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The Show Must Go On

An interview with Tig Notaro by Suleika Jaouad

October 1, 2014

“God only gives you what you can handle,” right? Comedian Tig Notaro begs to differ. A little over two years ago, Notaro, 43, stepped onstage at the West Hollywood club Largo and delivered an opening line for the history books: "Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?” The audience laughed nervously, unsure if Notaro was joking. She wasn’t. Just a few days before, Notaro had been diagnosed with breast cancer. But the bad news didn’t end there. Over the span of four months, Notaro had also: caught pneumonia, contracted a life-threatening intestinal disease known as C. diff, lost her mother in a freak accident, and broken up with her girlfriend. The events of those tragic four months became the unlikely material for her set that night at Largo.

Notaro has given new meaning to the phrase “the show must go on.” Previously a comedian’s comedian without a large public following, her set at Largo skyrocketed her to cult icon status. Louis C.K. described it as one of the “greatest standup performances” he'd ever seen. Within six months, Notaro had released her Largo set as an album on iTunes called Live (pronounced like the verb, not the adjective), received a Grammy nomination, landed a book deal, and begun making the rounds on late-night TV. But more important than any professional accolade, Notaro was pronounced cancer-free.

I had first listened to Live in New York City, while lying in a hospital bed at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center last spring. I was having my own annus horribilis, which bore an eerie resemblance to Notaro’s. At age 25, I had undergone a life-saving bone marrow transplant and just completed three years of chemotherapy for leukemia. But instead of celebrating life A.C. (after cancer), I found myself back in the hospital with C. diff (the same intestinal disease that Notaro contracted) while also going through a breakup with my boyfriend of four years. I laughed and cried as I listened to Notaro give a brutally honest and hilarious report on where her mind had been and what had happened during those four months. For those 30 minutes, I didn’t feel so alone. The truth is that we all have moments in life when we think things can’t possibly get any worse—until they do. But more than anything, Notaro’s story reminded me of the healing power of comedy.

Last week, Notaro and I chatted on the phone about life A.C.—what she’s been up to since Largo as well as her Boyish Girl Interrupted Tour, which opened last week and runs through mid-November in the United States before heading to Australia. Check here to see if she’s stopping in your city.

What made you decide to get so raw and personal at Largo that night?

When I walked onstage that night at Largo I had nothing else to lose. I’d lost everything and I just didn’t care anymore what I shared and what people knew. I went out on a limb and took that chance. It felt more natural and right to do that than doing old jokes and stories.

“It was definitely therapeutic. I felt carried by that audience.”

Was talking publicly about what you’d gone through therapeutic?

Oh yeah. Feeling heard, speaking through my comedy, trying to make light of things, and being onstage that night was essentially me asking for help and reaching out into the darkness of Largo. I was just trying to find humor in it and seeing if people would go there with me. I was asking ‘is this funny?’ and together we guided each other through it. It was definitely therapeutic. I felt carried by that audience. 

How has experiencing so much tragedy in such a short time changed you and your priorities?

I feel like I was a relatively happy person before. I think it just heightened my happiness and gratefulness. I’m aware daily that I went through that and that I’m a happy person… I don’t want to be driven into the ground by anything that is going to take away from the quality of my life. All of that has become clearer to me—not just because of the cancer, but after losing my mother and being in the hospital, in surgery and drugged up for so many months.

Fear and sadness can be incredibly powerful creative motivators. You’ve mentioned how happy you are now. Do you feel like happiness has become a creative motivator in the work that you’re doing now?

Yes, actually. A lot of people tie depression and darkness to comedians but I’ve never felt that I need to be in a miserable space to create. I think creativity can spark at any moment. I’m happier than I’ve ever been and I’m prouder than I’ve ever been of the work that I’m doing right now. I’m living proof that you can be happy, not miserable, and succeed.

What advice would you give to me, or others, who have experienced tragedy or illness?

I know what helped me was just keeping a very small focus on what was in front of me. When I had cancer, when my mother died, and when I was truly rock bottom, what was helpful to me were just the smallest steps of even just lying still and breathing and being like: ‘Ok, I’m alive. I’m here. And I’m breathing. Now I’m going to take a step beyond that even if it’s just a literal step.’ It was so helpful to me to focus on a small area and to not worry about things too far ahead. Each of those small steps has led me down a much bigger, longer road.

“I think creativity can spark at any moment.”

What message do you hope people will take away from your story?

Just to be able to see that it is possible to push through another hell and when you get through hell, if hell arrives again, that you can push through that too. It’s really just a basic story of not giving up at all.

You’re about to start your tour ‘Boyish Girl Interrupted.’ Can you tell me about your choice of title and what it means to you?

It’s a play on that movie Girl, Interrupted: the boyish part being that I’m not tremendously feminine. And the interrupted part is about those four months that went down. My stand-up comedy for the tour isn’t heavy though—it’s personal stories about my life right now. I briefly touch on what I went through but it’s all pretty lighthearted and fun. And then there are just some flat out ridiculous parts, too. 

Do you feel like you’re coming out of that interruption now?

I definitely feel like things are falling back into place. It’s taken a while. I’m in the middle of moving and unpacking all of my mother’s furniture, I’m healthy, and very excited about my career and my life ahead. 

Photo by Seth Olenick

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The Show Must Go On An interview with Tig Notaro