Tig Notaro probably has the biggest balls of any comic working today.
It all started last year when she was diagnosed with cancer in both of her breasts. This was just a few months after she contracted that intestinal-eating bacteria known as C. diff, making her lose 20 pounds. During that time, she also went through a bad breakup and—here's the topper—her mom died in a freak household accident. This was all in four months.
Last August, just a few days after she was diagnosed, she did a 30-minute set at Largo, a Los Angeles nightclub, where she bypassed her usual material in favor of telling the unsuspecting audience what had been going on with her lately. ("Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?" is how she started off the set.) The audience didn't know whether to laugh or cry—they ended up doing the latter thanks to Notaro's honest, deadpan delivery. "This is fuckin' amazing!" one guy yelled out during the performance.
The set immediately became the talk of the comedy world. The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly soon interviewed her about her performance. Louis C.K., who was also performing at the club that night, tweeted afterward: "In 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo." A couple of months later, he would have a recording of Notaro's set available for download on his website. (It's now available on iTunes and Amazon.)
Notaro's visibility as a comedian has increased since that night. The same lady who used to perform at small venues is now playing the big rooms—like the Carolina Theatre, where she'll be performing this Saturday.
"I haven't always performed in theaters," says the 42-year-old Notaro, on the phone from her Los Angeles home. She recently did a gig at an Iowa City theater that she says couldn't have gone better. "I started out in open mics and comedy clubs—you know, there's always a bill. So, the theater is definitely a newer thing."
Notaro, who's been cancer-free after undergoing a double mastectomy last fall, says she's been getting back to the performing swing of things. "I've had a lot of recuperating and recovery and surgery and doctors," she says. "So, I haven't really been out touring or anything." She also did a brief stint writing for comedian Amy Schumer's new Comedy Central show, Inside Amy Schumer. (Schumer will play DPAC on the 10th, by the way.)
It's unfortunate how it took an unbelievable string of bad news for people to recognize Notaro's talents as a stand-up. Born Mathilde O'Callaghan Notaro ("Tig" is a childhood nickname), the Jackson, Miss., native and former band manager has spent a long 16 years performing stand-up, perfecting her absurdist yet pragmatic brand of observational humor. A favorite on the alternative-comedy circuit, she released her first stand-up CD, Good One, in 2011 on indie-rock label Secretly Canadian. This album includes one of her more popular bits, a 12-minute riff on the various run-ins she's had with '80s pop singer Taylor Dayne. (She did this bit during a live taping of This American Life last year, which ended with Notaro getting serenaded by Dayne herself.) And, of course, like so many of her contemporaries, she also has a podcast, Professor Blastoff, which she co-hosts with her friend and writing partner Kyle Dunnigan.
While she says the new material she's been performing touches on the past year, Notaro also assures that her stand-up style hasn't changed dramatically. "I'm pretty much still the same person, you know," she says. "The same stuff amuses me and, yeah—not too different."
As somebody who has been through hell, Notaro is doing what she can to have a positive outlook. During our interview, she doesn't dwell much on her recent, tragic past. It appears she's made peace with it, as well as accepted that this series of unfortunate events may be the thing that makes her a household name.
Notaro is also writing a book of autobiographical essays, scheduled for a 2015 release. She says there's a point in everybody's career that defines who they are. "This just happens to be mine and I'm just kinda used to the idea at this point.
"That's how it's happening for me, but I feel lucky that I'm associated with a positive. It's definitely a positive thing."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Living to tell the tales."