Update (6/13/2016): Tig’s new memoir, “I’m Just a Person,” is out this week.
One evening last August, comedian Tig Notaro sat at home in Los Angeles, wondering what she’d tell the crowd at the Largo club. Five months earlier she’d fought off pneumonia only to be waylaid by a gut infection that siphoned 20 pounds off her scrappy frame. Then her mother died and her relationship crumbled. Through it all, she had managed to keep people laughing, but a diagnosis of stage II breast cancer the day before had left her at wit’s end. When the solution finally dawned on her, she couldn’t stop laughing. That night she bounded onstage, waving: “Good evening! Hello. I have cancer! How are you?”
What followed “was one of the greatest standup performances I ever saw,” wrote Louis C.K., who posted the set on his website. Soon Notaro was everywhere. She did a segment on This American Life, landed a book deal, released a live recording, and, after a double mastectomy, appeared on Conan and teamed up with comedian pals Kyle Dunnigan and Amy Schumer to write Inside Amy Schumer, a new series that debuts April 30 on Comedy Central.
She’s also set to commence a tour with Dunnigan and comedian David Huntsberger, doing a live version of their popular weekly podcast, Professor Blastoff. I spoke with Notaro, 42, about her Huck Finn childhood, turning tragedy into comedy, and what to say to someone who has cancer. But first, listen to her “No Moleste” shtick…
Mother Jones: So how did this motley crew of comedians end up doing a podcast about religion, science, and philosophy?
Tig Notaro: David and I used to live together, and it seemed like he was always talking about that kind of stuff. And then Kyle and I were inseparable and he was talking about the same stuff. It just came about. I ran into Scott Aukerman, who hosts Comedy Bang Bang. He was just starting his Earwolf Podcast Network. I told him I was considering starting a podcast, and he said, “We’d love for you to be on.”
MJ: Give us the basic premise of Professor Blastoff.
TN: The idea is that we stumbled upon a hatch below Kyle’s house and we found all this old radio equipment, and it used to belong to a professor who built a time machine and got lost in space, and we communicate with him through this equipment, and that spins us off into these topics. We bring in guests that are comedians or doctors, specialists, friends, musicians—we just ask that people be knowledgeable or passionate about the topic. We get a lot of things wrong. It’s just a curiosity conversation, basically. I also describe it as if a teacher never quieted down the class clowns.
MJ: What’s the most eye-opening subject you’ve tackled?
TN: Hmm. We had a guy who used to cycle with Lance Armstrong, and he was telling us how everybody dopes. People are isolating Lance out as the bad guy when it’s just a part of cycling. That was interesting. But so many episodes were just ridiculously funny. Like between Kyle and the Sklar Brothers. They were on, talking about being twins, and I think I maybe said two words—I was choking, laughing the whole time.
MJ: If doping is the practice of cyclists, what’s the practice of comedians?
TN: A lot of times people will have after-parties or try and host an event for comedians, and they misunderstand us. They think it should be wild and crazy, or loud music, and comedians are typically pretty mellow people that just want to talk to each other. I think it would be highly unusual to find comedians who want to be at a loud, crowded party.
MJ: So you think stand-up attracts a certain type?
TN: It attracts all types. But I definitely call the comedy world the land of misfit toys. Looking around the room at my friends, that’s what I see.
MJ: You were raised in Pass Christian, Mississippi, right?
TN: Yeah, and also outside of Houston. I was very into animals and nature, and really obsessed with cats and monkeys. I used to play in the woods, wander off into the woods for hours. I’d bring a clipboard and think that I was doing some work out there, following the trails of raccoons or collecting bird feathers. I didn’t really have a research project, but I imagined that I did. And you know, climbed trees. I was a full-blown tomboy, I was very mischievous and got into a lot of trouble. Everybody in my family smoked, and I started smoking probably when I was nine. My friends used to call me Huckleberry Tig. I was really into music. I started playing guitar also when I was nine. I wanted to be in the Beatles, even though John Lennon died the year I got a guitar and the Beatles broke up before I was born.
MJ: What does a nine-year-old smoke?
TN: Anything that I could find. My mom smoked Pall Malls. I used to smoke coffee when I couldn’t get ahold of cigarettes. I’d roll coffee grounds into typing paper and smoke that and then vomit.
MJ: Oh, no!
TN: Oh, it’s so disgusting. I used to even dip and chew tobacco.
MJ: What was life like in Pass Christian?
TN: Nothing but good memories. I only lived there until kindergarten and then I used to go back and spend my summers and holidays with my grandmother and cousins and aunts and uncles. It’s right there on the Gulf Coast, and we would hang out on the water and go sailing or fishing or crabbing or floundering and build bonfires and there’s a harbor there and a yacht club. And then Hurricane Katrina came and wiped it out. That was devastating. My mother grew up in that town and my family’s been there for generations, so it was very sad to see these historic buildings and places where I had so many memories get wiped away.
MJ: Were any of the family homes destroyed?
TN: Not fully. But my entire family all went to the house of one of my cousins and rode out the storm there. It was a very scary time. There was no way to communicate. My fear was that I was going to go back and it would be mass graves. Luckily, everyone survived.
MJ: Tell me about your family’s move to Houston.
TN: When we were little we were excited—my mother married my stepfather and it seemed a fun, exciting journey. It’s funny to think it was only a six- or seven-hour drive.
MJ: You’ve said that your stepdad was a tough-love kind of guy, that when your toys were left out of place, you actually had to buy them back from him.
TN: Yeah, he was a very stern, robotic, stoic person. He was an attorney and in the military and I was very all over the place climbing trees and playing guitar, and I didn’t have an interest in school at all and was getting in trouble all the time. I was just an alien to him.
MJ: What did you get in trouble for?
TN: I got caught smoking a bunch. And I’d get in trouble in class. I was talking and playing pranks and skipping school, failing pretty much every class I took.
MJ: Did living in a stricter household force you to develop a thicker skin?
TN: Probably. I mean, I’m now a pretty good mix of my mother and my stepfather because I’m in general pretty mellow. I’m not hyper-emotional. But there’s also this side of me—my mother was an artist and very funny and a dancer and very wild and into fashion. My stepfather traveled a lot, and I kind of took on a role of parenting my mother a lot of times, because she was pretty hard to handle. A bit of a pistol.
MJ: How did your deadpan humor evolve ?
TN: I was definitely more animated as a child. My mother was very free-thinking and I picked up a lot of her sensibilities. But I was always considered funny, even when I was little. Like little. Four years old. In kindergarten I was a funny kid. As soon as you can be funny, I think I was funny.
MJ: Did the kids and teachers get it?
TN: Yeah, I was popular, and I always got the feeling that teachers were amused by me even though I was trouble. I failed three grades and dropped out of high school, and a lot of times people like to blame that on the school system, or that I was, you know, wronged in some way. As soon as I say I’m from Texas people say, “Oh, I’m sure the school was horrible” and they picture me wearing some barrel and suspenders and people are bucktoothed and ignoring me. But that’s not the case. I just had zero interest. I wanted to finish my research in the woods or play guitar or go have a cigarette.
MJ: Was it hard for you, growing up down South, when you realized you were gay?
TN: You would think that, but no one ever really batted an eye. It wasn’t like I was running around in junior high—that [realization] didn’t come to me until I was late teens, early 20s. But still, I never ran into a single problem with any friend or family member.
MJ: Lucky you!
TN: Yeah, there’s so many assumptions made about the South that I just don’t relate to because I didn’t have that experience.
MJ: You like to bring audiences to this point of discomfort. For instance, the bit where you push a stool around the stage, making a little scraping noise, until it’s almost painful. What’s going through your head? [Watch from 3:46 in this Conan appearance.]
TN: I am very comfortable in those moments. I think if it bombed the whole time, that would even be the best comedy set I could possibly do. Just to be like, “You guys, you have to watch this footage. Nobody laughed. And here I am for five minutes pushing the stool around.” You know? That’s so amusing to me. Sometimes I’ll push the stool up and down the aisles of the venue and it will take quite a while. It will go back and forth ferociously between awkwardness and people laughing until they’re crying.
MJ: So how did you get by when you were just starting out in comedy?
TN: I worked at restaurants and coffee shops and babysitting and just whatever I could do to make money.
MJ: As a kid, did you ever imagine you’d be a stand-up comic?
TN: I really wanted to, but I just didn’t understand how people became comedians. I kind of thought it was something you were born into. And so I wanted to be a veterinarian or an architect. I wanted to be in a band, and for some reason I could understand how you could be in a band because I had guitars and all my friends played music. Comedy was a secret want, but it wasn’t anything I pursued.
MJ: But eventually you started doing open mics?
TN: Yeah, right when I moved to LA, and I never stopped until I got cancer.
MJ: In the wake of your diagnosis, you managed to work your own personal hell into your routine, and the Professor Blastoff series as well.
TN: Up until then I didn’t really understand the power of the podcast. Our listeners were so supportive and touched and helpful during that time that it just really blew my mind. I knew people were listening, but I couldn’t really grasp it—I’m just sitting in a room with my friends talking. I had this weekly obligation to release this podcast, and I couldn’t just show up and be like, “Hey, so yeah it’s crazy I got a new dishwasher this week, and, you know…” when I’m sitting there devastated, like just gutted and hollowed out and, “Am I dying?” And my mother had just died. I felt like such a shell of a human. I don’t want to be annoying to people. I don’t want people to think I’m milking something, or that I can’t move on, but I’m still recovering. It hasn’t been a year since my life started to fall apart.
MJ: Plus, I guess your opening line at the Largo was just too good to pass up.
TN: It’s just so jarring to go out waving to the audience, “Hello, I have cancer, how are you? How’s your night going? Just diagnosed with cancer, just diagnosed, how are you doing?” trying to make it sound like I’m saying, “Are there any birthdays tonight, what are you celebrating?” but saying something really horrifying. That contradiction really amused me. I really went back and forth about whether or not I should do it and I’m so glad I did.
MJ: It reminds me a bit of your routine with the stool.
TN: There’s definitely a similarity. Because people weren’t laughing—then laughing.
MJ: How have women with breast cancer responded all of this? Are there any particular letters or emails or conversations that stand out?
TN: There are so many, and it’s not just women with breast cancer. Maybe a week ago I heard from a 34-year-old guy that has stage IV pancreatic cancer, and I think he’s been given a year or so to live, and his sensibility and sense of humor is very dark and he felt like people didn’t understand him. Listening to my Live album, it touched on so many things that he felt and he just feels validated, you know? I read everything, but I unfortunately don’t have the time to respond because I wouldn’t be able to live my life or create my art or write. It would be a full-time job.
MJ: What did people say that you found helpful—or not helpful?
TN: What is not helpful was when I expressed what I was going through and people kind of plowed over me with pure and utter positivity. It was very isolating and it didn’t validate my concerns or fears. Not that I needed somebody saying, “Oh yeah. You’re screwed. You’re gonna die.” It was just, let me express my concerns and my fears and say that you hear me and you understand. I struggled the most when somebody would be like, “Listen, you’re gonna be fine. Cancer has come a long way.” I didn’t find myself going, “Oh, phew, okay. Now I’ll be able to sleep tonight.” It was so much more helpful when people would say, “I can’t imagine” or “That sounds scary” or “What are you thinking?”—just kind of exploring those moments with me. When you’re told that you have an invasive tumor that could have possibly spread and you won’t know until surgery, you don’t go, “Eh, you know what? Cancer, it’s come a long way!”
MJ: Do you now sort of view yourself as the comic who grapples with dark material?
TN: Not at all. I am wanting to kind of clear the slate and start over. I’m always going to do whatever I think is funniest. If something’s dark, I’ll do it. If it’s a sock puppet, if it’s a stool, I’ll do it. There’s no preconceived idea of who I think I might be now.
MJ: Speaking of which, how’s your book coming?
TN: Good. I turned in my first chapter and my editor wrote back saying that it was exquisite.
MJ: What’s going to be the most difficult part to write?
TN: The stuff with my mother. I start crying when certain things come up, certain memories, certain feelings, and it’s intense. But I think it’s good for me—and therapeutic.