There are bad stretches in life. And then there's what comedian Tig Notaro went through over a four-month span in early 2012.
First, she got pneumonia. Shortly after, she contracted a potentially deadly illness called Clostridium difficile, an infection in which bacteria essentially eat away at the intestines. She spent a week in the hospital and lost 20 pounds from her already slender frame. Not long after she was released, Notaro's mother died in a freak accident. And soon after that, she and her longtime girlfriend broke up.
Then she was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer.
About a week after the initial diagnosis, in August 2012, Notaro appeared at the famed Los Angeles comedy club Largo. She strode onstage and greeted the typical welcoming applause of the crowd like any of about a thousand comedians had before her. But not quite.
"Thank you, thank you," she said breezily. "I have cancer, thank you. I have cancer, really. Thank you."
The set that followed became not just a defining moment in Notaro's life and career, but one of the great moments in the history of standup comedy. It is a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking 30 minutes of standup unlike anything before it. It is awkward and uncomfortable, a deeply personal exposition from a comedian who is better known for dry, absurdist and observational comedy in line with that of Todd Barry or Mitch Hedberg than for confessional humor.
It is also hilarious.
The next day, comedian Louis C.K. tweeted, "In 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo."
C.K. convinced a reluctant Notaro to make the recording of that set available on his website. It went viral practically overnight, selling more than 100,000 copies, and was the best-selling comedy album of 2012. Last year, it was physically packaged as Notaro's second proper album, Live — the verb, not the adjective — and scored a 2014 Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Album.
Notaro lost to comedian Kathy Griffin. But, as she points out in a recent phone interview with Seven Days, now that she's cancer-free she's won something far more valuable than a little gold statuette.
"She got her Grammy. I got my life," she says.
This year Notaro can be seen in three feature films: Lake Bell's In a World..., Shreveport with Ryan Philippe and Walk of Shame with Elizabeth Banks. The comedian has several new projects of her own in the works, too, including a Showtime series, "Knock Knock, It's Tig Notaro," in which she performs in the homes of fans; and an autobiographical book about those horrific four months in 2012. Notaro is touring regularly and drawing bigger crowds than ever. She's become a darling of National Public Radio and late-night talk shows. And she has a new girlfriend.
In short, life is pretty good for Notaro right now. And as scary as her bout with cancer was, she says she wouldn't change a thing.
"I don't want to go through it again," she told writer Sandra Allen in a 2013 piece for Buzzfeed. "But everything leads you to where you are. I really can't believe how good my life is."
In advance of her two Green Mountain Comedy Festival shows at the First Unitarian Universalist Society in Burlington on Saturday, May 24, here is the rest of our interview with Tig Notaro.
SEVEN DAYS: What went through your mind after you opened by telling the crowd at Largo you had cancer?
TIG NOTARO: I was definitely scared. I was nervous. There were so many things. I was feeling emotional still. I could sense from the room that they thought it was a joke and were trying to figure out where I was going with that. I was trying to deliver it in a similar way as when comedians come out, like, "How's everybody doing? Who's drinking tonight? Any birthdays? I have cancer."
SD: That's what's striking about your opening and the audience reaction. If that was just a joke, it would have been a pretty cruel joke, which is certainly not your style.
TN: Yeah. I was concerned about opening the show with that because of the time between them thinking I was being mean or hurtful to the time that I could relieve everyone ... not relieve, but to say, "Oh, don't worry. I have cancer. I'm not making fun of you or your loved ones." I was worried about it. Then I had the realization that I have cancer, so I can make this joke.
SD: You can feel that in the recording, how the audience starts to come around and there's this eerie mix of tension and laughter.
TN: Definitely. I think you can feel that throughout the show, the roller coaster that they're on and that I'm on. I've only listened to the album once. Even my other album, Good One, I've only listened to once. Neither of them interests me. But when I listened to Live, it did make an impact.
SD: The first time I heard it, it reminded me of a time I was working at a well-to-do old folks' home waiting tables in their restaurant-cafeteria-thing. My first day, I greeted a table and asked how everyone was doing. And this gnarled little old man kind of craned his head and said, "I'm dying. How are you?"
TN: [Laughs] That's so, so funny.
SD: It was horrifying at the time and his wife kind of smacked him. But it's hilarious in retrospect.
TN: That's really funny. "I'm dying. How are you?" I essentially had that moment before the album, after the C. diff and I had lost all this weight. When the X-ray technician asked how I had such a flat stomach, I said, "Oh, I'm dying. That's how I keep myself thin."
SD: It's a hell of a diet plan. After the Largo show, joking about cancer and dying became part of your act and figured prominently in your podcast ["Professor Blastoff"]. It clearly resonated with audiences. But was your making light of the disease ever difficult for your close friends and family?
TN: I didn't hear anything about that from friends or family, that it wasn't funny or not to joke about it. I was more concerned with how my stepfather was going to respond when I was talking about my mother on the CD and making jokes about the brochure that came after she died. It's very dark and hard. I wasn't sure if he would think it was inappropriate. It's this whole problem with comedy at times of being "too soon." But he didn't feel that way at all. I wasn't concerned about what my brother would think. I knew he'd support whatever I did. But my whole life I never had that support from my stepfather, which was why I was concerned when the album came out. But it turned out that he was totally supportive. It was a turning point, and he started taking more of an interest in me.
SD: What was your reaction when the record was nominated for a Grammy?
TN: There was a surreal element to it, because it's the Grammys. And it's also surreal in that it was not anything I was working towards. I was just doing a show and struggling in life.
SD: You went to the ceremony, right?
TN: Yeah. I presented a few awards at the Grammys. One of them was to Steve Martin and Edie Brickell for an Americana song or album of the year or something. But that was a moment that my 16- or 17-year-old self would not have believed, just because I was such a huge fan of both of them. And there they are walking up to the stage toward me, and I'm handing them a Grammy Award.
SD: Were you disappointed to lose?
TN: Kathy Griffin ended up winning, and I think she'd released, like, six or seven albums in a row trying to get a Grammy. And I told my girlfriend, who was so irritated when I lost, [Kathy Griffin] wanted that so desperately, I didn't feel bad losing. I didn't have any attachment to it. And after Kathy won, I congratulated her, and my girlfriend and I went to the after-party and haven't thought about it since. If I had put out an album I really wanted to be nominated and hoped it won, I might feel differently. But I can't imagine ever releasing an album and having that sort of drive for it.
SD: So Kathy Griffin is sort of like the Susan Lucci of comedy Grammys?
TN: I guess so! I'm happy for her. She got her Grammy. I got my life. I'm alive, so a Grammy is just a cherry on top to me.
SD: Has the success of Live and becoming more famous changed your life in any significant ways?
TN: Not really. I'm certainly more well-known and there's higher attendance at my shows and I'm making more money. But I don't think my life looks any different from what it did 10 years ago. Some of the projects are more high profile. But it's not like I can't walk out of my house.
SD: I spoke with Hannibal Buress recently and asked him a similar question. He told me he can still go to the grocery store, but that he's "bar famous." Drunk people know him.
TN: [Laughs] Yeah. I don't hang out in bars, so maybe I'm bar famous and I don't even know it. Maybe I'm more famous than I even realize. Maybe I should go socialize more.
SD: You're working on a book. How is that writing process different from writing comedy?
TN: The detail is so specific in a book. You have to draw things out so much more than in anything I've done. Writing jokes and telling stories is such small storytelling. I'm writing [the book] about the four-month period when my life fell apart. But it's also weaving in my life now that everything's OK. And it's also weaving in my childhood and who my mother was and giving some backstory. It's a real undertaking and a challenge, but I'm really enjoying it and feel like I would like to continue to write books.