When comedian Tig Notaro was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, she cancelled her upcoming gigs — her mind was too preoccupied to tell jokes with any real conviction. A week later, she turned that predicament on its head by getting on stage at Largo nightclub in Los Angeles and delivering what would become one of the most celebrated standup sets in recent history.
“Good evening, hello. I have cancer. Hi, how are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer. How are you?”
So begins the set, in which Notaro details — devastatingly, hilariously — a series of awful events, of which a stage-two cancer diagnosis was only the most recent. She’d also been hospitalized for a severe intestinal infection, lost her mother in a tragic accident, and suffered through a breakup, within a span of four months. The set was lauded by fellow comedian Louis C.K. as one of the most “truly great, masterful standup sets” he’s ever witnessed. The complete recording of the half-hour set, titled Live, was nominated for a Grammy earlier this year.
In anticipation of her upcoming show at the Columbus Theatre, Notaro spoke with us this week about life and work after cancer. The interview has been edited and condensed.
YOU’D BEEN DOING COMEDY FOR YEARS BEFORE THAT SET AT LARGO. HAVE YOUR ROUTINES OR WRITING PROCESSES CHANGED MARKEDLY SINCE THEN? DOES CANCER JUST MAKE EVERYTHING ELSE SEEM TRIVIAL? It hasn’t changed my approach to stand-up or my writing process all that much. I try to approach my comedy and writing from a place of wanting to do what’s authentic to me as a person and a comic. I try to do material that excites me. And that set at Largo happened to be my reality at that time, which is what prompted me to stray from my jokes about getting passed on the highway in traffic by a bee, and discuss all that I had been going through.
But since then, while I’ve still had to deal with the fallout from those difficult four months, my life is in great shape, and I have so much to be thankful for. So much of my new material is me approaching comedy the same exact way I did before my life fell apart. It’s new but it’s consistent with who I was as a standup before those four months. I include some more personal topics now, which I hadn’t done before.
THE CROWD’S REACTION DURING THAT SET IS PRETTY REMARKABLE. AT ONE POINT AN AUDIENCE MEMBER YELLS, VERY SINCERELY, “THIS IS FUCKING AMAZING.” DID YOU KNOW RIGHT THEN THAT THAT PERFORMANCE WAS KIND OF A BIG DEAL? DID YOU GO INTO IT WITH THAT MINDSET? I was trying to work out another story for This American Life before this performance. So I was looking to really get all of this stuff off my chest, and maybe have some audio that [would be] usable to send to Ira Glass. I knew the audience was right there with me and insanely supportive. But I did not anticipate people taking to Twitter, and blogging, and press outlets reaching out the following day. That was not my intent, nor was it where my head was at. I actually thought that could’ve been my last time performing stand-up. If anything, I felt relieved that it went over so well.