GOOD

The Show Must Go On

Tig Notaro on comedy, creativity, and cancer.

“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.

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[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mo-kvh1w60w

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“When the door opens, go in.” - African proverb

I was working happily on a new film with my team and out of the blue I received a call from AOL to do a new original series of films.

I said, thank you, I would love to, but my plate is very full. I also had never made films for other people or companies. I was skeptical. I had heard countless stories over the years of filmmakers who have had their vision changed, trampled on, truncated by “notes” from layers of executives. No thank you.

However, the offer kept getting better and better… complete creative control, whatever I was interested in, being part of a new era and platform of making and distributing films in a new way.

In my 20s, time was endless and I was immortal. But; I am married now and have children and didn’t want to work more hours. I had spent the last four years really focusing to maintain a schedule to create films but also spend more time with my families, unplug on Saturdays (for our technology shabbats), get more sleep, exercise, and enjoy life. I value these changes.

I talked to my family, I talked to my team, I talked to my mentors….I will never forget one conversation with a mentor who said, “You always want elevate the conversation. Go out there and elevate it to a bigger audience!!”

So if I wasn’t going to work more, I had to scale and become a lot more efficient creatively.

I needed to set boundaries so I wouldn’t become mentally, physically, and emotionally depleted. I bought books about artists and writers creative rituals and organizing time. I tried to think of my creative time like an athlete -- to put more out, you need to take more in (more sleep, more rejuvenation). And which hours would I be most creative in? And which hours would I need to be most with my family? How could I work more but not during the hours I am with my children.

I also realized that scaling wasn’t just about bringing on more people. It was about finding partners that truly compliment my team’s skills. I called a filmmaker, who I had great respect for who ran a production company in SF….and after a request that sounded like one to be in a relationship... they were in.

Here was the scaling strategy:

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  • I awoke 2 hours before my children at 5am when I was fresh, and when I could still resist the Facebook, Twitter, and email bombardment to work on scripts.
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  • I put a firm block in my calendar for creative time with my team from 9am - noon (no calls, no emails, no interruptions) and blocked off family time with the kids 3 - 6pm, 3 days a week (no calls, no emails, no interruptions).
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  • I put an auto-responder on my email that let people know I was very behind in email and focusing on a film series and my family, and how to reach me if it was a time-sensitive matter.
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  • We researched tons of productivity tools to manage so many moving parts and settled on the cloud-based Asana. (Highly recommend it.)
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  • My team worked late at least one day a week (more during crunch time) so that we would always unplug Friday afternoon and take the weekend off.
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  • We made sure everyone (from my team and our partnering teams) focused on the skills they were best at so that we could maximize both time and creativity.
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Now this isn’t to paint a picture where we had the most perfect production for 5 months. We’re making movies, which are messy, with moments of darkness, breakthroughs, laughing until you cry, and edit sessions that run past 2 am. But all-in-all, it was perhaps the most prolific period of creativity I have ever had and the most fun.

So this year I learned, in a new way, when a door opens, check out the door, ask the people you trust to help you access what’s on the other side, then, if all that checks out, you walk through it.

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