Until a couple months ago, it was kind of an open secret that Tig Notaro is one of the smartest, funniest female comics working today. Notaro had a fiercely loyal fanbase, a No. 1 podcast with writing partner Kyle Dunnigan (Professor Blastoff) and made regular appearances on some of the usual comedy circuits, live and televised (Comedy Central Presents, The Sarah Silverman Program). She was doing pretty well, but had nowhere near the profile of, say, Louis C.K. Then something extraordinary happened. First, her life fell apart, and then her career blasted off: What changed? She got cancer. Just the latest twist, a brush with death, in the life of a “master of the art of counterintuitive comedy.”
The cancer, of course, was bad. But the four months leading up to her diagnosis included a series of improbably awful events that could send the average person into a depressive coma: she contracted pneumonia, then a near-fatal bacterial infection, then her mother died suddenly, then she went through an emotional breakup. All followed by… cancer. So what’s the upside? Well, she is cancer free now and apparently doing well after a double mastectomy. But what made an impact professionally was the way she handled the compounding of personal crises: she kept showing up, making great comedy. And last August, instead of canceling an appearance at the L.A. club Largo, Notaro went onstage on the day she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer, and delivered a poignant, deadpan monologue: “Hello, I have cancer. How are you?”
Louis C.K., who was there that night, tweeted that Notaro’s act was among the “truly great, masterful standup sets” he had seen in his 27 years in the business. Later on his website C.K. wrote:
I was crying and laughing and listening like never in my life. Here was this small woman standing alone against death and simply reporting where her mind had been and what had happened and employing her gorgeously acute stand-up voice to her own death.
C.K.’s notoriety sent Notaro trending all over the internet, but the performance wasn’t made public, which only increased interest. Now, the uncut recording of that night has been released as her second comedy album, Live, and it’s available on C.K.’s website for the small price of $5.00. You can hear a short preview of the set above.
These days, Notaro’s first album Good One is No. 2 (in comedy) on iTunes, she has a book deal, and is beginning a regular gig on Comedy Central. Reporters come calling frequently. Notaro spoke to NPR’s Fresh Air a couple days ago and told her story of that night. C.K. followed up in the same program with his version of events. Notaro’s interview is classic her—she’s a naturally gifted storyteller who seems to rise above misfortune with enviable poise and wit.
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.