August 9, 2013
It happened in four months, beginning in March last year. First Tig Notaro contracted pneumonia, then C. diff (Clostridium difficile) and an intestinal infection, then her mother tripped at home and died, then cancer was diagnosed in both her breasts. “I tell people that had nothing bar the pneumonia happened, that would have been my major ordeal of 2012,” the comedian says in a New York café. On August 3 last year, the day the cancer was diagnosed and she was told that it was likely it had spread to her lymph nodes, Notaro performed a set at the Largo theatre in Los Angeles in which she related this litany of tragedy, dusted with her sharp, wry delivery.
Notaro, 42, became famous after her friend, the comedian Louis C.K., released the audio of the set on his website; the album, Live (as in want to live, not perform live), has gone on to sell a chart-topping 100,000 units. Just before she went on stage, Notaro told him what had happened. He wrote afterwards: “I stood in the wings behind a leg of curtain, about 8ft from her, and watched her tell a stunned audience, ‘Hi. I have cancer. Just found out today. I’m going to die soon.’ What followed was one of the greatest stand-up performances I ever saw. I was crying and laughing and listening like never in my life. Here was this small woman standing alone against death and simply reporting where her mind had been and what had happened, employing her gorgeously acute stand-up voice to her own death.
“The show was an amazing example of what comedy can be. A way to visit your worst fears and laugh at them. Tig took us to a scary place and made us laugh there. Not by distracting us from the terror but by looking right at it and just turning to us and saying, ‘Wow. Right?’ She proved that everything is funny. And has to be. And she could only do this by giving us her own death as an example. So generous.”
His description is a brilliant encapsulation of Notaro’s delivery and observational humour that she’ll showcase at the Edinburgh Festival in Boyish-Girl Interrupted. A “mix of silliness and talking about her life”, Notaro says that the title is derived from the number of times that she is confused for a man. It happened the other night with a New York cab driver. She is called “Sir”, she speaks, they apologise, “and I can’t waste my energy getting mad at people”. She is as deadpan in real life as on stage, a delicious sly monotone delivery, perfectly and uniquely paced. One ex-partner told her that she was similar on stage and off, “but she thought I was nicer on stage”.
One of my favourite Notaro riffs that you can watch online follows her epic, fraught connection with the singer Taylor Dayne (Tell it to my Heart) who for years she kept bumping into and who kept ignoring her. After Notaro made the story an integral part of her act, Dayne appeared at one of Notaro’s shows to serenade her. “After the cancer was diagnosed she sent me a text saying, ‘Hon, I heard, are you OK? If you need anything you can call me to talk anytime’ — as if, after all these years of rudeness, the person I will call in my moment of darkness will be Taylor Dayne.”
She says this smiling, she “really likes” Dayne, mostly for not apologising for being rude. “Oh sure, that sounds like me,” Dayne said when Notaro described her constant blanking.
Notaro first became interested in stand-up as a teenager, having grown up watching Joan Rivers, Richard Pryor and Saturday Night Live. She was born Mathilde and nicknamed “Tig” by her brother. A “mischievous, always up to something” child growing up in Mississippi and Texas, she hated being told what to learn. “I’d rather figure it out for myself.” Her mother, an artist, was a prankster, her stepfather an attorney. Being gay was never anything to agonise over. “My mother was not the typical mother: she was pretty wild and liked to party.”
Notaro left school and went to Denver to get into the music scene, “too shy to perform on stage, but I obviously got over that”. Her stand-up career began at open mike nights, “where I did my fair share of bombing”, but soon built up a steady stream of bookings and began touring.
Notaro became friends with comedians such as Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer, guest-starring on their TV shows and other hits such as The Office and Community. Her podcast, Professor Blastoff, made it to No1 on the iTunes comedy podcast chart. There’s a funny skit on Schumer’s TV show, where she uses Notaro’s cancer as an excuse for underlings to do things for her as she’s so traumatised. “What interested me was having good turnouts at shows, not fame and celebrity,” Notaro says.
Were she and her mother Susie close? “It was a very up and down relationship. But we were very close. We loved each other.” Her mother tripped at home, hit her leg on the end table, fell and hit her head. Notaro’s stepfather checked his wife’s head, Susie stayed up to watch TV and when he woke she was unconscious, with blood coming from her nose and mouth. She didn’t regain consciousness. Notaro and her girlfriend of nine months broke up after her mother died.
“Our relationship was so new it had nothing to go on,” Notaro recalls. “It was such a horrible time. She did her best, I did my best. It was really, really rough. She was at my hospital bedside and my mother’s funeral. I was so sick and it was very stressful. I wanted her to leave me. I felt a lot of pressure in a new relationship to be my best when I was so vulnerable and distraught. I’m not normally a hyper-emotional person but I was in physical and emotional pain, I was relentlessly crying and a bag of bones.”
There were moments when comedy helped her, “but it took me a while to feel anything other than horrible”, she says. The effects of cancer were the more insidious for being invisible: with C. diff she was losing half a pound a day and her bones were starting to show.
She didn’t have reconstructive surgery after her double mastectomy. “I did, they just did a horrible job,” she smiles, pointing at her flat chest. “No, I didn’t. They said the surgery was going to be a lot longer and more painful and my chest wasn’t very big to begin with. Fake boobs didn’t feel right for me. I don’t have nipples, just scars. But the scars feel more normal to me than having fake boobs.”
When she spoke about the mastectomy at Largo last year, she knew this wasn’t going to be a “regular gig, but didn’t think it would change my life. I thought it would be my last chance to perform. I knew I wasn’t going to tell my typical jokes. I would see if I could make things funny and be honest about what was going on in my life and with my surgery treatment.” It took her two months to agree to Louis C.K.’s idea to release it and is “shocked” that it’s become the No1 selling comedy album. “When you do a show it might generate chatter, but not go around the world,” she says.
Notaro thought she might die, her life had “unravelled so much. I had no reason to think things would go my way.” Had she made peace with the idea of death? “I was trying to. I was thinking how I had been in love, travelled the world and had a career that had far exceeded what I thought it would. Some people live a miserable life and die, and I didn’t. I’ve been a lucky, lucky person. I thought, ‘If I die right now, I’ve lived the life of a 300-year-old’.”
The cancer didn’t spread and Notaro says that she feels “great”; she takes probiotics and has started a pill treatment for blocking hormones that cause cancer. She is “definitely dating”, maybe more than one person. “I thought I’d be damaged goods, but it’s been no different than before. I meet girls and it’s been totally good and fun.” She’d like to be in love, but she hasn’t been able to “maintain a relationship. I’ve probably dated a few rotten eggs and probably been a rotten egg a few times.” She’d like children and is not “opposed to” getting married.
Notaro is working on a new one-woman show and on the pilot for a TV comedy show. “One of the biggest influences in my life is Chrissie Hynde. When I was a kid I remember an interview where she said she was sick of people saying, ‘I’m a woman, I’m gay, I’m black’ as a reason for why they were held back. She said, ‘Oh just shut up, go for it, no one cares. Yes, there are issues that should be dealt with, but don’t get hung up on them yourself.” She smiles. “I just saw this wonderful newspaper headline: ‘Seagull with diarrhoea barely makes it to crowded beach in time’.” She laughs. “It killed me. Killed me.”