How Tig Notaro Got Us To Laugh About Breast Cancer

Photo: Ruthie Wyatt.
On a March morning at this year's SXSW, Tig Notaro told me things that sound positively bizarre when taken out of context. Passersby probably heard the comedian say, "I'm from Mississippi, never been to Pluto." The man sitting across from us may have been confused when she shared, "Yeah, that weird nibbly thing? We just started doing that one day." Perhaps most jarring: "Hello, I have cancer. How's everyone doing?"

As strange and unnerving as those soundbites may seem, they actually sum up the past few years for Notaro quite well. They touch on her Mississippi roots and her recent tour for her upcoming Showtime special, Knock, Knock: It's Tig Notaro, which took her back to her home state. They speak to the quirky nature of her friendships with fellow comedians, like Nick Kroll, with whom she does a nibbly-kiss greeting each time they meet. They involve her battle with breast cancer, a diagnosis she decided to share in a 2012 set in L.A., and the subsequent double mastectomy that inspired her to perform topless at the New York Comedy Festival just six months ago.

Knock, Knock was borne of an idea Notaro had to go on a tour performing in the homes of her fans. Showtime thought it was a great idea, too, so she asked her fans to submit an application of sorts — make a video telling why they wanted her to come and where they'll be — and Tig hit the road with cameras in tow. Fans provided the venue and audience, she provided the entertainment.

"The fun part of going to each town and show was seeing how people set up," Notaro explained. "We give them parameters — this amount of room for performance, lighting, chairs."

She performed in backyards, living rooms, and on the back of a flatbed truck. "Every place is set up so differently, and you get to see everyone's creativity." She ended up everywhere from Sweetwater Lake, Indiana, to Pluto — Mississippi, that is.

But, that's hardly the kind of gig you do alone, so she recruited fellow funny person Jon Dore to join her. Though Notaro counts many of your favorite comedians as her close friends — among them, Seth Meyers, Sarah Silverman, Heather Lawless — Dore was a natural choice for this particular project. Once you watch the special, it's clear to see why. Their relationship is completely organic. They didn't need anyone to write material for them.

"I just think he's the funniest person alive," Notaro said. "He has an openness and a lightness about him that makes him game for anything and anyone. He's not snarky. He's not difficult. I love being around people like that. He's easy and hilarious."

But, what Notaro most appreciates is how he made her enjoy watching herself perform — something she doesn't usually take pleasure doing. "I thought he'd be perfect for it, and he was."
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Notaro's been doing standup for over 15 years now. But, in 2012 she became a markedly different comedian — ever the deadpan entertainer, but different. Her observational humor took on an especially raw and honest tone when she decided to share her diagnosis with an L.A. audience.

"Hello. I have cancer, how are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer. It's a good time. Diagnosed with cancer. Feels good," she said to a confused crowd.

"It's weird because with humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy," she continued that night. "I am just at tragedy right now. That's just where I am in the equation. It's fine." 

As candid as her comedy had always been, her style's only become more honest, if that's possible. Notaro hit the "comedy" portion of that equation with her topless set in November. I asked her if, looking back, she would have taken it back, maybe not gone for the topless moment.

"I wouldn't have done it differently. I feel really great about it." She started thinking about doing a topless set after she got home from the hospital. "I was in this place where I was still upset and trying to figure out how I was going to accept my new body. It was a really intense time. When you have a double mastectomy it's very swollen and sore and you have stitches. And, I didn't have nipples anymore. I thought, 'God, what am I gonna look like?'"

Partially out of dread and partially out of wonder, Notaro started floating the idea of performing topless to some close friends. "It just kept cracking me up." She told her friend Lake Bell, who was with her when she returned home from the hospital. "She laughed so hard with excitement and was just like, 'Oh Tiggy, you have to do that.'" As interesting as it was, she put the idea out of her mind for a year and a half. "Then I got on the road a few months ago, touring and performing every night, and while I was on stage it would pop in my head: 'I could totally take my shirt off.'"

She ran it by a few more people, and nearly everyone was supportive of the idea. "One person said they'd be scared I wouldn't be able to get the audience back. But, I felt like I could," she said. Another person feared it would be viewed as a stunt. "I was like, 'It is. It’s a total stunt. Make no mistake.'" For Notaro, it was also a conversation starter.

"I want people to talk about my comedy, my cancer, and body issues." It's quite similar to her 2012 set, delivering heavy topics in a completely not-so-big-a-deal way. "Cancer's a huge deal, but I'm fine with my body now. It's not a big deal to see me topless. I always explain it as my skin healed. Why is that taboo? If I had a scar on my face no one would tell me to cover that up."
Photo: Courtesy of Showtime.

It was a coincidence that Notaro’s topless set fell smack dab in the middle of recent conversation surrounding the rights of women to be topless in public in NYC. "It was borne out of an authentic idea after having cancer, and it just happened to coincide with all that." As for the audience? Following her performance, Notaro said fans approached her to say after a few minutes, they didn't even notice she was topless anymore.

"It's a political statement and it's not," she said, when I asked her if #FreeTheNipple had anything to do with her choice. "My cancer freed my nipple, because those are gone."

Though Notaro's reached the final step of that equation she mentioned, it's certainly not the end of the line. In fact, it feels a bit like a new beginning for her.

"I've been lucky,” Notaro said, speaking to her evolution as a comic. Over the past few years, she's been in the business of taking her own advice. "I always think about how if a friend of mine came up to me and said, 'I've been thinking about doing this one thing with my comedy, but it's just not my typical style,' I'd never be like, 'Oh, you shouldn't do it, then. You should stick with what you've always done.'" At this point, you can expect just about anything from her sets.

"I realized I didn't even wanna think about that or worry, and just know that my voice is gonna shine through. Really the way my comedy's evolved is by allowing myself to do whatever I wanna do, whereas years ago I would've been like, well I'm this kind of comedian and I have to stick to that. I feel like there's a subtlety in it that people wouldn't even notice when you change, they'd just say, 'Oh, she seems like she's gotten better.'"

In so many ways, the Showtime special is a celebration of Notaro's evolution. Her style of humor is the same old Tig, but with an experiential twist — going out into the world and finding authentic experiences on which to comment. At one point in Knock, Knock, she and Dore visit a place that sells tombstones and fireworks.

"If you have two comedians in a car driving past a sign that says 'Tombstones & Fireworks,' there's no possible way they would just be like, 'Oh, that's weird' and keep driving. That's fertile material," she said.

Though it was a joke, the visit seemed to hit a bit close to home. "My death and potential death and health issues were right on my heels, but I'm told I'm healthy and I feel healthy and I would've made the joke even if I didn't have cancer. I think that guy [at the store] thought we were utterly insane. But, we paid him for the tombstone and the firecrackers." (There's another one of those out-of-context wildcards for you.)

What does the future hold for Tig Notaro? Well, a lot. A book, maybe two. She says writing her memoir, due out in 2016, has felt a lot like going through intense therapy. "It's about the four months my life fell apart [in 2012]," as well as her childhood and her memories of her mother, who she lost that same year. For her, the memoir is a chance to tell her story in a way she sometimes doesn't get to in interviews. "Going through those specific moments is heavy. Sometimes when I'm editing my book and reading certain parts of it, I'm just like, 'How did I get through that?' But, I did."

Despite the amount of work  and emotional upheaval required for the memoir, Notaro says she's enjoying writing it, and will possibly write another about her standup career; about the year she spent being an opening act on the road, sleeping in a car. "People might be interested in those days," she said, in what is possibly the greatest understatement of our time.

Plus, she's starting her own family. Notaro's engaged to Stephanie Allynne, whom she met on the set of In A World in 2013. "I've never wanted marriage. It never crossed my mind," Notaro said, explaining that Allynne's the first person she met who affected her on a deep level. 

"I couldn't put my finger on what attracted me to her on the level that she has attracted me," she said. Sure, they'd laugh plenty and she was attracted to her physically. But, there was something else. "It was driving me insane. One day, I think it was a month or so into dating her, I realized what it was. I told her, 'I've never heard you say one bad thing about yourself.' And, she said, 'Yeah, I never would. There's room for improvement, but I would never speak poorly about myself.'" That was irresistible to Notaro. "This person doesn't need to be built up or knocked down by anybody. She's freestanding, confident, always working on herself but never ripping herself apart or thinking she looks ugly or fat, never any of those things." Plus, she and Notaro can joke around without any hurt feelings — a vital quality if you're in the business of marrying a comedian. 

Notaro and Allynne are hoping to be married this year. "And, hopefully we'll have Itsy and Bitsy," she said about their plans to have children. 

As difficult as recent years have been for Notaro, she said it's like a new chapter. And, by using her most challenging moments as fodder for her art, she's arguably developed a fondness for the war years. She calls it an awakening. 

"When I think back to my life before that I think, 'Was I alive? Was I on this planet?'"

Knock, Knock: It’s Tig Notaro airs Friday, April 17 at 9 p.m. on Showtime. 
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