Success Saturdays: Tig Notaro

Image by Disney – ABC via Flickr. / CC BY-ND 2.0

“Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you?”

Comedienne Tig Notaro’s most notorious stand-up set began with this relaxed statement. This was August 2012, and Notaro had been diagnosed with breast cancer a mere week earlier. She had chosen the laughter of strangers to help her process a cataclysmic last few months.

That same year, she had also been diagnosed with C-diff, a digestive infection that made her shed 30 pounds. Shortly after that, she abruptly lost her mother to a domestic accident. The breast cancer was the icing on top of the messy, tragic cake.

In the Netflix documentary “Tig,” she relates the feeling of reaching a tipping point at that time in her life. Her misfortunes had grown to such an extreme that they became farcical. And from that feeling of absurd misery, a new brand of comedy was born for Notaro.

Until then, her jokes had been on the classic, observational side. But that fateful night at the Largo theater, she went off-book, and told the much more personal tale of her diagnosis with a deadpan, self-deprecating sense of humor that made the show go viral overnight. Her jokes were unabashedly dark, but even more impressively, they were unafraid to mix with genuine emotions. In the documentary, audience members expressed that they found her daring take on somber subjects cathartic. She was in no way dismissing the seriousness of the disease; how could she, when she didn’t know yet that she was soon to recover? She was instead providing a much needed comic relief to all those in similar situations, from a place of knowing and understanding.

Notaro’s recovery came at the price of a double mastectomy. This earned her some offensive comments from people calling it a “free top surgery.” Because Notaro is a lesbian, some misguidedly assumed that her sexual orientation defined her gender identity, and that this severe physical change would be welcomed. Nonetheless, she didn’t tiptoe around the issue. One of her routines has involved joking about having “angered” the small breasts she used to bash on before the surgery, and she once went as far as performing half a stand-up show topless.

In 2016, the first season of her dramedy show, “One Mississippi,” had its premiere on Amazon Prime. “One Mississippi” is Notaro’s semi-autobiographical tale surrounding the loss of her mother. It’s a show that will casually rip your heart out while forcing you to smile through it. Impressively, Notaro’s dry wit manages to shine through even its darkest scenes of mourning, worry and even horror. For instance, a scene shows Tig wake up from her mastectomy with bleeding breasts, and getting bandaged in a nightmarish fashion. The show has the additional merit of featuring an LGBTQ+ protagonist, Tig herself, without reducing the story to that theme, an issue often observed in mainstream media. Her lesbian identity, while not shied away from, is incidental in this narrative, a step in the right direction for the representation of nuanced and unlimited LGBTQ+ characters.

The adversity Tig Notaro has met in her private life has fueled her creativity and taken her career in an exciting direction, ultimately making her a force to be reckoned within the comedy world. “One Mississippi” has been renewed for a second season, and is scheduled to premiere later this year.

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