She bravely discussed her cancer battle in one of the most talked-about stand-up performances ever. Now the comic, 41, opens up about what's next for her, and how fans can finally hear that emotional monologue.
On Aug. 3, you did a confessional stand-up routine at L.A.’s Largo club, where you talked about your breast cancer. Louis C.K. called it one of the best sets he had ever seen. What drove you to put that on stage?
I had done This American Life back in May, and [host] Ira [Glass] called me a couple of days after, saying that segment was very popular and he wanted me back on the show immediately, and I was like, ”Sure, I’ll work on something.” So I wrote up, like, 10 pages of what had been going on, and I met with him about it, and he looked at me and said, ”This is so depressing.” And I said, ”I know, this is my life! I don’t know what to do!”… There were no jokes in the 10 pages I showed him. It was just a list of horrible things that had happened. So I just started writing like crazy, and the day before the [Largo] show I had another doctor’s appointment, and that’s when the doctor told me it was stage 2 and it was an invasive cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes. So I was devastated all over again. And right then I got a text from [Mark] Flanagan, the owner of Largo, saying, ”Are you gonna do the show?” And I just wrote, ”Yeah.” But I was [thinking], ”What am I doing?”
Were you surprised at the response?
Flanagan records audio of most of the shows there, so when I got off stage and went home that night, I emailed Ira and said, ”I think I got something you could maybe use [for This American Life].” Then I went to bed, and when I woke up, there were 10 million emails, messages, texts, book-deal offers. I was like, ”What in the hell is going on? How did everybody find out I have cancer?” Obviously I knew the 300 people in that room would know, and I was very aware that word would get out, but I thought it would be a slow trickle. [This American Life has not yet scheduled an airdate for Notaro’s segment.]
Prior to your cancer diagnosis, you were in the hospital for a debilitating intestinal disease and endured the death of your mother.
I got out of the hospital, and a couple of days later was my 41st birthday, and then a couple of days after that, my mother tripped and hit her head and was on life support. In a week, I was lying in the hospital, then turned 41, then my mother died. It was a very confusing week.
Your career has moved in small increments until now. How are you handling your sudden fame?
People have told me that it’s crazy and that everybody is talking about me. But I haven’t really been out since I did that show. I’ve been so busy with doctor’s appointments.
Do you think you’ve found the funny in cancer?
Absolutely. When I went on stage at Largo, I was just a day out of being in the fetal position crying. The fact that I was on stage so soon after and making myself and other people laugh about it, I’m so glad that happened.
What’s next for you?
I’m going into preoperation prep, and then I’m going to have an operation, and then recover, and then move to New York [to continue working on Amy Schumer’s upcoming show for Comedy Central].
Are you concerned with now being known as ”the cancer comic”?
I am conscious of it, but I have to have faith that I have enough of a point of view as a human and as a comic that I’m not going to be sucked into that being my thing now. I don’t want to be the cancer comic…. I hope it’s just going to be one of those things that’s thrown in the mix. And then I’ll be on to the next thing. And I’m so curious to find out what that is.