Imagine you’re at a comedy club. Tig Notaro walks onstage. These are her opening words:
“Hello. Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you? Hi. How are you? Is everyone having a good time? I have cancer. How are you? Oh. It’s a good time. Diagnosed with cancer. [sigh] Feels good. Just diagnosed with cancer.”
What follows is perhaps the most astounding 30 minutes I’ve ever heard in my life.
Tig’s set, recorded in August, addresses the previous four months of her life, which included pneumonia, hospitalization with life-threatening C. diff, her mother dying unexpectedly, her relationship ending, and a diagnosis of Stage 2 cancer in both breasts. How is any of this funny? You have to hear it to believe it.
Comedian Louis CK, who introduced her that night and is offering an mp3 of her performance on his website for $5, 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.”
How does she pull this off?
In her October 10, 2012 Los Angeles Times article titled “Tig Notaro Turns Pain Into Laughter,” Deborah Vankin quotes Ira Glass, who featured Notaro on “This American Life” in May: “Tig plays on the audience’s expectations in a completely masterful way.” That’s what Tig does in this show—play with our expectations about what a piece on tragedy should sound like. (A shortened version of her set recently premiered on “This American Life.”)
Tig gets at the question that I keep asking myself: How do we tell our stories? The answer depends on many factors. Will I hurt people with my testimony? In Tig’s case, no. Most of her story has no one to blame. Except God.
“But you know, what’s nice about all of this is that you can always rest assured that God never gives you more than you can handle. Never. When you’ve had it, God goes, ‘All right. That’s it.’ I just keep picturing God going, ‘You know what? I think she can take a little more.’ And then the angels are standing back going, ‘God! What are you doing? You are out of your mind!’ And God was like, ‘No, no, no. I really think she can handle this.’ ‘But why God? Why? Why?’ ‘No, I just, you know. Trust me on this. She can handle this.'”
Tig goes on to explain how alongside this difficult period, she’s experiencing a lot of professional success. Now, this 30-minute standup set has gone viral, propelling her career to even greater heights.
Near the end, Tig asks, “What if I just transitioned right now into silly jokes?” A man in the back shouts, “No!” Tig responds as if she is speaking for him, “No! I wanna hear more bad news! No!” The man says, “This is f***ing amazing.” The audience cheers.
Until that moment, I’m not sure she knew how well she was connecting with the 300 people listening.
Tig closes with a silly joke, the kind she might have used on a normal night. It’s all the more funny because of its juxtaposition.
I went to Louis CK’s site and bought the mp3 file. It’s called “Tig Notaro: Live,” and the photo made me catch my breath. It’s a woman—shirtless—wearing jeans. Her hands are covering her breasts, but her thumbs are placed in such a way that, at first, I thought they were nipples. Then I realized that since that night at the comedy club, Tig has undergone a double mastectomy.
She’s doing well. Her doctors give her a good prognosis.
Here’s how she signs off (amid wild applause):
“Yay, cancer! That’s the best response I’ve ever gotten! I guess God was right. I can handle this. I can totally take so much more.”