x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Tig Notaro on how to laugh in the face of devastation

We speak to the stand-up comedian Tig Notaro who, despite having had a tragic year, still manages to smile - a lot.

Tig Notaro says getting back into the rhythm of everyday life is a slow process but one she's sure she can handle. Steven Dewall / Redferns
Tig Notaro says getting back into the rhythm of everyday life is a slow process but one she's sure she can handle. Steven Dewall / Redferns

Even now, after everything that has happened, Tig Notaro is wary about sounding trite. Over the phone from New York, where she is taking a walk with her writing partner Kyle Dunnigan, she says: "We've been talking about, you know, how obvious and clichéd, but about how the truth sets you free. You can just kinda, 'whoof!'" - she exhales heavily - "I did it, I said it, I acknowledged it, I faced it, the weight isn't there. I mean, of course there's a weight, but it's not as overwhelming."

Earlier this month, The National reported on the stand-up set that turned Notaro from a successful touring comedian into a bona fide star in a matter of weeks. At the Los Angeles comedy club Largo in August, she had walked onstage at the bottom of a bill of other comedians - including the surprise guest Louis CK, who has won Emmys for his TV show Louie - and, over the applause, said: "Good evening! Hello! I have cancer. How are you?"

What followed was a half-hour set of new material about the bleak four months Notaro had just had: she was hospitalised with clostridium difficile, her mother died in a freak accident, she went through a break-up and then she got cancer. Somehow, in Notaro's hands, the material became funny and inspiring and a recording of the show is now the number-two comedy album on iTunes in the US.

As we speak, she's a month on from a double mastectomy and her prognosis is "great". She, Dunnigan and the stand-up comedian Amy Schumer are working together on a new sketch show and sharing a two-bedroom apartment. Due to the lack of space, Notaro and Dunnigan - and she assures me this isn't a joke - are sharing a bunk bed.

It's hard for most of us to laugh amid tragedy, but not for Notaro.

"It's just the way that my brain has been moulded over the years. During the time of my mother's death I was having a really hard time finding any humour and then being diagnosed with cancer pushed everything so through the roof with shock that it didn't even feel like it was an option to just be only devastated. It just became silly."

She had no idea that the Largo show would strike such a chord. Even while it was happening, she says: "I kept feeling bad that people had taken the night off to see me and expected a comedy show and then I showed up saying: 'Hey, everything's horrible, can you help me through this?' I felt like I should get offstage and let other comedians come on and I'd deal with my stuff later."

The show ended up getting a standing ovation and being ranked among the best few performances by Louis CK. For Notaro, too, it was cathartic, but now she's ready to move on. She doesn't want to bore people by repeating the story too many times and she trusts her new fans to understand that there's more to her than the brave victim.

"I didn't just appear into the world riddled with cancer and with my mother dying," she says with a wry laugh. "I have faith that I can move beyond that."

For now, she's "going to ease back into everything", having been in a bubble since she was first hospitalised with the stomach infection in March. She's taking a break from live comedy while she works on other projects, but she expects to book a new tour in the next six months.

"I think it will be hard to come back to," she says, "because I don't know who I am any more as a stand-up, so it's scary and exciting."

She realises her career has shifted during that same period - she's been receiving the cheques for her album sales, getting offers for bigger shows and has been inundated with emails from well-wishers - but in another way, being so sequestered has meant it hasn't really hit her yet.

"I'm still laying low," she says. "I'm still a little gun-shy about life and comedy clubs and socialising. I think I would have a better gauge if I went out and toured, you know? But I'm just sleeping in a bunk bed with Kyle Dunnigan and eating apples."