In the space of four months in 2012, comedian Tig Notaro’s life imploded. First, she was diagnosed with a rare illness that prevented her from digesting food, then within days, her mother had passed away following a tragic accident. Next, as her relationship was breaking up, Notaro was told she had bilateral breast cancer.
But instead of retreating, Notaro went straight back to work with a phoenix-like zeal, beginning a now-legendary set at L.A.’s Largo venue with the words, “Hello. I have cancer.” The audio of that set was released as the album Live on Louis C.K.’s site, selling more copies than the new KISS record, and Notaro went from working actor and stand-up to household name.
Notaro has since gone on to write her memoir I’m Just A Person, and to create and star in One Mississippi–an Amazon show based on her life. Both Showtime and Netflix have made documentaries about her, but it is her HBO special Boyish Girl Interrupted that got her an Emmy nom.
Notaro talked to AwardsLine about her hands-down triumph over tragedy, feeling compelled to perform shirtless and her delight in her children, as she says, “I’m the luckiest unlucky person in the world.”
Before 2012 you were quite a private person, but then you decided to get really personal and now you’re known for that. How have you handled that level of exposure?
It’s certainly been a big change, but it’s also been just so freeing. Once it’s opened it seems odd to go back, but I mean of course anything could happen. I just know that for myself, I learned very quickly that sharing it empowers everybody–the person sharing and people that are receiving–and it’s worked professionally and personally. It doesn’t mean I have to share every detail of my life at all times, but if something authentically feels right, which it did at the time, then yeah.
When Louis C.K. first approached you to put out the audio of your Live set at the Largo, one of the reasons you agreed was you thought it could help people. What feedback have you had?
People write me every day. It feels like this cycle that keeps giving, because as far along as I get in my happiness and success, hearing other people’s stories is a constant reminder of where I came from, where people are and how much help everybody still needs. I’ve tried to stay involved with different charities and donating time and money, and not just getting out of that dark abyss that I was in, and just dusting my knees off, and heading off into my great new life now. I think it’s important to have that awareness that continues and not be scared of it. Because I know that my life can change like anybody’s. Things are so great now, but that doesn’t mean that they always will be. Hopefully they will, but you never know.
Are there times when it’s hard to be well known as ‘the woman who had cancer’? How do you balance that?
I do know what you’re saying, but I don’t think I’ve really put much energy into that. I think that people are going to think of me however they want to think of me. Whether it’s female, or gay, or cancer, or funny, or unfunny. I have no control over that and so I always go back to, “Well, I think this is funny or interesting, and I’m going to talk about that.” I just try not to think too much about how I’m perceived. I think as long as I’m still selling tickets and can pay my mortgage, then people are probably thinking good enough things or whatever about me to keep the train moving.
In the HBO special showing your set in Boston, it was the third time you performed shirtless. What was the process of that decision and how did it feel the first time you did it?
Well, the day I got home from the hospital I turned to my friend, the actress Lake Bell, who was with me at my house, and I was like, “God, I feel compelled to do stand-up with my shirt off.” And she was like, “Oh my God, you have to do that.” We really had this exhilarating gut laugh about that. Then, as time went on and I was healing and having some distance, it seemed like it could’ve been great that moment I thought of it, but it felt like too much time had passed. I didn’t feel connected to it.
Then I got out on the road and I started touring, which I hadn’t done in so long, and I was in front of people, hundreds, thousands of people. The audiences felt just electric. And while I was performing, I kept thinking, “I could just take my shirt off.” That thought couldn’t quit popping up in my head. So, I finally just did one night at Largo and people went nuts. It appeared naturally in my head to do it and then going on stage I couldn’t deny it. It just seemed like such a funny thing to do and quite possibly important thing to do. That was one of the scariest things to me–to see my body. And then the fact that I got to a place where I could look at my body and feel confident, and then show people my body and be like, “This is all it is, this is my body healed and I’m okay, and if you’re going through this or you know someone, this is what it is and it’s fine.”
This may not have happened to you in years, but if you feel like a set is not going well how do you deal with it?
Actually I would say it did happen maybe a year-and-a-half ago when I was out touring—maybe even less than that—getting ready for my special. I was doing clubs and colleges, and theaters and living rooms, any place that I could get on stage just working out material. Then, I went to a club in Florida and I could tell right off I was not hitting my demographic, because when I got to the venue it said, “Tonight Tig Notaro from Garfunkel and Oates,” which was a TV show I made one appearance on. When I saw that poster I laughed so hard I thought, “Oh my God. I don’t even know if the club knows who I am.” It was just like somebody at the club googled my credits and just grabbed that. I did the show and it was pretty silent for halfway through, and then I finally just was talking to them saying, “Don’t you think this is funny, that I was flown here to do a show and you guys don’t recognize anything as funny?” There was no sign on anybody’s face that I was delivering comedy and I thought it was really amusing. I took the mike down, and sat at a table with this couple and just was like, “What do you think it is?” And they were like, “I don’t know. It just hasn’t been funny.” And so, while I was chatting with them I think I kind of won the audience over and had this open dialogue in the room.
I think probably everything that happened in 2012 really makes me aware of how much things are not a big deal and even when they are a big deal everything will ultimately be fine, and even if it’s not fine that’s fine too.
How did your Amazon show come together?
They all were offered to me, all these different platforms and deals after the 2012 time period. It was certainly an embarrassment of riches, because in Los Angeles or Hollywood, or whatever you want to call it, obviously not everything pans out and everything kind of panned out all at the same time. I was very traumatized by that time period physically and emotionally, and it was really a tremendous opportunity to express myself. The TV show is a departure from 100 percent factual and that’s been a very nice and freeing experience. I hired a writer’s room with very talented, amazing people that have all become my new best friends. People that might think, “Oh, I know her story. I don’t need to see that show.” Beyond the pilot, it’s not totally my story. Parts of it are but a lot of it is not.
What direction is your material taking now?
The material I’m doing now is still coming together and there’s one chunk of material that I would have to say is my new favorite thing I’ve ever done in my career ever, and it lasts about 20 minutes, if not longer. And it’s the most ridiculous thing I think I’ve ever done on stage. There’s nothing heavy or deep, or profound in any direction that you could find and I don’t want to say what it is but it’s been very fun to do. I have stories and jokes from my life, my marriage. I have twins now. I don’t want to take myself too seriously thinking that I’m always having to be this cathartic, intense and deep person, because I certainly enjoy silliness.
Not to be a cheese ball, but my personal life has really unfolded in a way that I, on a daily basis, can’t believe. I’m surrounded by these babies and the love of my life. We have a compound where Stephanie’s mother and sister live across the street, and her brother lives in our backyard with his girlfriend. Cooking dinner together and having family around is beyond anything. I don’t want to rule Hollywood. Other people can do that. I just want to be happy and comfortable, and rested and fulfilled, and call it a day. I truly mean that.