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Tig Notaro talks 'Tig,' topless standup sets, and life after cancer

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For Tig Notaro, 2012 was the best and worst of times. Late that year, the comedian greeted the crowd at the L.A. club Largo with the words “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer.” She’d just lost her mother in a freak accident, went through a break-up, suffered a near-fatal Clostridium difficile infection (also known as “c. diff”), and been diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer, which lead to a double mastectomy. But thanks to that now-legendary set, which she recorded on stage before an audience that included  Louis C.K., Ed Helms, and others who tweeted high praise for Notaro, she also had a No. 1 comedy album, Live. The new documentary Tig, which premieres on Netflix today, explores that period of her life, as well as what happened in the year that followed. We spoke with Notaro about what it’s like to turn tragedy into comedy.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Ira Glass was the first one to suggest that you do a stand-up set about all of the terrible things that happened to you. He wanted to air it on This American Life. Were you offended when he first came to you with the idea?

TIG NOTARO: Oh yeah. I thought, “I’d love to share the story, but I don’t find any humor in it.” When I had c. diff and when my mother died, I was in a lot of emotional and physical pain. And I was drugged for a good portion of that. I just have such huge memories of sadness during that time. But a few weeks after I met with Ira, I got my cancer diagnosis and it pushed me over the edge. Even though I was devastated, that’s when I got my sense of humor back.

Why did you want to do a stand-up set about cancer? What were you looking to get out of that 2012 Largo performance, emotionally?

Well, it certainly wasn’t just another gig. I mean, I didn’t know if I was dying. I wanted to perform again, and I had this overwhelming sadness of that being taken away from me, the ability to do stand-up. It was cathartic.

In the movie, you say of the Largo gig, “People were crying in the audience, which was really intense because it was reflecting back to me, This is really happening to you.”

I felt out-of-body during that time period, on- and off-stage. It all seemed unreal. Then, confessing all of this stuff in a dark room and seeing people’s reactions—the awkwardness, the silence, seeing people crying—there were kind of places and moments where I could have a reality check. When I really think back to that moment, it was crazy, because I wanted to be able to make light [of the situation], but I also wanted to protect the audience. I didn’t want to bum them out.

By agreeing to take part in Tig, you were facing three types of pressure. Not only did you have to follow up your famous performance at Largo with an equally provocative set one year later, you also had to get your confidence back after being sick, and you had to do all of that in front of a camera. Why did you agree to make this documentary?

Well, one of the directors, Kristina Goolsby, is a friend of mine for almost 20 years, and I knew she’d always wanted to make a documentary. I guess a part of me didn’t necessarily think it would move forward. I didn’t think too much about it.

One thing you don’t address in the film is that you went through a break-up while you were sick. If I went through a break-up at a time like that, I’d want to rant about how that person abandoned me at the worst time.

You know, it’s been reported that I was in this longterm relationship and my girlfriend left me in the middle of it all, and that’s just not the cause. I had been with somebody for six months when my life started to fall apart. We went through the next three months of hell together. If there’s ever a time when it becomes glaring that it’s not meant to be, it’s when your life is falling apart. I had lost my mother and my ability to eat food. Everything was so uncertain for me, and our relationship was uncertain, too, so I wanted to move out of that. We had taken a couple of breaks and we were on our way to therapy when I said that it was something that I couldn’t continue on with. She didn’t leave me in the middle of cancer. We broke up.

We don’t talk anymore. It was a crazy time. I mean, imagine six months into a relationship, you’re in a hospital with somebody and they’re withering away and you don’t know if they’re going to live or die—and then their mother dies. It was a lot to go through. And then we broke up, and right after that, I was diagnosed with cancer and I did that show and then it went viral and then my face was everywhere, in every newspaper and magazine. I think it pushed us so far apart, because it was very uncomfortable for her. There’s nothing for me to rant about against her. She was very kind. I think it just fell apart.

You’re now engaged to your girlfriend, Stephanie Allyne, who played your love interest in the movie In A World. How did you propose?

We have this little box of suggestions for things we’ve never done before that we want to do together. When we were getting the box started, I thought, “How funny would it be if I tossed in ‘Will you marry me?'” But I didn’t know when she would ever grab the “Will you marry me?” paper. So I told my friend Kate Miccuci and she said, “Just fill the box only with papers that say, ‘Will you marry me?'” That had never dawned on me. So that’s what I did. We had talked about marriage, but Stephanie didn’t think that there would be an actual proposal or ring. She just thought we’d set a date and move forward. So she had no clue. She was shocked. We’re gonna get married this year in my hometown in Mississippi. We’re hired a wedding planner and everything’s in the works.

The film shows the texts you exchanged with Stephanie when you were first dating. It also features some very intimate voicemails you’ve gotten from friends and family over the years. Did you save all of those messages?

Actually, during that time period, my assistant had set up this Google backlogue of every voicemail and text message that came through. So I just went online and found all of these texts and voicemails from that time. It really took me directly back to that moment in time, because of the urgency of people’s voicemails when they heard that I was in the hospital, or that my mother died, or they heard about my diagnosis. It was emotional. Especially hearing my mother’s last voicemail to me, which was on my birthday. Her singing “Happy birthday” to me was the last I ever heard from her. And then my stepfather Rick called to tell me that she wasn’t going to live.

What was your mother like?

She was a very, very wild person. She was an artist and very funny, gregarious, outgoing person. She partied a lot. She was very supportive of what I did in life, following comedy and traveling around. My stepfather was very robotic and conservative and people were always shocked that the two were married. There were elements of my stepfather not nurturing the side of me that wasn’t into the traditional way of life, but as far as my life and my sexuality and all that, I was never not accepted or adored. My stepfather’s actually really come around. It’s funny because, once my career hit The New York Times, he took more of an interest.

How do you feel about that?

t’s fine. My mother would’ve loved to have seen that happen. I always think of how if I could talk to her now and be like, “Oh my gosh, Rick listened to my album! He came to my show!” She wouldn’t be angry or feel like, Well, why didn’t he do it sooner? She would be thrilled. And that’s how I feel. I don’t think it’s too late. As long as you come in at any point in the game, it’s worth something.

In the film, you mention that you don’t write down your jokes ahead of time. You just write down a word, get up on stage, and free-associate live. Why do you do it that way? It sounds terrifying.

Well, I’m a risk taker! That how I handle things. I don’t sit down and write out my ideas. I just write a word down to trigger a memory of, like, my show in Vegas, or getting my wisdom teeth out, and then I’ll just work it out in front of the audience. A lot of comedians will write their material somewhere, but I just enjoy doing it in the moment. I think when there’s a fight-or-flight moment, the punchline flies out of my mouth faster, and it’s possibly a funnier response.

You performed topless after your mastectomy. Was that premeditated?

It was premeditated. As soon as I had my surgery and I had scars on my chest, I just thought it would be a cool statement to make to be topless and telling silly jokes. So it had been ruminating for a bit, and once I worked out my tour, night after night, I just kept thinking, “Oh man, I could take my shirt off and blow these people’s minds.” [Laughs] People went nuts. People were so into it. 

How did that set affect the way you view your body?

I actually didn’t think too much about my body before my surgery. It wasn’t until I was being wheeled into surgery that I realized that I actually liked my body. Then I had to start all over again, because I became scared of the way my body changed. I thought that people would not find me attractive, or that I would seem damaged. But then I became confident through dating, because people were so supportive. Stephanie found me to be sexy, even though I had scars and no nipples. [Laughs] I wasn’t expecting that. So being on stage topless, it was really a full-on journey for me to go from this fearful, sad, scared place to, “You know what? My skin healed, it’s no big deal.”

You talk in the movie about how the original Largo set made you wonder, Where do I go next? Can I touch on cancer again or do I have to go in another direction? How do you feel about that now?

 I don’t care anymore about how people see me, what I say, what I should do on stage, should I talk about cancer ever again, should I be confessional or silly—any of that stuff. I just always want to do whatever I think is the funniest thing. To me, it’s funny to have these glaring scars on my chest and to talk about airport travel, you know? There’s still silliness in there. I’m not topless talking about cancer.

What’s next for you? You have a memoir coming out, right? And you’ll be in the second season of Transparent?

I’m shooting the second season of Transparent right now. I think I’m in half the season. My memoir comes out next year, I think in June. There’s so much in the book about my childhood and my mother and our relationship and where my life is now. It’s so specific. My album was just a 30 minute skeleton of what was going on, and the documentary fills in more of the blanks, but the book is the nitty-gritty.

After watching Tig, do you think your famous Largo set was a blessing or a curse? After watching it, Louis CK 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.” That’s a lot of pressure to put on you for an outstanding follow-up.

 It’s all been positive. At first I felt a lot of pressure, but it was mainly because I didn’t have any material to rebound with. Now, even if the president said I was his favorite comedian, I’d be like, That’s nice. I can’t really worry about that.

Read More:

Tig Notato explains the motivation behind her now-legendary “I Have Cancer” set

Tig Notaro finds comedy in darkness in exclusive Tig trailer

Tig Notaro on her new special, her health, and her plans to adopt a turtle