READ and LISTEN: “Good Evening. Hello. I Have Cancer.”

She walked to the mic and, while the audience was still applauding, she said, “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you? Hi, how are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer.” After a few seconds, she exhaled heavily and murmured, “Ah, god.” Then, in a loud, pinched voice: “Oh my god!” She seemed to be experiencing several conflicting emotions at once. The audience response, which had been warm, fractured into hoots and nervous titters.

by Andrew Marantz - The New Yorker

What is the point of seeing live comedy? The simplest answer—to laugh—is inadequate. Like orgasm, laughter is freely available to anyone with a laptop, but it is not fulfilling per se. Spend twenty seconds on YouTube. Watch a dog falling off a treadmill or a newscaster farting on live television. You will laugh, but you will feel nothing. So we put on deodorant, leave the house, buy an overpriced beer, and find pleasure in the company of other humans. We do this because we crave intimacy. 

Tig Notaro has been called a comic’s comic. She is rangy and slight and wears lots of hoodies; though over forty, from some angles she could pass for sixteen. Before August 3rd of this year, her stage persona was somewhere on the Steven Wright-Todd Barry-Mitch Hedberg continuum—verbally sharp, intense but spacey, relishing awkward pauses. Some of her jokes were deadpan one-liners (“I’ve been battling SIDS all my life”). Some were conceptually adroit, but drew more knowing nods than laughs. Some, like “No Moleste,” functioned both as observational humor and a critique of observational humor: the joke contains a genuine insight, but the premise that leads up to it (“So he thought that I thought…”) is almost parodically baroque. Last year, in a bit of inspired absurdism, she pushed a stool around the set of “Conan” for a hundred and one long seconds. 

Then, two months ago, she abruptly started doing something else. At the time, she was hosting a regular show at Largo, the illustriously hip club in Los Angeles. For her August 3rd set, she planned to deliver her usual jokes—a recent favorite was about a bee flying alongside her car on the highway—but, she later told me, “It felt so silly and irrelevant to think about that stuff, observational jokes about bees and stuff, in light of what was going on with me.” Her personal life had been falling apart. That’s what she wanted to talk about, though she didn’t know how, exactly. “I pictured myself opening the show by pulling up a stool and going, ‘Bear with me. I’ve been going through a rough time, and this is going to be a departure from what I usually do….’ But that felt really lame.” 

Instead, she walked to the mic and, while the audience was still applauding, she said, “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you? Hi, how are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer.” After a few seconds, she exhaled heavily and murmured, “Ah, god.” Then, in a loud, pinched voice: “Oh my god!” She seemed to be experiencing several conflicting emotions at once. The audience response, which had been warm, fractured into hoots and nervous titters. People were beginning to realize that this was not a bizarre setup; Notaro was telling the truth and groping blindly for a way to make it funny. She said, “It’s weird because with humor, the equation is Tragedy + Time = Comedy. I am just at tragedy right now.” 

Speaking in a frank, flat rhythm, she filled in the backstory. In March, she was hospitalized with a bacterial infection that almost destroyed her intestines. A week after she left the hospital, her mother died in a freak accident. Then she broke up with her girlfriend. Then she was diagnosed with Stage 2 cancer in both breasts. All this had happened within four months. “But, you know, what’s nice about all of this is that you can always rest assured that God never gives you more than you can handle,” she said in her Largo set, wryly recycling a cliché she had heard many times as a child in rural Mississippi. “I just keep picturing God going, ‘You know what? I think she can take a little more.’” The set lasted thirty minutes, and long stretches of it elicited more stunned silence than laughter. “I didn’t know what it was, honestly, even when I was on stage doing it,” she said. But whatever was happening, it was connecting. READ MORE 

LISTEN TO TIG NOTARO'S COMEDY SET.