Tig Notaro is one of the funniest people in America. That isn’t an opinion; it’s a statement of fact.
The 44-year-old comedian blends her signature dry wit, deadpan delivery, and a keen eye for the absurd to create a stand-up style that is uniquely her own and mesmerizing to watch. Whether she is dragging a stool across the set of Conan, impersonating a baby trying to take a shower, or delivering an earnest and unplanned set about being diagnosed with breast cancer, Notaro is fiercely charismatic and consistently hilarious.
Her now famous set at the Largo Theater in Los Angeles, later released as a special entitled Tig Notaro: Live, began like this: “Thank you, thank you, I have cancer, thank you, I have cancer, really, thank you”.
After witnessing the set, Louis C.K. wrote, “In 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great masterful standouts sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.”
It is a testament to Notaro’s deftness as a comedic performer, and praise to which she has lived up in the weeks and months that followed. Though Notaro continued performing in the wake of her diagnosis and during treatment, her condition — invasive stage II breast cancer — took a toll on her. To make matters worse, Notaro’s mother passed away and she broke up with a longtime girlfriend, all within a year’s time. Yet rather than let these things crush her spirit, she soldiered on, creating comedy from her pain and finding happiness with her now-fiance Stephanie Allyne (the duo met on the set of Lake Bell’s In a World…), an arduous and cathartic process that is chronicled in the the forthcoming documentary Tig, which bowed at Sundance earlier this year. Before that documentary makes its way into the eyes and ears of Notaro’s legion of fans, the comedian has another trick up her sleeve: a brand new Showtime special that took her out of comedy clubs and into the living rooms of her fans. Entitled Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro, the special follows Notaro and her traveling companion, comedian Jon Dore, as they go on a road trip across America performing at homes, backyards, living rooms, farms, and all manner of unconventional places belonging to earnest fans who submitted videos to Notaro over the Internet. By turns heartfelt and hilarious, the special offers a unique glimpse into going back out on the road after dealing with some of the most trying experiences of her life.
While I was at SXSW, I caught up with Notaro in the lobby of the Omni Hotel in Austin, Texas, which looked like the set of a dystopian thriller waiting to happen. Thankfully, our conversation was anything but dystopian. During our wide-ranging conversation, Notaro and I chatted about the impetus behind the unorthodox special, how her comedic voice has evolved over time, and what’s next for the dynamic performer.
Nerdist: So yeah, I saw the special yesterday. Really enjoyed it. What is the experience of having a documentary made about you like, compared to doing a special like this on the road, where you still have cameras following you pretty much all of the time?
Tig Notaro: Well, the documentary that was made about me was very – it follows my life after my whole life had fallen apart. And so there were very, very, very personal moments that are revealed in that movie, and it lasted – I mean, they filmed me for two years.
N: Oh, wow.
TN: Whereas this special, we went on the road for six days.
TN: It was just very easy, you know. Of course, there’s still that feeling of “I wish there weren’t cameras following me,” but you still want the end result.
N: With a special like that, do you have a little more control to be like, “Hey, maybe let’s not film this segment”?
TN: Umm – yeah, but there was never really any moments that – I mean, they didn’t follow me back to my hotel room too much. It was basically just once I came out of my hotel every day, we got started filming, and it all made sense to film. And in my documentary, I pretty much lived on film. It was – you know, really vulnerable moments that I would think, “God, this is hell.” But again, when I agreed to do it, I wanted to make the best possible film.
N: Yeah, exactly. You’re putting yourself out there, you don’t want to…
TN: You just have to really go for it.
N: I really enjoyed the conceit of doing these very small, intimate shows. It reminded me of what Maria Bamford did where she performed just for her parents, but it’s a little more personal level when you take it to the fans, the people that might not get a chance to see you normally. What was the impetus behind this?
TN: Well, I mean, there’s the – they showed the old footage of how I did this with Steve Agee and Martha Kelly. I’ve been doing this for the past decade, and it was just kind of like this idea that my friend Martha and I had to bypass the – yeah, I guess the grind of the comedy club scene, and just see if we could freshen things up a bit, and make things a little awkward. I mean, I don’t think we really anticipated how awkward it would be. But then I got used to it over the years, you know.
Like I said, I’ve done it forever, and it was just the first time that we had a professional crew follow us. And yeah – I don’t know, it’s kind of electrifying how awkward and weird it is.
N: I’ve been to something like that in Los Angeles, a show called Comedy Living Room. I feel like there are more and more people trying to find non-traditional spaces to do comedy, because people are willing to show up for it. You mentioned sort of the awkwardness. I guess it’s because it’s a space where comedy isn’t usually performed, but what about that appeals to you?
TN: It’s just the – in anything you do, you know what’s coming, and you know how it’s going to go. When you walk into a comedy club, you go to the green room. They introduce you on stage, you do your show, you head home, you go to the hotel, you go the next town.
With this, you’re driving around with a friend or two, you show up to the place, you’re just like, “What are we doing?” Each place looks different. It’s a small town, a big city, you see your stage set up on a roof – it’s just different levels of feeling alive in each moment, you know. Yeah – it’s just, I think it’s just that.
N: I have to imagine it’s definitely a shock and find that your trailer, your green room, is what looked like a food truck.
TN: Yeah, disgusting trailer.
N: It looks very gross. [laughing]
TN: In person, it was not impressive.
N: Oh, no – the camera’s really spruced it up. It looked good. I was also really happy to see that Jon Dore was part of this tour.
TN: He’s my favorite.
N: He’s wonderful. I feel like he’s sort of an unsung hero in the comedy scene right now. How did you go about choosing him to come along with you? How was he as a traveling companion?
TN: Hilarious. I mean, I think that’s – I think he just shines so well. I think that we have a great exchange. I noticed it immediately. When I met him years ago in Portland, he just immediately stuck out to me. His stand-up and his performance – I was just like, this is utterly special. And so after introducing myself, we had immediate banter and crack each other up. During the movie yesterday, he was like, “We’re the same person.”
He was watching us together, and when I had to decide who I wanted to bring – which I didn’t have to bring anyone. It’s my project, but I feel like it works so much better when you see someone experience this with someone else. And Jon just seemed like – he’s not high maintenance, he’s not neurotic, he’s not – he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and there are so many of those personalities in comedians that – we’re people, and it just gets a little exhausting where you just kind of go, “Can’t we just go do something ridiculous?”
N: Like light firecrackers in the middle of the street?
TN: Yeah. He’s up for anything.
N: Yeah, that sensibility really permeates the special. “Hey, let’s stop at this weird store that just happens to sell both tombstones and fireworks.”
TN: Yeah, well, we were driving down the road, and we saw that, and how on earth would we not stop at that place? It was begging for us.
N: Yeah, it was really serving an under-served market.
TN: [chuckling] Yes – people that died from firecracker wounds.
N: I was a little stunned to see the tombstone with the school bus engraved on it.
TN: The school bus – yeah.
N: It’s good to know there’s a specialty market out there.
N: With the tour, was there any – were there any places that you went to that you did not include in the special, or any moments that you were bummed you had to leave out?
TN: I think we included every place. I think the only thing I was bummed about was that word got out for the Nashville show – we had to move it to a venue. I was just like, “Why are we here?” But everything worked out fine. That’s the only thing that I can think of. There was so much stuff that the directors and producers almost didn’t put in that I was just like, “You HAVE to put that in!” I couldn’t even believe what they were – “No, we’re not going to put that in. It doesn’t fit.” And then they finally did – it was that kind of feeling.
N: Was there any example?
TN: Well, the old footage of me and Steve and Martha, and me doing older ones from the past. They felt like it didn’t look good or play, but I was just like, people accept that it’s old footage. It’s OK that it’s ugly. And then I really wanted them to show all of the footage that didn’t make it in – like, the submissions videos. I wanted a lot of those in, because I think that’s fun to watch.
And then the other thing was opening acts. I really fought for that, because I wanted people, the locals – I love that element, and I really wanted more of that. And then I wanted more of the preparation before arrival, so you got to know those people a little more. So I guess it was just context that I was fighting for.
N: That definitely adds that sort of level of context that really sells the experience. You need to see what it’s like showing up. One of my favorite moments is when you see the rapper, I think Adam D, downstairs, and then you cut back upstairs, and you guys are like, “What the hell is happening down there?”
TN: Yeah, it was fun to not – to kind of walk into it blind. I know Jon’s onstage. I know the opener’s onstage. And then I have to be like, “Oh, this is what was going on?” And there’s also that surprise of yeah – people getting the house set up, because everyone does it differently. There’s parameters – we need this amount of floor space, we need lighting, but it all comes very differently.
Like in Mississippi, our spotlight was a John Deere tractor headlight. You know? So it’s cool to see how people design things, and I think it’s – like I said, I like getting to – I like the idea of me arriving and you see them preparing for the arrival. So yeah, I guess context is what I fought for.
N: Of all the places you went to, do you have a favorite?
TN: Gosh…I really loved the – I thought Pluto, Mississippi was so beautiful, and it was just – I mean, it was like we went to camp that day. They were barbecuing, and we were on the swamps and shooting BB guns, the child running up on stage.
N: Yeah, it was adorable.
TN: It was just like, are you kidding me? The chairs, the seating, was like hoods of the cars, which were also spotlights. It was just so well done. I mean – they were all special in their different ways. But that one I felt so beautiful.
N: Yeah, even the staging for that one – it was impromptu, but it felt like you’d see it at the next SXSW – the tractor stage.
TN: Yeah, right. Definitely. Performing on a flat-bed trailer. It was ridiculous.
N: I was also delighted to see that the baby in the shower bit made it in. I think I first saw you do that a couple of years ago at Largo, and that and the stool-dragging bit of yours are two of my favorites, because I like how they marry sort of physical comedy with some of your deadpan delivery style. It seems like not as many people do as much physical comedy anymore. What excites you about doing bits like that as opposed to more traditional stand-up?
TN: You know, I think it is anything – anything I do onstage, I feel like I am authentically excited about it, and when I first started doing stand-up, I did more deadpan one-liners – shorter jokes. And it was a process of allowing myself to evolve, and there’s a lot of comedians and performers that I see paint themselves into a corner with their persona and their style.
I remember thinking, even when I did – I don’t know if you’re familiar with my Taylor Dayne bit, but it’s like a story about a pop singer that I ran into repeatedly, and it’s nearly fifteen minutes long, and I remember thinking that’s not really my style to tell a story that long.
And pushing a stool and doing the baby thing, that’s not really my style either, but if I pictured a friend asking me “Hey, I really want to do this thing in my show, but it’s not really my style, should I do it?” I would never be, like, “No! Stay within the boundaries you’ve allowed for yourself. Do not grow beyond that.” I would never do that! And so I realized it was important to take my own advice.
Even announcing that I had cancer on stage – that isn’t my style. I was really private before that. But I felt compelled, and it felt authentic. Where I was like, “This isn’t my style, but I’m going to do it.” And it goes from doing dry dead-pan humor, but it also – like you’re saying, that style that I have, it bleeds into physical humor, it bleeds into silliness.
No matter what I do, no matter what anyone does, whatever your true voice is, it’s going to follow you to the silly place and the physical place, and I think it’s always important to just be saying – allowing yourself to evolve. I think they’re all fun. The dead-pan one-liners, the physical humor, the honesty in comedy – all of it. None of it more than the other, because it’s all stuff I really want to do.
N: Taking your own advice, that’s something that’s very hard to do.
TN: It’s so hard.
N: It’s so easy to say to someone, “Oh, you absolutely should do this! Take a risk for yourself.” But it’s terrifying to do it for yourself.
TN: It really is, and every time I’ve done it, I’ve grown or succeeded by leaps and bounds. It’s immediate.
N: That’s awesome. One of the things that you said in the special that really resonated was that in the wake of your diagnosis, you made it a point not to speak in cliches. I feel like that, just sort of going up on stage and doing your set at Largo in 2012, and announcing “I’ve got cancer,” I feel like – how did that – did that help you as a coping mechanism? Did that help you to just sort of accept everything that was going on?
TN: Yeah, I think it was all of that. I have been through so much with my own health, besides the cancer, and my mother dying unexpectedly. With everything sliding downhill so fast, I really did think I was going to die when I was told my cancer was invasive, and I think I had that moment of just, “Well, this is what’s really happening. I’ve lost everything. I have nothing to lose at this point. My girlfriend, my ability to eat food, my mother, my life, possibly. I have nothing to lose.”
And it was, again, allowing myself to take that leap where I guess I was like, this is so personal, and I don’t do personal stuff. But I felt so compelled, and it really was one of the biggest lessons in my life of sharing, whether it’s in my comedy or personally. Doors fly open, because you’re connecting. I know it seems obvious, but people could have told me that for the rest of my life and I wouldn’t have known unless I had allowed myself to do it.
N: I feel like it’s one thing to hear someone say “Allow yourself to take that leap,” but it’s another thing to just do it. I imagine it’s very liberating, but I feel like it’s hard to take that step unless you’re like, “Well, what else am I going to do?”
TN: Yeah. I mean, it’s – I feel so lucky, and it’s funny, because after I saw the documentary at Sundance, in its entirety, I was like, I’m a risk taker! I didn’t even realize that. I didn’t – because I see myself as – I’m very regimented, and I try and exercise and eat right. I’m not – I’m a pretty – I always tell people “If you have hidden cameras on me, it would be the most boring thing.” You know what I mean?
N: [chuckling] Yeah.
TN: But when I saw that film, I realized I am a serious risk taker. There’s stuff in that – I know we’re talking about the Showtime thing, but in the other documentary, there’s so many things that come out and that I do, and that I – they’re risky, and I do them. But there’s usually a payoff, and you get answers, and you move forward, and you – I mean, of course with a risk, things can – I did a risk doing that Largo show. That wasn’t material I had ever done. It could have been an awkward bomb, and then I could have died.
You know what I mean? And it was like, that was my last performance? That’s what I thought was going to be possibly my last performance. I thought that I was going to go immediately into treatment, and that it maybe wouldn’t work out, and then you’d never see me again. And people would be like, “Remember that show she did? That was so sad, right before she died.”
And going into homes – that’s a risk. I think that comes back to why do I do it – I think I like risks. I think I like feeling alive, and I like all that.
N: It has got to be a weird realization to have this one perception of yourself, and then to see all that footage – “Well, I guess I have to reevaluate.”
TN: Yeah, yeah. Now I’m a massive risk taker. I mean, pushing a stool on Conan – that was a risk.
N: Oh, yeah.
TN: It was a huge risk. And people weren’t amused after a while, and then they were again. It was the whole idea of the joke, and then you’re not, and you’re on television, and you’re like, “What have I done?”
N: Yeah, I’m sure, just like screaming inside, like “Please work, please work!”
TN: Yeah! Truly. But that is – that was a risk.
N: Is it weird watching footage of yourself like that, whether it’s a special like this or…
TN: Well, watching that Conan thing where I’m pushing the stool, I was like, “Oh my god, this is so dumb!” [chuckling] And also, side note, I wish I had only pushed the stool for the WHOLE time I was on the air. I started out with some stuff and then I went into it, but I wish that I had only pushed the stool. I ruined their floor, by the way.
TN: Yeah. They had to buff it out. It’s scratched up, because I took it up to another level from the wooden floor on the stage, I went up a level, which was the lighting level. So there’s lighting coming out of the floor through plexiglass, and I was doing it along there, and that I scratched up. Yeah. But what was your question? Is it weird watching?
N: Yeah, is it weird watching all this footage of yourself?
TN: Like hanging out with Jon?
N: Hanging out with Jon, or even more personal moments?
TN: A little bit. I think I might just be so used to it at this point that it’s – I mean, I saw probably cuts. And so with the other documentary, I watched a lot of that. Probably five of that.
N: Sort of used to it at this point?
TN: Yeah, I’m just – it’s not like I enjoy it – it’s my least favorite thing to do. The hardest thing is watching my stand-up, I would say. Like during the screening yesterday, as soon as I would be walking onstage, I was like, “Eww, gosh.” So once I got offstage and I was talking to Jon, I was more like “Oh, I want to see that again.”
N: “Oh, let’s relive this funny moment I had with my friend.”
TN: Yeah. And I think because I’m so mesmerized by him, that as soon as I’m offstage I can’t wait to – it feels the same being with him as watching him.
N: Yeah, I can imagine — watching interviews back, when I do them on camera, I’m like “Oh, I hate this.”
TN: Yeah, yeah.
N: You’re also writing a memoir coming out in 2016, correct?
N: How does the experience of writing a memoir compare to writing stand-up, or even preparing for a doc like the ones you’ve done?
TN: Writing a book is so beyond anything I’ve ever done. I failed three grades and dropped out of high school. And so writing this book is like “Oh, this is what it feels like to finish a book report,” or turn in homework. Because I was like “I’m out of here, guys,” with school. It is a serious grind, but I feel like I’ve been paid to go to therapy. Because I can do all these interviews, and I can talk about my health issues I’ve had and losing my mother, and any sort of struggle, but I’m used to being interviewed.
But when I’m home alone, and privately sifting through being alone, watching my mother die, and what it’s actually like to get the news that I had invasive cancer, and those moments alone, and writing about them and trying to really relive it, has been so emotional and charged, but so helpful. I have such bad memories, and I’m a couple of years into writing this book, so when I go back and I’m going through the editing process now, I’ll read stuff I wrote two years ago, and I’m like, I forgot that detail about my mother’s death, but I’m so glad I have, because I wrote it down when it was fresher.
Yeah, I think I want to write another book after this, but I think I don’t want a deadline like I had. I think I want to just write another book, and then go “Do you guys want this? Give me some cash.” And I know authors, a lot of times don’t follow their deadlines. That’s where I’m a nerd. That’s where I’m, like, regimented. So I’m a risk-taker, but I’m like, “Well, I did give my word, and this is the contract,” and I follow things like that.
N: No, exactly. I’m on deadline right now myself for a manuscript, and I feel the same where. I feel like it’s a risk signing on for something like that in the first place, because you have that hard end day. You’re lighting a fire under your own ass.
N: Like, OK, I’m going to feel horrible if I don’t get this in on time.
TN: Right, yeah. I gave my word. I can’t imagine being somebody that – my publisher is Echo. They’re a division of Harper Collins, and they did the Patti Smith memoir, Just Kids. When I signed, I went out to eat with the publisher and the editor, and I was like “So if I’m later,” and they were like, “You know, if you’re a few months late, or whatever, that’s fine.” I think they said Patti was 12 years late. They were like, “Please don’t do that.” Immediately in my mind, I was like “Oh, I can be really late.” I have some flexibility.
N: “They shouldn’t have told me that.”
TN: Yeah. Even though I am late, I’m not 12 years late. So, but it is – with stand-up and my special, Live, that came out – that is such a skeleton of what I had to say. When people responded the way that they did to that recording, I just thought I just made a few jokes. I have so much more to say. A book is just filling in that very scarce outline.
N: With the special, you have to cut down everything, just to make a nice lean, deliverable product, but with a memoir, you can sort of go into as much or as little detail as you like.
TN: Oh my god, I can hang out in a thought for so long in a book! That’ll spin me off to another. It’s so different.
N: Do you think that is going to bleed into your style of stand-up at all?
TN: Probably. I think it already has. Even though – it’s kind of like what we were talking about earlier with your style, and allowing yourself to change and grow. You still – the core of who you are bleeds into that, and I’ve started allowing myself to be more personal onstage, and more storytelling. And it’s settled, and people watching me might not even know what’s different about me. They might just be like, “Oh, she’s gotten better.” You know what I mean? And it’s all on the path to being more yourself, and what is more yourself is what you want to do at any given moment, that’s yourself.
N: Thank you so much! This was really great.
TN: Thanks for your time.
Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro airs on Showtime on Friday, April 17 at 9PM.