Interview: Comedian Tig Notaro
Creating levity from her difficult past and relishing her new role as a mother, Notaro returns to Columbus on Sunday with fresh material - and more reasons to sustain her status as one of the most intriguing comedians in the business
I saw Tig Notaro’s stand-up for the first time in 2015 when she performed just down the street at The Bluestone, a converted church in Downtown Columbus. I’ll get right to the point: it was one of the best hours of comedy I have ever seen.
Some important context for those who are unfamiliar with Notaro’s story: in 2012, she fell ill and nearly died after contracting Clostridium difficile – spending weeks in the hospital in and out of consciousness as she fought the disease. Shortly after being released, her mother sustained an unrecoverable brain injury during an in-home fall, which left her in a coma and eventually led her family to make the difficult decision to take her off life support. Only two months after her mother’s death, Notaro received more devastating news when she was diagnosed with stage 2 invasive bilateral breast cancer. It’s a series of inconceivable events that would seem rather trite if they were written as fiction.
It’s possible that some may not consider that great comedic fodder at the outset, but the discomfort of wrapping one’s brain around such tragedy is precisely where Notaro’s genius as a stand-up lives: in those grey, uncertain moments where you’re not entirely sure if they should be funny. She dug into those painful experience with resolve, counting on the audience to react almost in disbelief of the fact that she’d found humor in such dark places. It was a demonstration of tremendous vulnerability as an artist.
And I laughed harder than I’d ever laughed before.
Now a few years removed from that unimaginable barrage of obstacles, Notaro’s life is blossoming on multiple fronts. She married actress and writer Stephanie Allynne last October, who she’d met on the set of the film In A World… in 2013, and recently welcomed two new additions to their family: twin boys Max and Finn.”Things are good. I have two newborn babies next to me snoring,” she affirmed during our phone conversation this week.
Notaro’s career is swiftly rising on and off-stage – she released a poignant memoir earlier this year, I’m Just A Person, which planted her firmly on the New York Times Best Seller list. Two documentaries, Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro for Showtime and Tig for HBO. and an HBO comedy special, Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted, provided audiences with an intimate – and hilarious – glimpse into her personal and professional core.
Last month, Notaro’s semi-autobiographical dramedy series, One Mississippi, made its debut on Amazon TV to widespread critical acclaim. Her comedic essence translates exceptionally well to the small screen, colored by an excellent cast that includes veteran actor John Rothman, Transparent cast member, writer and producer Noah Harpster, and Saturday Night Live alumnus Casey Wilson. Notaro co-created the series with Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno), who also shares executive producer credits with Notaro and stand-up contemporary Louis C.K.
Notaro is rightfully being recognized as one of the most prolific and talented comedians in the industry. Amid a cornucopia of projects and the new demands of family life, Notaro is hardly leaving much time to rest on her laurels. She’s back on the road this fall with a new batch of material, making a stop in Columbus this Sunday at Speaker Jo Ann Davidson Theater.
After a bit of nervous gushing on my part, Notaro and I got down to business.
One of the things I truly love about your comedy is that you seem to savor and find humor during moments that are uncomfortable or vulnerable – places other comedians might be tempted to fill in or deflect because they’re not traditionally funny. I think it’s a real gift. How have you developed that sensibility over the course of your career?
“You know, I don’t know. Stepping on stage…it just…obviously I do it off-stage as well. But, pacing and delivery and everything just kind of presents itself naturally. It’s something that – all that kind of stuff – I try not to think too much about it…my style or how I’m doing it. Because I remember one time, even though it was really flattering, when The New York Times kind of dissected my comedy style and all that kind of stuff. And I was reading thinking ‘oh, this is really interesting, and I’d never thought of that.’ Or ‘I didn’t realize I was repetitive in ways and continued to mention things throughout the same story.’ It was interesting, but then I thought ‘I really don’t want to think too much about that’, you know? Mainly, I guess because it’s not a conscious decision. That’s why I don’t really want to think too much about it.”
What were some of the first bits of comedy you saw or heard growing up that you consciously thought “oh, that’s funny”?
“Well, I’d always sit up with my family – we were all huge fans of Saturday Night Live when I was little. And Gilda Radner was someone I shared a love for with my mother. Bill Murray and all the people from SNL. And I’d watch The Tonight Show and Letterman with them and really enjoyed that as well. As far as stand-up and comedic movies, Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder and Joan Rivers, I loved. Paula Poundstone as I got a little older and…yeah, I loved comedy so, so much.”
I re-watched the pilot episode of One Mississippi the other night. It has so many emotional layers that get peeled back in that first twenty-five minutes. What made you decide to begin the series at a point where there’s such a great amount to process?
“I sold the TV show, you know, a few years ago when all of that…I was just coming out of it. And that was just the premise of the show – that I…I don’t know. I think I was still in a place of feeling like I still wanted to tell my story, and all the different ways to do it is just remarkable – from stand-up, to a book, to a TV show, and a documentary – it’s like you uncover so many elements and avenues and emotions. And the thing with the TV show is that it didn’t surface until years later – and all of these projects have slowly surfaced. But the delay in the TV show actually allowed me to have that as a jumping off point, but then also the fun was to fictionalize a lot of it. And I had a really talented writers’ room where people brought their own stories and their spin on things – and just added layers that, you know, my original story didn’t even bring.”
The cast of your show is fabulous. Has it been difficult to watch actors play out scenes that are rather personal to you? Or has it been fun to see what develops as their version of those characters take shape?
“I thought it was really…I was so floored by the talent on the show, from writers to directors to actors, and people bringing their own interpretation to things. And, I mean, there were certain notes I would give people, like ‘oh, you know pull back here’ or ‘a little more there’, but it was really everybody that contributed. The actors were…I really think it was something special that casting we did, because everyone just blew my mind. And friends and family from Texas and Louisiana and Mississippi were really, really impressed with what everyone did.”
Your HBO special from last year, Boyish Girl Interrupted, culminated in a bit when you took your shirt off in front of your audience and revealed the scars from your mastectomy. It was one of the most unforgettable things I’ve ever seen during a comedic performance. Was that scary or freeing for you? And was it something you’d planned on doing in advance, or did it just happen in the moment?
“No, it was something I had definitely planned – I’d actually done it before, but just not for television. I had done it two times before – one time in L.A. and one time in New York. And I had gotten such a positive response from it that I thought ‘this might be something cool to do for my special’, and so I did. But, yeah, it was definitely kind of all those things rolled into one – having a bit of fear and having a bit of excitement. It was just a rush either way, ’cause it felt like whatever the response was that was captured on film was going to be pretty interesting to watch.”
Your particular brand of comedy is wry and observational, but I think you deliver it in such an accessible and inclusive manner. There is a kindness and humility that’s obvious in your material. Is that what you aim for as you write or produce?
“Yeah, I don’t enjoy hurting anybody’s feelings. And writing the TV show – whatever truth…whatever was based in truth in my TV show that I wrote about or we presented in a story line, I wasn’t wanting to throw anybody under the bus or make it miserable for them to go out into their lives. But, I’ve also been given kind of free reign to express myself however – they haven’t really edited me. But, you know there are certainly topics that people can choose to get upset about if they’re not really listening to what comedians are talking about – myself included. And that you kind of can’t avoid. But, I would never set out to bum people out or hurt peoples’ feelings. I don’t like to, you know, push buttons or envelopes just for the sake of doing so or just to see who I can upset. I want to have a good time and feel like we’re all participating in the same party or event, or whatever’s going on.”
You speak often about your mother being a free spirit and the connection you shared with her. Are there aspects of her that you see coming out in yourself as you explore being a new mom?
“Well, I think my mother…it’s a positive and negative. She sort of let me do what I wanted in ways, and be who I wanted to be – and sometimes maybe there could have been a little bit more of reeling it in. But that’s, I guess, where my stepfather stepped in and was the very much strict opposite of that. So, I got some balance, But I remember my stepfather after my mother died – he said something to me that I think about all the time, and I think it represents who my mother was. And I don’t think he realized it until just a few years ago when he told me this…he said ‘as a parent…it’s your job to learn who your children are…let them reveal themselves to you rather than put ideas and expectations and project onto them of who they should be. Let them let you know who they are.’ I think that’s what Stephanie and I are both so excited about is to see who these people are that are living in our house (laughs). It’s really exciting, you know?”
One of my absolute favorite stories you tell is about how you spectacularly bombed an entire series of shows in Las Vegas several years ago. You’ve clearly evolved in your craft since then, but are there still times – even with the credibility you’ve accumulated – when you bump into moments that disarm or surprise you as a comedian?
“Oh yeah – for sure. Definitely. Doing new material or hitting new markets that aren’t big cities or places I’ve frequented over the years. I ran into that in Florida a few years ago…I can’t remember what city it was. I love Florida and I love performing in so many of the cities, but it was really comical how much I was struggling and people were not recognizing what I was doing as comedy. But I think as painful as it when something doesn’t go well in comedy, it’s…every time it makes you better at your show or performance when you’re struggling in any amount. Because you can kind of get used to safe cities and audiences and people telling you you’re good – and then you take things out on the road or into different venues, and you can see where the weakness is.”
Tig Notaro will perform on Sunday, October 16, 8:00 pm at Speaker Jo Ann Davidson Theater, 77 South High Street, Downtown. Tickets are general admission ($36.50 plus applicable taxes and fees) and can be purchased via Ticketmaster. Notaro’s new series, “One Mississippi” can be viewed exclusively on Amazon TV.