent in a laundry list from Hell: a breakup, the sudden passing of her mother, a battle with a bacterial infection. Her candor and humor (often self-deprecating—one of the most oft-quoted one-liners of the night is “You have a lump.” “No, doctor, that’s my breast.”) brought the audience to attention. Ed Helms called it one of the best he’s ever seen. Louis C.K. called it "masterful."

Notaro says she’s grateful for her audience at the Largo that night. “Thank you for being exactly who you are and for being at that show,” she says. “Every person in the audience was the perfect person to be there.”

Notaro is now cancer-free following a double mastectomy and is preparing for a lot of writing in the months ahead. She’s got a number of projects in the works addition to her standup, including an upcoming book via Ecco, appearances on This American Life, working on a new television show with Amy Schumer, and a short film, “Clown Service,” about a lonely woman who hires a birthday party clown to cheer her up. And today, the Largo set will be available on Louis C.K.’s website, with a portion of the proceeds going to charities in the fight against breast cancer.

Notaro took some time out of her crazy schedule (the day before a cross-country move) to talk about the after-effects of that night, moving to New York, working for Xena: Warrior Princess, and feeling like a badass.

Let’s talk about the Largo show. What was the turning point that made you decide that you were going to open up to everybody like that and that was the time and place you were going to do it?
I had been working on a piece—I was going to work this material out possibly for This American Life before I was diagnosed with cancer. And then after I got diagnosed with cancer, I just couldn’t stop writing. I had this show set up, so I went on stage and I went for the material. I was recording it that night just so I could reference the material and see if it was in a good place to send to Ira Glass. I felt like I did have something that maybe he could use.

What has the response to that performance been like so far?
People have been nothing but positive, and I’m just blown away at how supportive and positive everybody has been. Not that I thought everybody would be a jerk to me because I had cancer, but they really lifted me up during this time, and the performance was something that the audience and my peers really have been so supportive and vocal about, which feels nice.

How has the Largo performance impacted your comedy? Have you found yourself changing your style or anything as a result?
I haven’t performed since that night. I had surgery; I literally got diagnosed, did that show, and then I’ve been dealing with doctors and being cut open and healing. So I haven’t really been doing anything. I just got my bandages off, so it’s still all very fresh. But I imagine this will change me forever as a human and as a comedian in turn.

You’ve dealt with a lot lately, good and bad. How do you use comedy to relate to what’s happening?
The only thing I’ve really written is what happened at Largo. I haven’t really been doing anything. The material from that night—there’s probably only a couple of bits from that night that I will continue with. The rest of it was kind of time and place. But I have no idea. I’m curious and there’s no way for me to know until I get on stage again what this has done and what’s coming. It’s really an interesting time because certain things seem ridiculous to talk about, certain topics in comedy. But it’s exciting and it’s completely unknown to me until I get out there and start again.

It’s so ridiculous but I feel like a badass. I feel like I can deal with anything in the world. It’s so cliché to talk about turning bad things into good, but every bad thing that’s happened to me has turned into something great and I didn’t see that coming at all. At first, I just thought, "Oh my gosh, I’m just going to be beaten into the ground."

It’s almost a literal interpretation of the old cliché about how tragedy plus time equals comedy.
Absolutely, and I talked about that in my show that night. And I talked about how I didn’t have time. I was just on stage talking about tragedy. Time was not something that had really passed that.

Was there a moment in the show where telling your story clicked, where it felt like the right time?
I’m not sure where it was, but there was definitely a moment in time where it felt like there was definitely a special moment that was happening. But I’m not quite sure when that was.

What advice would you give to people going through the same things you’ve gone through in the past few months?
I
t’s mind-numbingly painful, but pushing through was what now makes me feel like a badass and be able to see these positive things that have come from it. It’s so worth it, but it’s a rough journey, to say the least.

What, for you, are the most important rules of telling a good story?
I think being the most personal and true to what happened, because it feels like even if you exaggerate on that, as long as it starts with that nugget of truth to begin with. I feel like that’s so necessary to spring from truth regardless of where it ends up going.  My “No Moleste” bit, that’s a truth. Every time I check into a hotel room, I hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door. That’s true, but I exaggerate beyond there.

You recently landed a book deal with Ecco. What will that look like?
I think anything I want, is my understanding. I meet with my editor next week in New York, but I think anything I want. I’m going to write about these four months of hell that I went through, my childhood, my mother. I think my comedy career, all that kind of stuff is definitely going to end up there.

What are your hopes for the change of scene with your impending move to New York?It’s gonna be a whole new world. Everything in my life right now is New York-centric. My job working on Amy’s show takes place there. Ira Glass from This American Life wants me on the show regularly and he’s out there, and my publishing company is out there. I think I have a lot of writing ahead of me. I have a lot of stand-up to work on. I think it will be a nice change of pace. I have so much writing coming up that it’s just blowing my mind to think about. Everything is just writing, writing, writing. I’m anxious to be knee-deep in all of that.

You’re involved in so many different disciplines of comedy—writing and directing films, acting, stand-up, as well as this new book. How do you go about approaching each of these?
I do most of my writing on stage. I’ll have a concept and work it out in front of the audience, whereas I haven’t started writing the book, so I can’t imagine how that’s gonna happen, but I’ll probably do that from home. It’s such a solitary thing, writing a book, whereas with stand-up, you’re right there in front of everybody, working things out. I’m writing on Amy Schumer’s TV show, which I’ve been doing over the phone and email, and I’ll be in the office, and that’s so collaborative. They’re all very different things.

I was looking through the bio on your website and it says you were once an assistant on Xena: Warrior Princess. Please, please tell me more about that.
I was the world’s worst assistant. I’m still friends with Lucy Lawless and, I don’t know. They claim they kept me around because I was entertaining to hang out with, but certainly not because I was good at my job. I answered phones and I would take Lucy’s daughter to amusement parks when Lucy did photo shoots, or her sister would be in town from New Zealand and I would take her out to lunch. It was a good job for the time and it was kind of silly too, but I’m glad I had it, for sure. But it was so long ago, almost fifteen years ago that I worked there. But she’s still a friend. 

Photo by Ann Johansson

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