Photography by Christopher Dibble
When Tig Notaro stepped onstage to deliver a set at the Los Angeles comedy club Largo on August 3 of last year, she didn't know exactly what was coming. "It was essentially a 31-minute open mic," Notaro says now, nearly a year later. "Because that was not worked-out stuff... It was just that moment, and I've never said that stuff again; I don't think I will ever say that stuff again. It was just me onstage going, 'Oh my God. Oh my God.' "
The set represented one of the greatest challenges a comedian could have faced: the search for something funny to say about the grotesque procession of personal tragedies that had comprised the most recent four months of Notaro's life. She was hospitalized due to pneumonia and a severe bacterial infection that had her losing half a pound a day; her mother died, suddenly and horribly, after a fall; she broke up with her girlfriend; and finally, on that day in August, she was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts.
The set, Tig Notaro Live, which is available digitally now and on CD July 16, opens memorably with, "Hello, good evening, hello, I have cancer, how are you?" From there, Notaro spins her story into something mesmerizing, both heartbreaking and, somehow, often hilarious. Immediately after the set was over, tweets and blog posts of support started to pour in from fellow comedians, including Bill Burr, Ed Helms, and Louis C.K., who persuaded her to release the set to the public.
"When Louis C.K. called me the day after and said, 'This needs to be released,' I pictured myself running off to a deserted island after I released it," Notaro says. "I never would have released that on my own, never in a million years."
He put a $5 download of the set on his site in October. Since then, it's been downloaded more than 100,000 times, and things have improved markedly for Notaro, who is now cancer-free and is unfailingly modest and gracious about the way people have treated her since the now-legendary Largo set. "People are just typically so friendly, and it's been such a nice experience," she insists.
"You know, people will be like, 'If you're looking for a good restaurant--I know you have weird problems with your stomach, but maybe you could eat there?' " she says, adopting a concerned tone. Though lingering effects of the infection have forced some dietary adaptations, Notaro says she cheats on them all the time. (Though, she clarifies, "It's not like I buy a bunch of birthday cakes and sit home alone and sadly eat them.")
She stresses, too, how lucky she's been to have friends, family, and health insurance. One close friend and frequent collaborator is Sarah Silverman. "Even though she and I have very different humor, we still get each other's sensibilities," Notaro says, adding that she and Silverman spend a lot of time emailing one another videos of "a cute animal or cute old person or cute baby; it's heavy on the cute." Silverman has also been dating Notaro's writing partner, Kyle Dunnigan, for more than a year. "I always call it 'one-stop shopping,' with them dating," Notaro says.
As for her own love life, that's one thing that thankfully hasn't changed. "The dating thing just ended up being fine," Notaro says. "That was my fear, of course, that I was just damaged goods now, but yeah, that's all in order." Though she's an out lesbian, Notaro still reflexively defaults to neutral pronouns and is a little reticent to get too specific. "I've been dating since right before I was diagnosed," she says.
In fact, despite the intensely personal nature of the Largo set and the press she's done in the months since, talking to Notaro you get the sense that she's still surprised, and a little bemused, that anyone wants her to talk about herself. "I'm not like, 'Does anyone want to talk to me?! Can I tell people my story?' " she says with a laugh. But not before remembering her manners: "No offense to you."