When viewers first met Star Trek: Discovery’s Commander Jett Reno on the Starfleet Federation starship U.S.S. Hiawatha, she’d been alone for 10 months keeping her wounded crewmates alive amid a war she didn’t know had ended. At first, it may have appeared as though Reno, a resourceful engineer with duct tape and one-liners at the ready, was just comic relief. But there’s a scene early on when the character, played by Tig Notaro with her signature deadpan delivery, telegraphs her depth.
Heartrending openness, hope, and relief flash across Reno’s face when she realizes that not only is the war with the Klingons over, but her side has won. The through line from gravity to comedy is one Notaro, who famously did a set announcing her breast cancer diagnosis in 2012, has traversed with grace and hilarity throughout her career. It’s reflected in her Star Trek: Discovery character, who is later revealed to have endured the loss of her wife.
“I think that it is an interesting element to the character, but I think also relatable in ways that sometimes when you’ve been through something or struggling, the certain protective layer [Reno projects]…when you dig deeper, you find that there’s some pain or a hard road that somebody’s been down,” Notaro says. “I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens with that backstory. I really don’t know what’s coming.”
The role of Reno, one Notaro once thought would last an episode or two at best, was created for her with her cadence and delivery in mind. “A lot of times people say, ‘Oh, it seems like you’re just yourself,’ and ‘Are those your lines?’” she says. The question is fair not only because of the razor-sharp comic timing but also because Notaro explored comedy amid tragedy in her semi-autobiographical 2015 Amazon Prime Video series One Mississippi. That show begins with the death of her character’s mother (Notaro’s mother died not long before her cancer diagnosis). Still, Notaro says she’s not just out there riffing as Reno.
“This is very much a written TV show. I’m not just showing up and being myself and saying whatever I want, because if I said whatever I wanted, I certainly wouldn’t be saying the crazy [scientific jargon],” she says. “That’s not what would be coming out of my mouth.”
Notaro is no stranger to the Star Trek universe. As a kid, she watched the original series and collected the action figures, with which she says “role play” figured prominently (with her delivery, it’s impossible to know if she’s joking). She admits though that her knowledge of the world inhabited by Captain Kirk, Lt. Uhuru, and Mr. Spock back in the day was more limited than some fans.
“I don’t even think that I could probably go back and have a real grasp of what I was watching as a kid,” she says. But there was one aspect of life in the “final frontier” that truly appealed to her. “I think it kind of all came down to teleporting.”
Notaro’s entertainment career began in ’90s Denver, where she worked as a booking agent and band manager for her company Tignation Promotions. This work brought her to Los Angeles, where she tried stand-up for the first time and found a calling. Today, her comedy accolades include two Grammy nominations — one for 2016’s Boyish Girl Interrupted and the other for 2012’s Live, which includes the set she delivered at the comedy club Largo in Los Angeles in the wake of her breast cancer diagnosis.
“Good evening. Hello, I have cancer. How are you?” Notaro says to open the renowned stand-up set that confounded the audience. (She could see the audience didn’t know if they should take her seriously.) “Tragedy plus time equals comedy. I am just at tragedy right now,” she continues in the set.
But Notaro is more than a survivor. As chronicled in One Mississippi, she underwent a double mastectomy and cancer treatment (and fought a bacterial infection that same year), and came back stronger than ever in her career. She continues to share that story with the world. Given her resilience and ability to make art in difficult times, it’s not surprising that Notaro has been prolific during the pandemic years. Among her myriad accomplishments since 2020 was starring in the cult favorite Army of the Dead as the helicopter pilot Peters. She’s also continued hosting two podcasts. One is an advice podcast of sorts, Don’t Ask Tig. The other is Tig and Cheryl: True Story, where she and Curb Your Enthusiasm star Cheryl Hines hilariously discuss a documentary they’ve recently watched.
“It is two old friends of 15 years laughing together. And every now and then, elements of the documentary come up,” Notaro says, emphasizing that it should not be taken as serious film criticism.
She also shot the new season of Star Trek: Discovery, where Reno is a part of the ship’s very queer engineering team. Reno’s department includes Anthony Rapp’s groundbreaking gay character, Paul Stamets; she’s his pragmatic foil, and the two continually engage in scientific lingo and playful repartee.
“I always tell people that it actually follows us right off the stage as well. We read each other constantly. I think there is a clear, genuine, authentic love between us as people and characters, but it’s so fun,” Notaro says of Rapp, who originated the role of Mark in Rent. “I love when somebody feels like they can give me hell, and I appreciate it when I can do it right back to somebody.”
The universe of Star Trek has always been a place of ultimate hope in humanity and evolution (it is hundreds of years in the future, after all). The original series is famous for featuring TV’s first kiss between white and Black characters, with Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhuru. Subsequent iterations in the ’90s featured metaphors for trans experiences at a time when positive portrayals of transgender people were rare. Now Discovery features a spectrum of queer characters, and Notaro is proud to be a part of the franchise’s continued boundary-pushing.
“It feels incredible to be a part of it,” she says. “It kind of blows my mind that when I was growing up, there wasn’t the visibility that there is now, and what that could have meant for me. I certainly did not have a hard time once I came out for the most part, within my family and my life,” she says. “Certainly, there were struggles. But nowhere near what other people experienced.”
Notaro adds, “But I just can’t help but wonder what that would be like, to have some person or show or something that resonated with me that was spoken about, rather than that feeling of…I kind of connect with that person. I don’t know why.”
Like many queer women of her age (Notaro is 50), she cites the tomboy Jo from The Facts of Life (Nancy McKeon) as a character that pinged for her when there were no lesbian or bisexual women characters on TV. “I was like, Oh, what’s going on with her? She seems like she’d be a friend of mine,” Notaro recalls. Now Notaro and her wife — The L Word: Generation Q star Stephanie Allynne, with whom she has twin sons — have co-directed the queer film Am I OK?, which premiered at Sundance and stars Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno. It will soon stream on HBO Max.
An inspirational queer person for being authentically herself throughout her career — she played a lesbian cop on The Sarah Silverman Show in the mid-aughts — Notaro continues to share parts of her identity with others. If shooting a movie, appearing in a TV show, hosting two podcasts, and being a wife and parent weren’t enough these past few years, Notaro was also prepped to tour with a new comedy set (as of press time, some of her shows were rescheduled amid the Omicron surge).
Notaro is also an avid supporter of a vegan diet, frequently touting its health benefits on her podcasts. She recently earned a certification in plant-based nutrition, and never one to sit on her laurels, she’s making plans to share that knowledge with others.
“I’m hoping that I can very soon start helping people that want to shift their diet for health reasons or environmental reasons or animal rights, whatever brings you to plant-based eating,” Notaro says. “I’m hoping to use that to maybe do live events or podcasts or something to help people that are interested in eating that way.”
In line with Reno’s relationship with Stamets, her off-screen parrying with Rapp, and her love of people who can “give her hell,” Notaro shares a rip that made her proud. “I was just shooting a [Your Place or Mine] with Reese Witherspoon, and I told her that I was considering doing some sort of maybe streaming show or a podcast or something for people interested in plant-based food. And she said, ‘Oh, that’s cool. That’ll probably make you hundreds of dollars,’” Notaro recalls, adding that the quip made her crack up.
“Not all of us can own Hello Sunshine productions like Reese Witherspoon, but that goes back to, I love being ripped by somebody.”
Season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery returns to Paramount+ on February 10.
Talent TIG NOTARO @therealfluffnotaro
Creative Director & Location BEN WARD @_benjaminward_
Photographer ANGELA KOHLER @angelakohler angelakohler.com for @agencyarts agencyarts.biz
DP ARIAN SOHEILI @arianshreds
1st AC DAVID WINTHROP
Stylist NAOMI ZINNS @naomizinns naomizinns.com
Makeup DONALD SIMROCK @dsimrock for @uncommon_artists uncommon-artists.com
Hair RICHARD GRANT @richardnormangrant for @exclusiveartists eamgmt.com
Catering TIAGO COFFEE BAR & KITCHEN @tiagocoffee tiagocoffee.com
Location AKA WEST HOLLYWOOD 8500 Sunset Blvd West Hollywood, CA 90069 @stayaka stayaka.com
Tig Notaro is among the cover stars of Out's January/February 2022 issue, a special LGBTQ+ Star Trek edition appearing on newsstands February 22. Support queer media and subscribe — or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.