Posted Monday, Oct. 8, 2012, at 1:35 PM
Word spread quickly back in August about a standup set that the comedian Tig Notaro had done at Largo in Los Angeles. “In 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets,” Louis C.K. wrote the next day to his more than a million followers on Twitter. “One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.” Another comedian, Kira Hesser, went on Tumblr to describe what it was like to be one of “the stunned, mouth-breathing strangers in the dark” that night. Notaro began her set, Hesser explained, by saying, “Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you?”
Notaro had just been diagnosed a few days earlier, it turned out, and had learned the day before that it was Stage 2, invasive, and that she might not make it. She spent a half-hour talking about this news, and the series of personal tragedies that preceded it: pneumonia, followed by the serious intestinal disease C. Diff, followed by the unexpected death of her mother after a fall. And in the midst of all that, the end of a longterm relationship.
C.K. approached Notaro after the set and asked if he could make it available for sale on his website; Tig Notaro: Live (that last word is a verb, Notaro says, not an adjective) went up on Friday. And even after all the build-up online, it makes for a riveting, moving, occasionally hilarious 30 minutes.
The audience, as you can imagine, does not quite know what they’re hearing at first. Is she serious about having just been diagnosed with cancer? Some people laugh when she says it the first few times. After she describes finding a lump and going to the hospital, it gets quieter, and you can tell that the realization is settling in that she isn’t kidding. Notaro tries to comfort one audience member in particular multiple times. “It’s gonna be OK,” she says. “It might not be OK,” she then adds, “but I’m just saying, it’s OK.” Someone else later seems a little more amused than is perhaps entirely appropriate, and she tells him, “Sir, this should not tickle you so much. I’m not that happy and comfortable.”
These intimate interactions with the audience are a lot of what makes Tig Notaro: Live an amazing listen. The other is the roughness around the edges, the sense that this deeply personal material is still taking shape. A perfectly polished and crafted standup set can be a beautiful thing, to be sure, but it’s rare to hear outside of a comedy club the kind of rough-hewn tryout of material you get here. “With humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy,” Notaro says, referring to the old saw that is often attributed online to Carol Burnett for some reason but which is actually a Lenny Bruce comment that was hilariously bowdlerized by a character in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. “I am just at tragedy, right now,” Notaro says. “That’s just where I am in the equation.”
And yet she’s still funny. Jokes about a questionnaire the hospital sent to her mother inquiring about the quality of her care—after her mother had died there—and a story about being mistaken for a man just after learning she had breast cancer have a raw, angry hilarity. She does funny riffs about cancer greeting cards, wanting to date after the diagnosis, and encouraging her friends to speak to her like a normal person.
My favorite moment in the whole set comes at the end, when she finally tells a joke about a bee on the 405 in Los Angeles. This was material she had been working on before she decided she didn’t want to tell silly jokes, that she needed to talk about what she was going through. “I was driving here,” she begins. “And, ugh, a lot of traffic.” I won’t spoil the rest; suffice it to say that there is a surprising amount of pathos in a joke about traffic after hearing someone discuss getting cancer, ending a relationship, and losing a parent.
A few days ago, on her podcast Professor Blastoff, Notaro announced that surgery was successful, and that the cancer appears to be gone. You can watch her describe the last few months on Conan below, and you can buy Tig Notaro: Live on Louis C.K.’s website.
Update: Commenters have noted that parts of the set were played on This American Life over the weekend, and you can read a transcript of those excerpts on the show’s website. You can also hear (or read) a new interview with Notaro by Terry Gross for Fresh Air. Gross also talked with Louis C.K. about the set.