This interview was originally broadcast on Oct. 8, 2012.
"Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you?"
That's how comedian Tig Notaro began her set at Largo in Los Angeles the day she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. As she uttered those words to the audience, there was nervous laughter, weeping and total silence in response.
Comedian Louis C.K. was there that evening, and tweeted this about her performance: "In 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo."
When she spoke with Terry Gross, it had been an eventful four months for Notaro. Before her cancer diagnosis, Tig had pneumonia and contracted a severe intestinal virus, for which she was treated in the hospital. Shortly after being released, her mother died in a freak accident — and then Tig and her girlfriend broke up.
So when she got on stage that evening, Notaro told Fresh Air's Terry Gross, she was "in a very vulnerable, raw place."
"I had no idea what was in front of me," she says. "It was really just taking blind steps."
When Notaro conceived of the idea, "It just made me laugh so hard just in the shower" — but she wavered as to whether to include the cancer diagnosis in her set that night. Describing herself as a "dry, deadpan, one-liner comic," she says she rarely performs material as personal or revealing as her set at Largo was.
"I was scared of offending people and confusing people," she says. "You know, thinking about people that maybe did have cancer in the audience, or had somebody that they loved that had cancer. And then the reality hit me that I have cancer — this is my story."
After a double mastectomy, the cancer was contained. Notaro is now in remission, healthy and feeling well.
Notaro has appeared on This American Life and Conan. Her set at Largo, titled Tig Notaro: Live, was first released exclusively on comedian Louis C.K.'s website. It has just come out on CD. Notaro was a writer on the Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer and appears in the new film In A World.
On Taking Your Own Advice
"I'm so interested to see what this has done to me. And I do know that what I feel lucky for, and what has prepared me for now, is that throughout my comedy career, I have evolved and changed, and what I think has been important — not just in comedy but in life — and it's so cliche, but really, to take your own advice. And that's what I've done in my standup, and it has helped me because I started out a dry, deadpan, one-liner comic that didn't smile on stage.
"And I have allowed myself, by taking my own advice, to write longer jokes. ... And going onstage to talk about my cancer and my mother's death, that's not something I would normally do. ... All I know is that I'm going to do whatever makes me feel comfortable, and I'm gonna do whatever I want to do and hope that the essence of me and what people liked about me in the beginning will come through."
On Louis CK's 'Masterful' Tweet About Her Set
"I went to bed that night. I'm not on Twitter and I don't follow blogs. ... I woke up the next day and my phone when I turned it on just kept beeping, just so many voice mails and text messages. I didn't understand how the whole world knew I had cancer. I was so confused, and then to go from the 300 people that night to the world knew. ... My first thought when I was diagnosed was, 'Oh, I have to keep this a secret. I don't want to lose work.' And then that just blew the roof off that. It was just so funny, because I was talking to my manager just days before like, 'How are we going to keep this a secret?' "
On Getting Her First Laugh
"It's so interesting, I didn't account for laughter, which seems odd. But I had been talking to myself for so long at my apartment, and I was so focused on getting all of my material down. And when I got on stage at the coffee shop and people laughed, I remember being taken aback. I was like, 'Oh — oh, that's what I was telling you this for, was for the laughter.' But I just didn't even factor it in at all, but it was so exhilarating, so much so that I — the second night I did standup, I thought — because the first night went so well — I was like, 'Oh, this is so easy,' so I went and I competed in a standup competition and I got booed off the stage."
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. When Terry spoke with comic Tig Notaro in 2012, it was only months after Tig had been diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. We're pleased to report that her cancer is in remission, and she is healthy and doing well. But days after she got her diagnosis and was facing surgery and an uncertain outcome, Tig was onstage at the Club Largo in L.A.
She threw out her planned material and did a standup comedy act about having just received the bad news. Louis C.K. also performed at the club that night and raved about her performance. For a while, an audio recording of her set was available exclusively on Louis C.K.'s website, but now it's been released, along with some extras, as a Tig Notaro CD titled "Live."
Before we listen to Terry's 2012 interview with Tig Notaro, let's hear the opening of Tig's set that night at Largo. Imagine her walking out right after her diagnosis, facing an audience who didn't know about the cancer.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY PERFORMANCE)
TIG NOTARO: 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? It's a good time, diagnosed with cancer. Feels good. Just diagnosed with cancer. Oh my God, it's weird because with humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy. I am just at tragedy right now. That's just where I am in the equation.
Oh, it's fine. I'll - here's what happened. I went - I'm gonna get - it's very personal. I found a lump. Guys, relax, everything's fine. I have cancer.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Tig Notaro, welcome to FRESH AIR. And first, how are you?
NOTARO: I'm doing great. They - I had a double mastectomy. They got all the cancer, and it did not spread like they had feared.
GROSS: That's wonderful, so I'm really happy for you.
NOTARO: Thank you, I am, too. I'm thrilled.
GROSS: So I'm so sorry that this has been such a rough patch of your life, but I'm so grateful that you've managed to make something so remarkable from all the horrors that you were going through. So let's start by talking about this set. If I were in the audience, when you walked out and did this whole hello, good evening, I have cancer, I don't know that I would have had any idea how to interpret that, whether I would've thought you were serious, or whether I would've thought, like, this is some really weird, like, performance art piece.
And I keep thinking, like, who are those people who were laughing?
GROSS: Because you're saying I have cancer. So how did you get the idea of starting that way?
NOTARO: Well, I originally was picturing myself going out, and I never sit on a stool when I do standup, and I was picturing myself being kind of that comedian for the night where I pull up a stool, and I say, hey, you know, it's been a rough few months, bear with me, I'm working on some material that's a bit of a detour from my regular stuff.
And then I was taking a shower about an hour and a half before the show, and I was thinking I can't do that, that's so lame. And I don't want to make excuses for my show before I get started, regardless of what I'm doing onstage. And my brain just popped out with this idea that I walk on stage and say thank you, I have cancer, thanks for coming. And it just made me laugh so hard just in the shower.
And then I was thinking oh, gosh, even though that's funny to me, I was scared of offending people and confusing people, and, you know, thinking about people that maybe did have cancer in the audience or had somebody that they loved that had cancer. And then the reality hit me that I have cancer.
NOTARO: Like this is my story. And I just kept thinking about it and picturing it, and it just kept making me laugh so hard. And so I just decided to do it. I was really nervous, though.
GROSS: So what was...
NOTARO: But it seemed to be the way to get in.
GROSS: What was it like when you walked on stage, and you did the whole good evening, I have cancer, and people laughed? I think other people were just astonished and shocked. But everybody - I think everybody was completely with you no matter what their reaction was. What were you feeling at that moment?
NOTARO: I was very nervous. I was rattled, and I felt raw, and I felt very vulnerable. Even though I had been diagnosed maybe a week prior to that, it was only maybe the day before the show that I had met with my doctor, who told me that I had stage two breast cancer and that the tumor on the left side was invasive and that because the cancer was not contained, their fear was that it had possibly spread to my lymph nodes.
And so they didn't know where the cancer had spread or if it had or how far. Like, they just didn't know. And I was just in a very vulnerable, raw place, and I had no idea what was in front of me.
GROSS: So Tig, you know, when I was listening to this set for the first time, I think I really didn't know how to react, and I was, like, laughing and then thinking, like, I shouldn't - this is not really funny. This is really tragic. It's horrible. I shouldn't be laughing.
But then I was thinking no, no, but what's she's saying isn't funny, but the way she's saying it is very funny, and she's a comic. She'd probably prefer it if I laugh. It's probably better if I laugh. And I was so almost distracted having this internal debate with myself about whether it was approp - I was listening alone in my car, you know, and laughing and having this debate with myself.
And then I'm listening to the audience respond on this recording, and some people are laughing, and some people are shushing the people who are laughing. And you also hear - you can kind of like hear the silence of some people.
GROSS: Like what response made you feel best during - you know, as the set kept going, and people are kind of getting more and more attuned to where you're heading, and some people are laughing, and some people are shushing them, and some people are just astonished?
NOTARO: Yeah, it was a lot to take in. You know, I feel like the 300 people that were in that audience that night were the exact perfect people that should have been there. They were just so tremendous. And, you know, like you were saying, there's just so many different reactions. There was laughing and silence, and it was the first time in my career where I've looked in the audience and seen people crying.
It was a very intense experience, and there was a point where I wasn't sure if things had gotten too dark, and I had considered and suggested that maybe I just call it a night. And this guy, you know, he spoke up: Absolutely not. And the crowd just burst into this supportive - I don't even know. It just - it was so emotional. I almost started crying.
NOTARO: It was - yeah, I just thought oh, please, don't cry. Just - you can't walk out here and tell them all this stuff and then start crying onstage. You know, I just would have felt so defeated. But it, it just - I just wanted to - I don't know. I wanted to feel and seem strong. And I had to pull myself together before I spoke again.
BIANCULLI: That's comic Tig Notaro, telling Terry Gross about the set she performed last year at the Club Largo in L.A., right after she was diagnosed with cancer in each breast. Comic Louis C.K. was there. He also performed that night, and he got the word out when he tweeted this, quote: In 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night, unquote. We called him up to get his recollections of the evening.
LOUIS C.K.: I went in, and there was Tig, and we're standing in the dark next to the stage, and she's getting ready to go on. And I said hey, I heard you're sick. I'm sorry. And she said actually I have cancer. And I was like what? And she said yeah, it's really bad, and it's my whole chest, and it's going to go my lymph nodes, and I'm not going to make it probably.
And she started telling me this stuff, and, you know, my eyes filled up. I couldn't believe it. And she said I'm going to go talk about it onstage. And she had this handful of paper. And it was a lot to learn all at once, you know. And then she went onstage, and I stood on the wings of the stage and watched the whole set.
GROSS: OK, so she comes out, and she says, and no one in the audience knows about the cancer.
GROSS: And she come out, and she does the whole good evening, thank you, I have cancer, thank you.
C.K.: Yeah, and she kept saying it's OK because everyone was upset. People were gasping and crying. And she said it's OK, it's OK, I have cancer. I've never seen anything like it. She was using I have cancer as a soothing thing to say.
GROSS: Yeah, it's like she's soothing the audience.
GROSS: And telling this like horrible news. So one of the reasons why this performance got such a huge reaction outside of the people who were there was because of your tweet, the tweet where you wrote in 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets, one was Tig Notaro's last night at Largo.
From a comic's perspective, what made the set so good?
C.K.: Well, you know, for comedians you see everything. We know all the tricks so it's hard to impress a comedian with comedy. But some people have a sound that's just theirs that's patented. It's kind of like horn players. There's probably times that Charlie Parker would tell John Coltrane, you know, I saw this guy in Chicago you got to hear him. I mean, nobody's doing what this guy is doing. Tig has this really beautiful sound on stage.
She has this way of dropping her jokes that are - they're wonderful, deadly jokes. And they're about small things usually, like bees and drapes, but they're incredible. So here she is applying it to something really big. It was an incredible example of what comedy is good at, which is taking people to the scary parts of their mind and making them laugh in those scary places.
That's a great gift. You know, she did something about looking at a picture of herself when she was five and saying to this cute little picture, you're going to get cancer. And we're all going, oh my God. And I never - for me, I kept - I was crying and laughing the whole time and hearing the audience lurching back and forth, exploding, then hushed - totally hushed - and then exploding again. It's like I never saw anything like it, the way that she controlled it.
GROSS: So did you ever see a set that tried to do something similar to what Tig did? In other words, tried to take something very personal, very confessional and very frightening and bomb, you know? And so instead of it being this kind of like miraculous set where, like, people are experiencing, like, laughter and grief at the same time and are processing what's being said on a very deep level, it's just, like, not working at all, even though the comic's just, like, bleeding on stage.
C.K.: Well, sometimes comics will go to dark areas, and they'll either go there by stripping away the real sentiment and just playing with the really refined darkness of the situation, and they'll purposely edit out any emotion about it. And that's something you can do to get laughs about a dark thing. Other people will really delve into the pathos of something, and then the crowd just goes quiet.
I've never seen somebody try it for a whole set. That would be hard. But I've seen people go to - stray into, you know, sad, dark territory where it gets quiet and it stops being comedy for a minute. And some people do that, and it's OK. I saw a guy once have sort of - reenact a nervous breakdown onstage to show everybody what it was like, and it was just - it was very hard to watch, and it didn't connect for the audience.
The thing that Tig was doing was something I haven't seen, which is telling you what it feels like to just have learned this, and she's not complaining. She's just observing. So, you know, I was proud of the way she was processing her tough news, and I was also proud of the way she was giving it to people, something they're going to get from it and that audience got, especially, and I got, which is if you have this funny explosion of laughter in the scariest, scariest depths of your fears, next time you see that fear again, you're going to remember the laugh. It's going to be there for you.
BIANCULLI: Louis C.K., remembering Tig Notago's comedy set about being diagnosed with cancer. We'll get back to the interview Terry recorded with Tig Notaro after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening back to Terry's interview with comic Tig Notaro about the comedy set she performed right after being diagnosed with cancer. We're happy to report that she's now in remission and feeling well. That set was recorded as is now out on CD. It's called "Live."
GROSS: So at this part in your set, you're talking about how you were trying to - like, one night you were just so depressed you were trying to drown your troubles with food, but the problem was because of still recovering from the C. diff, there was very little that you could eat. So, like, you were binging on Triscuits because they're basically like wheat flour and water.
And so this is...
NOTARO: That's rock bottom.
GROSS: Yes, rock bottom, absolutely. So this is that part of the set.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY PERFORMANCE)
NOTARO: I just, I was trying to drown my emotions in something. That's all I could do. It's like that's it, I'm going to the store and I'm buying Triscuits. It's like through all of this, like getting diagnosed, like, oh, I'll call my girlfriend. Oh, we broke up. I'll call my mother. Oh, my mother died. Oh, I'll go buy some food. Oh, I can't eat anything.
Guys, who here is just wishing I would tell bees going down the 405?
NOTARO: I just can't. I'm sorry. But you know what's nice about all of this is you can always rest assured that God never gives you more than you can handle. Never. 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.
NOTARO: And then the angels are standing back going: God, what are you doing?
NOTARO: You are out of your mind. And God was like: No, no, no, I really think she can handle this. But why? God, like, why, why? Oh, I just, you know, just trust me on this. She can handle this. God is insane, if there at all.
GROSS: And that's Tig Notaro from her set recorded at Largo in L.A. in August, and that set is now available exclusively on Louis C.K.'s website. Did finding comedy within the tragedy help you get through it, or did it at least make you feel, like, well, I'm good professionally. I can, I know, I know how to make this work onstage, and I'm good at that? What did you get from the performance?
NOTARO: I got so many different things on so many different levels at so many different times. It was just the bursting-at-the-seams, cathartic moment onstage of just being held up by these - this sold-out theater. And then I went to bed that night, and I'm not on Twitter, and I don't follow blogs.
And I woke up the next day, and my phone when I turned it on just kept beeping, just so many voicemails and text messages, and I didn't understand how the whole world knew I had cancer. I was so confused, you know. And then to go from the 300 people that night to the world knew, and I've just been lifted and carried and supported. And I have amazing friends and family, and my first thought when I was diagnosed was, oh, I have to keep this a secret, I don't want to lose work. And then that just blew the roof off that.
GROSS: Good point.
NOTARO: Everything negative has birthed amazing and positive things, and enlightening things for me. And people tend to think oh, poor Tig, she's alone and I just - there's just no - nobody should be concerned for me. All is well. And the cancer has just been this - just explosive. I'm typically more private and this is something that is pushing me so far out there in a way that has never been. I have no complaints. My life is tremendously wonderful.
GROSS: Well, Tig Notaro, thank you so much for talking with us. And congratulations on your great prognosis. It's just wonderful news.
NOTARO: Thank you. I'm so excited. And thanks so much for having me on.
GROSS: My pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Tig Notaro, speaking to Terry Gross last year. Tig Notaro is now in remission and feeling healthy. The recording of her now famous comedy set is now out on CD. It's called "Tig Notaro: Live." Tig Notaro also appears in the new film "In A World," is now at work on a road trip movie for Showtime and is one of the hosts of the Professor Blastoff podcast. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.