"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."
It has 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 tells 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 has been contained and Notaro's prognosis is looking very good. Still, she says, "this is something that is pushing me so far out there in a way that has never been."
Notaro has appeared on This American Life and Conan. Her set at Largo, titled Tig Notaro: Live, has been released exclusively on comedian Louis C.K.'s website.
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."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You're about to hear an excerpt of a remarkable comedy set by my guest Tig Notaro, and we have an interview with her. But let me back up a little bit. I didn't know who Tig Notaro was until last May, when she was a guest on the edition of "This American Life" that was shown live in movie theaters.
I saw the show with several of our producers, and we all thought we should invite her on. We decided to wait until she had a new album or was in a new movie or TV show. The event that brought her back to our attention was really bad news. In August, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, both breasts. That's enough to put everything in your life on hold, but right after the diagnosis she decided to show up for her regular comedy night at the Club Largo in L.A.
She threw out her old material and kept things in the moment. Louis C.K., who also performed there that night, tweeted that her set was masterful. Articles were written about it. I wished I could have heard it. And now I have, because it turns out it was a recorded, and Louis C.K. has just made it available for purchase on his website.
Later, he'll tell us what this set means to him as a comic. So before we hear my interview with Tig Notaro, here's the opening of her set. 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.
GROSS: Tig Notaro, welcome to FRESH AIR. And first, how are you?
NOTARO: I'm doing great, almost better than ever.
GROSS: What's your prognosis now?
NOTARO: My prognosis is great. They - I had a double mastectomy. They got all the cancer, and it did not spread like they had feared, and I spoke with my doctor, who told me the testing came back, and I have a 7 percent recurrence rate. So that's beyond amazing.
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 2 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: I don't even know how you were able to get onstage and do this. You had gotten the - you know, the real lowdown the day before. You must have been in shock and totally horrified.
NOTARO: I was devastated.
NOTARO: Yeah, I was devastated, and I had been working on this - I had done "This American Life" in May, and Ira Glass, the host, had invited me back immediately. And so I had pitched an idea about when I got my wisdom teeth removed about 15 years ago, and he said great, let's do that.
And then he called me a couple days later and said where are we on that piece? And I said, oh, you mean you want me back immediately. And he said yeah. And I said, oh, to be honest, I am in no place to be talking about my wisdom teeth and some silly story. I feel so just consumed by the hell that my life had become.
And he said well great, let's talk about that then. And I told him I wanted to talk about that, and he said great, let's do it. And so I wrote about 10 pages about what was going on, and then I happened to be in New York and met with him, and he read over the pages, and he looked at me, and he said this is so depressing.
And I said yeah, I know, but it is my life. I don't know what to do. And he said, you know, your power is doing this onstage, and if there's a point that you feel that can do this onstage or find anything funny, then I think you need to do this onstage. And so I - a part of me was thinking, you know, I just want to get on "This American Life" again, and then another part of me, I didn't know if I was dying. I didn't know if I was ever going to get onstage again, and I better take this opportunity.
GROSS: Well, I want to play another excerpt of your set at Largo, and this was recorded in August, just a few days after you were diagnosed with cancer. And it's not just the cancer that you were dealing with, but also a few weeks before the cancer - actually more like maybe three months before the cancer diagnosis, you had gotten pneumonia, and then as a result of that you got an infection called C. diff, short for C. difficile, which is a kind of deadly bacterial infection that wreaks havoc with your whole digestive system.
And then your relationship with your girlfriend fell apart. So you had all these things, terrible things happening to you. At the same time, your career was actually going very well at that point. So at this point in your set, in which you're talking about all these things that have happened to you, you've been talking about the good and the bad happening at the same time and how this is changing you.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY PERFORMANCE)
NOTARO: Again, just please bear with me. It's so hard because, like, right now in my life, I don't feel - when I have a show, I don't feel like, oh, I want to go talk about how funny it is that a bee was taking the 405 freeway. Like all the jokes that I've written, I just, I'm like I can't even bring myself to talk about it because - and everyone relax - my mother just died.
Should I leave?
NOTARO: My mother died but - tragically, too. She was 65. She tripped, hit her head and died a week after I got out of the hospital. I can't believe you're taking this so hard. You didn't know her. You didn't know her. I'm doing OK. What happened was after we buried her in our hometown in Mississippi, we drove back to Texas, and I was checking the mail, and the hospital sent my mother a questionnaire to see how her stay at the hospital went.
NOTARO: Not, not great. It did not go great.
GROSS: That's Tig Notaro, and this set was recorded and is being released, and has been released exclusively on Louis C.K.'s website. 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.
GROSS: Was it a hard decision to make about whether to include your mother's death within this set?
NOTARO: No, it was not. My mother was a very, very funny, outrageous, outspoken person, and she never edited me. Her whole thing in my life was if anybody had a problem with me, tell them to go to hell. She told me that just a little kid, through my whole life. I actually spoke about that at her funeral.
GROSS: My guest is comic Tig Notaro. We're talking about the set she performed at the Largo Comedy Club in L.A., right after she was diagnosed with cancer in each breast. Comic Louis C.K. also performed there that night. He's released a recording of her set on his website. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is comic Tig Notaro, and we're talking about a set that she performed at a theater called Largo in L.A. This was in August, and it was right after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in each of her breasts. And the set that she did is all about that, but it's also about these other horrible things that happened to her within four months.
There was first pneumonia, and then as a consequence of that C. difficile, C, diff, which is a really horrible bacterial infection, that is very difficult to get rid of, in your digestive tract. I mean, so bad some people die from it. And then she and her girlfriend broke up. Then her mother died. And then it was on top of all that that she was diagnosed with the cancer.
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 so I emailed Ira saying, oh, I think I might have gotten something that maybe you could use.
And I went to bed, 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: Yeah, there was no - it was just so funny, 'cause I was talking to my manager just days before, like, how are we going to keep this a secret, you know? I'm going to be going through chemo, I'll be bald, four pounds, you know, this is - clearly something's going to be suspicious. So next thing I know, everybody's, like, oh, everybody knew I had cancer.
GROSS: Tig Notaro will be back in the second half of the show. A recording of her comedy set that we've been talking about was released by comic Louis C.K. on his website. We'll hear from him later. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with comic Tig Notaro. We're talking about the now famous set she performed last August at the Largo comedy club in LA, just after she was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. She had tumors in both breasts. She's healing now from her double mastectomy and the doctors say she has only a seven percent chance of recurrence.
Let's talk about your earlier life and how you got into all of this in the first place. You didn't set out to be a comic - I don't think you did, anyway,s because professionally first you were I think trying to be a musician and then ended up promoting bands.
GROSS: So just tell us a little bit about your music - your early music life.
NOTARO: Well, I got my first guitar when I was nine because I wanted to be the fifth Beatle, even though they had already broken up and John Lennon died that year. I was obsessed with music and I started playing drums when in, like, maybe when I was 20 or so. And yeah, I kind of had this fantasy where I would've loved to have been in a band. But whenever I performed and played guitar in front of anybody, whether it was one-on-one or on stage, the couple of times that I tried to, my hand would shake so tremendously that I could not pull it off. So I thought maybe being in music business - just being around music would be my thing. And when I was doing it, I thought, this is perfect. I found my thing, I'm so happy doing this. But I had always, my whole life, followed stand up and comedy and that was my if I could do anything, but I just didn't understand how people became comedians. I thought it was just something you were born. Like I really couldn't understand how Richard Pryor or Paula Poundstone became standup comedians. But that was truly what I wanted.
GROSS: So how did you take the first step?
NOTARO: Well, I grew up with a couple of friends, my friends Beth and Leslie. Leslie and I just went wherever Beth went because Beth was going to school - and graduate school - and I had the clear direction in life. So Leslie and I just would move wherever Beth got into colleges, and we just didn't to know where to go or what to do, so we followed Beth and so Beth wanted to go...
GROSS: And you're flexible since he dropped out of high school.
NOTARO: Yeah. I failed three grades and dropped out of high school. And I just didn't have anything going on, really so I was like oh, Beth wants to move to LA to be a producer. That's fine. There's music out there. So yeah, we all packed up and went to LA to follow Beth's dreams.
NOTARO: And then when we got there I opened the LA Weekly and I saw all the opportunity to do standup. You could do open mics and coffee shops, laundry mats, comedy clubs. I just couldn't believe. We had just been living in Denver and there were only at the time a couple of outside rooms, aside from the actual comedy club there. So when people are surprised that I started standup in Los Angeles, they think it's so intimidating whereas, I thought it was intimidating to start in Denver where there was such fewer opportunities. In LA, you could fly under the radar in all these just horrible places to work out material.
GROSS: So what did it feel like the first time you got a laugh?
NOTARO: I wasn't expecting it. 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. 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, didn't even factor it in at all but it was so exhilarating.
GROSS: So a lot...
NOTARO: So much so that I the second night I did stand up I thought because the first night went so well I was like oh, this is so easy. So I went and I...
NOTARO: I competed in a standup competition and I got booed off the stage and walked offstage, really. I was like what am I doing?
GROSS: And how come you weren't so discouraged that you never went back on stage again?
NOTARO: It's that thing of comedy. It's that roller coaster that just sucks you in. It's kind of like gambling, I guess. You hit big one time and then you bottom out, and you're like oh, I can hit big again, and so that just kind of keeps you going. Luckily, I'm not a gambler, or a drinker or, you know, I get my fix of comedy.
GROSS: So one of the things you talked about in your set in August in which you talked about, you know, having cancer, the first time you talked about it in public, was that you and your girlfriend had recently split up, and like, what are you going to do now?
GROSS: Like, how do you, you know, like who is going to be interested now that like you're really, you know, you're going to be sick...
GROSS: ...which actually it looks like you won't really be sick. It looks like you're going to be in great shape. But anyways, I'm thinking like you are probably getting so many inquiries.
NOTARO: You know, it is...
GROSS: But you're probably just like swamped with people who want to get to know you.
NOTARO: You know, my life has been so - since March when I first got a tickle in my throat and wasn't feeling well, to lying in the hospital...
GROSS: The thing before the pneumonia - right. Yeah.
NOTARO: Yeah. To just getting my bandages off, that was just days ago. Through that whole time, I've been in this crazy capsule. Like just going out to eat I feel like I just got released into the world. I feel so free and excited. And everything negative has birthed amazing and positive things, and enlightening things for me. And people tend to think oh, poor Tig and she's alone and I just - there's just no - nobody should be concerned for me. All is well. And my mother's death brought my stepfather so far out of his normal comfort zone and he has become so emotional and he's reached out to me. And the C. diff is what caused me to realize that I had cancer from checkups from that and my breakup made me realize so much about myself and who I had been dating and who I actually wanted for myself. 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.
Tig Notaro's comedy set at the club Largo in LA last August is available for purchase on comic Louis C.K.'s website. He was there the night of the show and thought the set was masterful. He'll tell us why after break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.