In the sketch Cancer Excuse, from her Comedy Central show, Amy Schumer complains to a friend about having to go to a bridal shower. She looks at her phone and exclaims, “Oh my gosh. Tig has cancer.”
“One of the writers on my show.”
“Amy, you must be so upset right now,” her friend says. Schumer, whose persona on the program is George Costanza-esque, realizes the opportunity here. Her friend insists she just go home, to which Schumer replies, “Yeah. I’m so sad. This is a hard time.” As the sketch progresses, she uses Notaro’s cancer to get out of bigger and bigger obligations until the bubble’s burst.
The premise of the sketch, which Notaro helped write, is nonfiction: Schumer had hired Notaro to write her show when, a year ago this week, Notaro was diagnosed with stage 2, invasive cancer in both breasts. (In reality, Schumer rented a New York apartment where the two of them and Notaro’s best friend and podcast co-host, Kyle Dunnigan, could live and work while Notaro was in chemo.)
If everything you know about Tig Notaro is from stories written in the past year, then you could be forgiven for thinking that she, too, has benefitted greatly from this bad news. Her instantly legendary 31-minute set at Los Angeles club Largo just after her diagnosis last August, which began with her saying, “Hello, I have cancer,” went viral in ways that entire stand-up routines simply do not. She sold 100,000 digital copies of the show (her second de facto album, originally hosted on Louis CK’s site) in just six weeks, good enough to make it the biggest comedy album of the year. It was a tour de force of grace and wit and became the definitive moment of her career, the kind of break that grizzled, cutthroat stand-ups dream about (except for the almost dying part). But who wants to be defined by that?
“Before this, I was very happy with my career,” Notaro, 42, says outside at a Brooklyn bar, late on a summer evening. “All I can do is go, ‘OK, that happened, and now I have a lot of work to do.’”
She’s ordered a soda water, no ice, with a lemon and a lime, and is wearing more or less the same thing she does every day: jeans and a plaid button-down. (In colder weather, she adds a fleece-lined, tan corduroy jacket.) She’s thin but not sickly. Her chin is elvish and skin taut, and her hair a mop friends and fans adoringly call “the Tig wig.”
Now cancer-free, Notaro is busier than she’s ever been, still recording her popular podcast, Professor Blastoff, with Dunnigan and comedian David Huntsburger, and touring with and without them. She has roles in movies like Lake Bell’s In a World, Ryan Phillippe’s Shreveport, and next year’s Walk of Shame. A documentary is being made about her (Huntsberger jokes she’s become a Kardashian). Showtime just green-lit a series called Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro, in which she’ll perform comedy in peoples’ basements, backyards, and barns. She’s also in the thick of writing a still-untitled memoir, to be published by Ecco; publishers were having a bidding war over it last fall while she was literally unconscious, undergoing the double mastectomy that also revealed the cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes. She then flew to New York and moved in with Schumer and Dunnigan. (He and Notaro slept on Ikea bunk beds — “I highly recommend them,” Dunnigan says).
This kind of ubiquity in the entertainment business is hardly a given when you’re an androgynous lesbian whose comedy isn’t about her sexual identity or, really, her personal life at all; she’s more Demitri Martin than Margaret Cho. Her bits are jokey and her delivery slow, she seems to relish in an audience’s discomfort. And even with this good fortune, there is caution.
“I know my next album won’t sell the way that did,” she says. “It was the number one best-selling comedy album of 2012. I can’t do that again. You know?”
But what if she can? What if this was not a definitive moment but merely an incidental, incremental bump in a snowballing, singular career? What if she’s, like, the Beatles?
“I’m pretty sure I’m not the Beatles,” she says. “Though I thought I was in the Beatles when I was in fifth grade.”
“The fifth one. Tig.”
She was born Mathilde O’Callaghan Notaro in Jackson, Mississippi and moved to Pass Christian, on the Gulf Coast, at six months. That part of the world that still feels like home to her. (The vestiges of her Southern accent can be detected on a word like “isn’t,” which she pronounces “idn’t.”) She’s always gone by Tig, a childhood nickname. They moved to Spring, Texas, half an hour outside Houston, when she was 5. When she pictures Spring, she pictures the woods behind her house, all little skinny pine trees, where she made forts and fires, and later smoked cigarettes. She was fearless — as tough, if not tougher, than the boys, including her older brother. She played soccer and taught herself guitar. She worshipped John Lennon. Most of all, she worshipped Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde.
Her stepfather, an attorney who traveled often, was taciturn, strict. Her mother was a free spirit, a dancer, and painter. “My mother had a real I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude,” she describes. “If anyone had a problem with her or me, it was always, ‘Tell them to go to hell.’ It kind of backfired on her a little because she raised somebody who had a go-to-hell attitude.”
Though Notaro was smart and read constantly — music magazines especially — she hated school. She didn’t always show up, and when she did she either slept or goofed around. She failed eighth grade twice, was nonetheless moved up to ninth, and failed that. In spite of this, she was well liked by teachers. Just recently, in fact, she was on the phone with her assistant principal (Notaro spent a lot of time in her office): “She just bought a double-wide trailer and has five horses and eleven dogs. She’s loving life.”
Eventually her truancy got so bad they gave her an in-school suspension. She was seated in a cubicle with a seemingly never-ending pile of schoolwork stacked before her and thinking, Who do you think is going to do this? “I started to walk out and the teacher was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, where you going?’ and I was like, ‘I’m heading home. I’m finished.’” She explains she never aspired to have some big paycheck, some cavernous home. She wanted to pay her rent, put $5 of gas in her car. “When I dropped out, you know, teachers, people would say I was going to regret it. I am 42 and I do not regret it.”
Beth Reddick met Notaro in eighth grade (Reddick’s first time, Notaro’s second). In their twenties, the two and another friend lived together in Austin, then Colorado, and finally L.A. Notaro says they basically followed Reddick to wherever she was going for school or work (she’s now a TV producer). Reddick explains that even when Notaro dropped out with essentially a seventh-grade education, few worried about her. “I had all these friends, including myself, who were doing well, all these outside indicators that everything’s fine,” she says. “But Tig’s the one that’s the most together out of all of us. The most driven, even though it didn’t look like what everyone else was doing.”
Notaro is an adventurer, of the sort who in another century would have walked down to the docks and boarded a ship bound for an unknown world. “That’s absolutely true,” Reddick says. When she was little, “she’d leave her house in the morning and have her own adventures all day long and come back at night. We used to call her Huckleberry Tig.”
In 1997, the trio had just moved to West Hollywood when Notaro announced she was going to do stand-up at an open mic. She was 26. Though she’d never mentioned wanting to do comedy before — she’d managed bands in Colorado, worked in food service, child care — Reddick wasn’t surprised. “It seemed like the most natural thing on earth, because Tig was the funniest person I knew. Why not do that? She always had a notebook with her, was always writing. She wasn’t like, ‘OK, L.A., here I am, make me famous.’”
“Everybody in my family is funny,” Notaro says, “even my stepfather.” Her family watched early SNL together. She and her mother loved the same comedians: “Gilda Radner. Lucille Ball. We both really enjoyed I Love Lucy. When Joan Rivers would host the Tonight Show, it was electrifying. Oh my god, Joan Rivers is hosting this week!”
During those early years, she says she often did an open mic at a coffee shop called Petersons in L.A. Zach Galifianakis and Maria Bamford were also starting out there. Notaro noticed that a lot of the comedians who performed all sounded the same; they had the same delivery. “I took a step back and noticed people like Zach and Maria, who didn’t have that cadence. I remember thinking, I need to pull out of this and make sure I don’t fall into that sea of everybody.”
Sarah Silverman, who gave Notaro her first big break with a role on the late, lamented The Sarah Silverman Program, is also someone Notaro calls a “major influence” in this respect. The two have been friends for about a decade. It was Silverman who initially approached Notaro backstage at a show and introduced herself — though Notaro says she obviously knew who she was — and asked her to lunch.
“She gets the most amount of laughs with the least amount of words,” Silverman says. “Throughout a fairly constant stream of deadpan yet joy-filled bits, if you’re lucky enough, you get morsels of her life, pieces of a puzzle that produced this singular woman. And it’s a series of magnificent and sometimes heartbreaking tales of perseverance, though that may not be the way she sees it.”
Notaro watched how, on her own terms, Silverman achieved her success. “Sarah’s somebody that you will not see her do one thing she doesn’t want to do,” Notaro says. “I love that.” She recalls being over once while Silverman was on the phone with Comedy Central; they were going to cancel the show if she didn’t cut the budget and Silverman told them, OK, cancel it. “She was like, ‘This isn’t a negotiation. I’m not doing this show for a penny less.” They gave in. (Another reason for the mutual thankfulness: Dunnigan and Silverman are now dating.) “I see so many comedians that I think start out so funny and respectable, and then as their career goes by, I see them making choices that are short-term, shortsighted.”
“I don’t know anybody like her,” says Dunnigan, who first met her when the two competed against each other on Laugh Riots in 1999. “She sits in herself very comfortably. Much like the Fonz. In one way it’s unnerving to people, and also alluring.”
Notaro’s 15 years in comedy, even prior to last summer, were not easy. She got heckled. She got rejected. She was told she should change her style, her look, that she should just be a behind-the-scenes-type, a writer. “I just remember thinking, OK. All I have to do is ignore everything and just focus on being funny all the time. That’s what it always comes down to. And it did work. Even before this whole cancer-recognition thing, I was headlining across the world.”
The fact that her career had already been taking off somewhat was obscured by the Tig Notaro media storm of late last summer. She’d booked Schumer’s show — which she won’t be returning to for its second season, since she’s now too busy with her own projects — and shot In a World. Her story about a series of run-ins with ’80s pop star Taylor Dayne had been featured on This American Life, and as part of their live show. She says she’d done that in spite of the fact that her bits were usually short; she just knew this very long story would be funny very long.
“I would never tell a comedian, ‘It’s not what you normally do, don’t do it,’” she says, slurping down the last of her drink. “If you think it’s funny, do it. It’s such a clichéd thing, but, take your own advice.”
The Largo set almost didn’t happen. It was postponed a week because of her health and then nearly canceled. And then the day before it was going to happen, she learned how bad her cancer potentially was. In the prior four months, she’d had pneumonia, nearly died from a digestive infection called C. diff, had a breakup, and her mother had died suddenly after a fall — and now this. As far as she knew, this may have been the last time she’d ever do comedy; she had to do new material, and she couldn’t not talk about what was going on. She was in the shower, mulling over how to possibly to get into it all, whether to go chronologically or what, when she thought, “I should just go out and say, ‘I have cancer.’” She laughed out loud. And because she knew it was funny, that’s what she did.
“It’s not shocking that one great set led to this explosion,” Huntsburger says. “There are some people in comedy whose name just gets thrown around a lot and for whatever reason their level of success doesn’t match that. This could have happened five years ago.”
A physical, deluxe album version of the Largo set came out in July. It’s called Live — not the adjective, the verb.Though she’s not religious — “I don’t believe in anything,” she says — she’s hardly a nihilist. She loves life. And everything she went through last year seems to have amplified that. This is one of the remarkable things about that set, about Notaro’s comedy in general, yet another thing that sets it apart: It isn’t whiny, self-deprecating, or ironic, bucking current comedy’s contemporary fashion. It’s positive, confident, and earnest — and still funny. Cancer isn’t the only reason the Largo set is so beloved; we really had never heard anything like it before.
At a very sold-out live taping of the Professor Blastoff podcast at Brooklyn’s Bell House this May, Notaro walks out and the room goes absolutely bonkers. The show’s most devoted fans, who call themselves the Blastronauts, are a bit possessive of her, in a geeky way: They knew her when. Professor Blastoff began two and a half years ago ostensibly as an educational comedy program, inviting an expert guest to discuss a topic like “Polyamory,” “Sleep,” or “The Afterlife” each week, but it’s mostly evolved to be a very unscripted banter, laden with teasing and running jokes, among the three comedians and their bumbling Mormon intern, Aaron Burrell. It makes Radiolab look like a graduate seminar.
Notaro asks the crowd, “Has anybody here never heard the podcast?” A couple people whoop and the rest of the crowd audibly shames them. “So this will be a confusing show. There’s a lot of inside jokes and references, and we talk about science, philosophy, theology, metaphysical-type stuff, and Punky Brewster. And at the end of the night we clip the chandeliers and they fall on the audience.
Before they begin, Notaro invites the audience to ask her anything. In an extremely awkward moment, a woman approaches the mic and explains she’s an aspiring comedian. She wants advice about doing comedy related to the death of her recently passed father. Notaro seems entirely comfortable, even when the woman tells an exemplary, circuitous, painfully bad 69-related joke.
“You have no advice at all?” the woman prods.
“For stand-up?” Notaro asks.
“No, for serious humor.”
“I don’t. I did it once and now I’m back to full-throttle ridiculousness. Probably just like any comedy, you just keep trying,” she says, and then, sharply but not unkindly, “See you at the top.”
Unsurprisingly, mainstream fame — or the working comic’s version thereof — hasn’t much changed Tig Notaro. (“She’s a huge diva now,” Dunnigan jokes. “She’s always firing us.”) And perhaps that’s because she never really wanted it. On an episode of the podcast about fame from early last year, she and her co-hosts had discussed their lack of desire to ever become so famous their life became difficult, what they termed “fortress-level fame.”
She still lives modestly. She has a smallish place, keeps it neat. “I’m a creature of habit,” she says, standing to show me her jeans, Lucky Brand — she bought five pairs of these at once.
“Why do you like them?” I ask.
“I don’t know. What do you think?” she answers, bouncing up and down on the sidewalk.
The most surprising thing about her newfound notoriety, she says, is that it hasn’t been that bad — perhaps because it is inevitably tied to her illness, people have been respectful. When she’s in a strange town, fans will stop her to let her know about natural-foods restaurants. She’s not concerned at all about being known as “the cancer comedian,” and even if she were, the compassion would have to be considered a fair tradeoff. “Everyone’s just been cool. They’ve inspired me back.”
The public’s support helped her get through all she faced last year. In other respects, too, she considers herself very lucky: “I had money in the bank. I had friends and family. I had health insurance.” She had all that, she says, and “still it was hard. Emotionally and physically hard. It was still horrid, but I was very aware that I was set up.”
Perhaps the only unwelcome development has been the expectation some have that she now be a spokeswoman — for breast cancer survivors, for the LGBT community. In the wake of the Largo set, she was even criticized by some media venues for not being “out,” even though she’d never concealed her sexual identity; she’s just a private person, widely downloaded meditation on mortality notwithstanding. (She after made a joke of this since on the podcast, referring often and pointedly to a subsequent girlfriend as “a mammal.”) Given her independent spirit, it’s not surprising she’s not marching in pride or with pink ribbons: “If anyone has any knowledge about me, they know that’s not happening,” Notaro says. “It’s nothing against them.”
Does she worry about the possibility of her cancer returning?
“It’s just life. Even before I got into stand-up I had hard times, and I wouldn’t change it. I don’t want to go through it again, but everything leads you to where you are. I really can’t believe how good my life is.”
That said, as she’s reflected upon what happened last year, especially while writing the book, the hardest thing to reconcile has been the loss of her mother, the woman who is arguably responsible for Tig being Tig. But, she tells me, not once has she thought, I wish my mother had seen this.
“I was never doing anything to impress her; she was already impressed,” she says. Whether she was calling to let her know she was on television or performing at some dive in Middle America, all her mother cared about was that she was happy. “That’s all she’d ask. When I think about talking to her and being like, ‘You died and all this stuff happened,’ she would have just been like, ‘Are you happy?’”
It’s five minutes past midnight as we wrap up, and five minutes into my 26th birthday. I ask what advice she would have given herself when she was the same age, newly arrived in L.A., and committing herself to the long haul that is a career in comedy.
“When anything huge happens to me, I always think, this idn’t my moment. This is a moment. And the best thing you can do for others is live a well-lived life.”
As she leaves, the couple at next table over stop her, shake her hand, and tell her how much they love her. They tell her how happy they are that she’s OK.
“Thank you,” she says, and struts solo off into the night.