Live and let live

Tig Notaro puts the big 'C' in comedy and sticks it to cancer

After Notaro’s cancer diagnosis, the comedian says she “was scared that it meant that I would never work again.”

After Notaro’s cancer diagnosis, the comedian says she “was scared that it meant that I would never work again.”

Photo by Ruthie Wyatt

Catch Tig Notaro on Friday, May 9, 7 p.m. at Assembly Music Hall, 1000 K Street. Tickets are $20. For more on Notaro's comedy, check out

Tig Notaro got the news on a Wednesday. Nine days later—August 3, 2012, to be exact—the comedian stepped onstage at Largo in Los Angeles and addressed the crowd.

“Good evening, hello. I have cancer,” she said. Her voice was friendly, conversational. She just as well may have been chatting about the weather instead of dropping an extremely personal bomb.

“Hi, how are you?” she continued. “Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer.”

At first the audience just let out a few nervous chuckles. Eventually, however, it became clear as Notaro ticked off a list of other recent events in her life—hospitalization for a bacterial infection, breaking up with her girlfriend, the sudden death of her mother after a fall—that she wasn’t joking. She’d had a pretty crap year so far and that July 25, 2012, diagnosis of stage 2 cancer in both breasts was just the crap cherry on top of the crap sundae.

Then again, Notaro was joking; she was, in fact, just doing that one thing she did best: making others laugh.

“Emotionally and physically I wasn’t in a good place, but I started writing about what I was going through before [the Largo] set,” Notaro explained during a recent phone interview with SN&R.

Notaro, who performs Friday, May 9, at Assembly, didn’t think she’d actually use any of that new material in her set. In fact, she says she wasn’t sure she’d ever tell anyone anything—ever—about her diagnosis.

“I was convinced that I was just going to keep it a secret, because I was scared that it meant I would never work again,” she said.

As the set grew nearer, however, Notaro changed her mind. And when she finally faced the Largo crowd and started talking, she says she found the experience extremely therapeutic.

The newness just made it all the more genuine—as if Notaro had just popped by your house to commiserate about her run of bad luck over a beer.

“God never gives you more than you can handle,” she told the audience at one point. “I just keep picturing God going, ’You know what? I think she can take a little more.’”

And yet one of the set’s most notable qualities was the sense that the comedian wasn’t merely picking at the fresh scabs of her own life, but rather reassuring a group of her closest friends.

“It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s gonna be OK. It might not be OK,” she said, addressing a fan who seemed particularly upset by the revelation.

Looking back, Notaro says she was “trying to find a balance—trying to make it tolerable.”

“I was definitely trying to make [the audience] comfortable, but it was also tongue-in-cheek.”

On the phone, Notaro’s demeanor is thoughtful, quiet and not particularly funny. In other words, it’s the real-life extension of her comedy: Observational, wry and drier than sandpaper, it recalls the likes of Stephen Wright and Todd Barry without ever actually co-opting their styles. (Google Notaro’s “No Moleste” set for an idea of just how wickedly minimalistic her jokes are.)

But back to Largo. Louis C.K. was in the audience that night, and the next day the comedian tweeted his admiration:

“In 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.”

Louis C.K. also made the set’s audio available for download on his site and it quickly went viral, bringing Notaro to a much wider audience than her cult status had previously afforded. (The set was also eventually released via iTunes and then as part of Notaro’s 2013 stand-up comedy album, the aptly titled Live).

Born in Jackson, Miss., Notaro grew up in Texas before dropping out of high school and heading west to Denver, where she performed in and managed bands.

Eventually, Notaro turned her attention to comedy, trying her luck at an open-mic.

That first outing, she recalled, was gratifying.

“I’d followed comedy my whole life—it was something I’d always fantasized about doing, but I never thought about it being a [career] option for me,” she said. “I always considered myself funny, so I tried it, and it felt more right than anything.”

It wasn’t an easy road, however. Notaro recalled that her second-ever gig was a total disaster—she was literally booed off the stage. And yet she persisted.

“You just kind of hang on to the memory [of what went right before] and hope that you can do it again,” she said.

From there, she steadily built her career, performing stand-up and eventually making her way to TV, appearing regularly on her close friend’s show The Sarah Silverman Program and getting small parts on sitcoms such as The Office and Community. In 2011, she launched Professor Blastoff, a comedy podcast centered on science, philosophy and the humanities, with comedians Kyle Dunnigan and David Huntsberger.

“They’re close friends of mine, and those are the topics that came up so regularly whenever we were together,” Notaro said of the weekly show’s focus. “When we decided to do a podcast, it just seemed to make the most sense, [but] it’s evolved over the years—it’s gotten more personal and we allow ourselves to be sillier even with the heavier and more scientific topics. It’s more fun now.”

In addition to the podcast and current tour, Notaro keeps busy with myriad projects. She’s a regular writer (and occasional guest) for Inside Amy Schumer on Comedy Central, and she’s also working on her own Showtime comedy special as well as a pair of sitcoms—one that she described as “mainstream” and the other as “more personal.”

To that end, Notaro will get even more intimate with a memoir scheduled for publication in 2015.

“I’ll be writing about the four months that my life fell apart—I bounce around in the telling of the story, to my childhood and [writing about] my mother,” she said.

Although she’s cancer-free and nearly two years out from that particularly horrible stretch, Notaro said writing about what happened remains dual-edged.

“It’s therapeutic but also very hard,” she said. “Mostly I can compartmentalize without being emotional, but when I’m alone and sifting through the heavy moments, it’s surprisingly emotional for me.”

Somehow, it’s easy to imagine that once she’s finished, Notaro will have managed—just as she did with that now legendary Largo set—to once again find that balance between raw, honest, compassionate and subversively funny.