Arts & Culture » Performing Arts

Quirky comic Tig Notaro on killing, not dying, and baring it all on stage

Barely famous

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There are thousands of stand-up comedians out there, maybe millions. Many of them are funny; most sound the same. If you were really smart, you could probably write an algorithm that would suggest what many of them would say next.

And then there's Tig Notaro.

It would be almost impossible to predict what she'll say, as nobody else sounds like Tig Notaro. Not now, not in the past.

As a new fan commented on one of her YouTube videos: "Never thought I would laugh at cancer."

Early in a phone interview from her Los Angeles home, we ask her to complete the sentence: "Tig is Steven Wright meets ..."

After pondering, she replies, "I guess Chrissie Hynde, Paula Poundstone and my mother."

Inspired by Poundstone, Notaro (previously a band manager) tried an open mic night at Little Frida's, a Los Angeles café. That first show 20 years ago went well, and the Mississippi native's career was launched as a comedian-storyteller. She doesn't really tell jokes, just talks about her life and makes uniquely deadpan observations.

"At first," Notaro recalls, "I didn't think I would ever make a living at it. I thought I would do open mics forever, and I was content with that."

She was becoming known as a hilariously unconventional storyteller when her body decided to go a different way. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2012 – and lived to joke about it.

As she said on Late Night With Conan O'Brien in 2014: "I made so many jokes over the years about how small my chest was. I started to think maybe my boobs overheard me and were like, 'You know what, we're sick of this. Let's kill her.'"

She went even further later that year, when, as part of the New York Comedy Festival, she performed topless. (According to the New York Times, "She showed the audience her scars and then, through the force of her showmanship, made you forget that they were there. It was a powerful, even inspiring, statement about survival and recovery, and yet, it had the larky feel of a dare.")

What was that like?

"It crept up in my head as something I really wanted to do after my surgery," Notaro says. "It wouldn't leave my mind." She tried the topless thing at a club in Los Angeles but said she didn't feel confident there.

But the second time, in New York, "I really felt confident. It was very exhilarating. I thought it would be cool to do for my HBO special [the Emmy-nominated Boyish Girl Interrupted]," Notaro says. Although she hasn't gone topless in a show since, she says mysteriously, "I don't like to say if I'm going to or not going to."

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