How the out comic turned tragedy into comic gold.
Nothing stops Mathilde “Tig” Notaro. The comic and actor is not one to sit still and wait for things to happen. Take, for instance, how, when she was just starting out in the L.A. comedy scene, she would rush from one end of the city to the other just for the chance to do a five-minute set at an open mic night—without a car. If you’ve spent even a day in Los Angeles, you know what a challenge that is. America’s most sprawling city is a web of highways, four-lane boulevards, hills and valleys that go on forever. But that daunting topography didn’t stop Notaro. She would ride her bike—her bike.
She’s also a multitasker: The day of our interview, she was driving (she has a car now) to get her mail as we talked. Time is of the essence, you see. But then, nearly dying several times in several different ways in the space of a few months will do that to you—there is a sudden desire to make every second count. And she does.
If you aren’t familiar with Notaro’s comedy, her specialty is a unique, long-form routine involving stories that are so off-the-charts funny that the first time I heard her do one (her now-infamous Taylor Dayne routine), I thought I would literally die laughing.
On August 3, 2012, Notaro told one of these extraordinary tales—a stunning routine ripped from her life. The audience was in shock as the comic stepped on stage at Largo in L.A. and explained that she’d just been diagnosed with breast cancer in both breasts.
Just as in only-days–before just.
For someone as driven as Notaro, if she has a story to tell, she has to tell it.
The day after her set, she was getting calls from all over. It seems that Louis C.K. had gone on Twitter to talk about her, and Notaro was unprepared for the power of social media.
Louis C.K. tweeted, “In 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful stand-up sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.” It was, Louis C.K. would say later, when he put the audio of her set up on his website, “instantly legendary.” (Notaro’s set that night is now available on iTunes and on CD.)
The irony about the Twitterverse response is that Notaro says her main concern in talking about having cancer was that she wouldn’t get work. “It was just really funny,” she says. “I was talking to my manager days before and asking, like, ‘How are we going to keep this a secret?’ ”
But she soon realized her cancer wouldn’t stay a secret. She tested the waters in the July 31 episode of her “Professor Blastoff” podcast by announcing that she had cancer. Factual, a little wry, but not really humorous. She said, “About a year ago, I noticed what would be a lump in my teat, and I have been just thinking of course that it’s nothing. A week or two ago, I went in [to the doctor] to get my first mammogram. I’m 41. I guess I should have started last year. So I went in and got the mammogram and the results were abnormal. Go in for a follow-up, and I was told the follow-up would take 30 or 45 minutes at most, and yesterday I spent the entire day in the hospital while they ran numerous tests. The doctor came in and she was clearly a highly intelligent, kind, but very concerned person. And when I was going through the tests all day yesterday, part of me thought there was a misunderstanding…based on already being hospitalized with a deadly illness, and my mother dying, there was just no way they were going to come in and tell me anything but, ‘OK, everything looks great!’ And the doctor came in and her tone was very scary. And she said ‘OK, so, we have found something in both breasts.’ After all the explanation, I said, ‘Wait a minute, are you telling me that I possibly have cancer?’ And she said, ‘Well, we have to get biopsies done, but from what I can see, with all the testing we’ve done, it is very probable that you do, in both breasts, yes.’ ”
That was on a Tuesday. By the weekend, Notaro was on at Largo.
So how did she feel when she stepped on stage knowing she was going to share her diagnosis? “I thought it was going to be a disaster,” Notaro admits. “Everything in my life had fallen apart and I had no idea what was going to happen next. I thought, This could be the end of my life! And I loved stand-up and I could see myself going into surgery and things just falling apart.”
Notaro had good reason to think things would not go well for her. As she explained to the audience in her set at Largo, in the space of four months she’d had double pneumonia, then she’d gotten C.diff, a rare, life-threatening, intestinal infection caused by the antibiotics she’d received for the pneumonia. The already slender Notaro had lost 20 pounds from the C.diff and was “raw and weak.”
But that wasn’t all. Her mother had had a freak accident, a fall at her home, and she’d died suddenly as a result of her injuries. And then Notaro’s girlfriend—overwhelmed by everything—broke up with her.
That’s what Notaro took up on stage with her at Largo. If you find yourself laughing nervously, and saying, “Omigod, no!,” then you could have been in the audience that night, when she opened her set with, “Good evening. Hello. Thank you. Thank you. I have cancer. How are you?”
As Notaro talks about that night, she describes what happened in the audience. “It was quite a mix of responses,” she says. “There were people who looked shocked, and people who were just flat-out laughing hysterically, and there were people who were crying. I had no expectations about how people would respond, but it was good. It was definitely good.”
But why talk about cancer? “I didn’t feel like not talking about it,” she says succinctly, adding, “It was a major chance that I took. The audience was so great. It was a whole new experience. In stand-up and in life I take my own advice, and my own advice is, do what you want—and I wanted to do this, to try this out, to see what would happen.”
She explains how going with your gut in comedy—and in life—is vital. “Putting restraints on yourself and who you are is so debilitating. For me, if I have a story to tell, I have to tell it. Physical comedy, one-liner, or 15-minute story, I’m going to do it. What I have to say—my point of view—is going to come through.”
But Notaro is not oblivious to her audience, either. “You really can tell how it all is going,” she says, “by how they respond.”
There’s a point in the 30-minute cancer routine where everything is very quiet, and Notaro, who has been interacting with the audience throughout, telling them it’s going to be all right, asks if she should switch over to her regular routine and tell a few standard jokes. A man in the audience yells, “No!…This is fucking amazing…It’s beautiful. Do. Not. Stop.”
So she continues on: “Thank you. Now I feel bad that I don’t have more tragedy to share,” and everyone laughs wildly, through tears no doubt.
Until her serious run of truly terrible bad luck, she was “doing great.” Her career was moving along well. She was a regular contributor to NPR’s award-winning This American Life. She had appeared on Conan, to very positive reviews. She’d performed on Comedy Central. She’d been on her friend Sarah Silverman’s show, as a lesbian police officer. She was planning on heading to New York to work on Amy Schumer’s show. And she was doing stand-up literally everywhere.
Comedy is what Notaro has always been drawn to. She says, “I was always interested in doing it, I always wanted to try it out.”
The excitement in her voice rises as she says, “It was even better than I had hoped. It was such a rush, and it felt so good to do, and I’ve just been obsessed with it, ever since I was a kid.” Audience laughter, she says, is exhilarating. “As soon as they laugh, you remember, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m doing this for.’ ”
Stopping is not in Notaro’s future plans. After her “year in hell,” she asserts, “I’m oddly well.” She laughs a little and explains that this didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it was a hellishly long struggle. But now, she says, “I’m almost totally back to normal. It’s been a long road, but my health is great. I have a pretty strict diet that I cheat on pretty regularly. I just saw the oncologist yesterday. I’m beginning a new treatment in a few weeks that will last for the next five years and is more security that I’m taking care of myself.”
Notaro takes a deep breath, pauses, and says, “Things were so bad for so long. I didn’t know if I was dying. I didn’t know what the next step was.” She wishes she’d had her mother’s support through the diagnosis and the treatments, but she is also glad her mother didn’t have to go through it with her. “She was a very emotional person.” Her loss hangs in the air for a moment.
Notaro doesn’t mention the ex-girlfriend, but says, “I’m dating. I’m not in a committed relationship, but I’m dating.” Then she voices what so many cancer survivors fear: “I thought my life was going to change and I was going to be considered damaged goods. But I’m alive in the world and meeting people. It’s been nice to find that having scars across my chest doesn’t matter.”
The fact that her cancer routine has gone viral has helped with that. “I don’t have to explain a lot. It’s pretty out-there. I mean, there are people who don’t know, but I talk about it.”
Notaro is not traveling as much as she once did, but has a regular schedule of appearances in L.A. She’s enjoying her new normal. “It’s not that everything was bad, but now everything is good. It’s a process. But I’m in such a good place. I was in New York and doing a lot of appearances. I have a lot of new material. I’m writing a book. I’m working on a TV show—it’s being tossed around and talked about and it’s in the early stages of developing the idea. A documentary is being made about me right now, about my year following my run of hell.”
The future seems bright—and busy. Notaro has been refining her new material by popping into comedy clubs unannounced and trying it out. She has a program planned on Showtime with the Canadian comedian Jon Dore. And the hit series Inside Amy Schumer, for which Notaro is a writer and sometimes an actor, has been picked up for a second series.
She’s alive and well. Life is opening up wide for Notaro, who admits, “Now I am having to turn things down. It’s embarrassing—it’s just so good.”