Talking to Tig Notaro: 'Safety's the Last Thing That Nurtures Comedy'

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Over the past two years, Tig Notaro has gone from well-respected but slightly under the radar comic to one of the most celebrated stand-ups in the country. The comedian’s swell in popularity follows an August 2012 set at Largo in Los Angeles during which she described—with humor and poignancy—the traumatic events that surrounded that moment of her life. Her mother had died suddenly, she had ended a long term relationship and, to top it all off, she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.


The set was celebrated as one of the best in history by comedic heavyweights like Bill Burr and Louis C.K. Louis would go on to help Tig release it as an album, appropriately titled Live. But just as Tig’s comedy didn’t begin during that fateful set at Largo, it also didn’t end there. Her health now improved, Tig has continued to work tirelessly and brilliantly and Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro—a Showtime comedy special that follows her as she does a nationwide comedy tour of her fans’ homesdebuts Friday, April 19.

A few weeks ago, I spoke to Tig about her upcoming project, her last two years and how she keeps comedy so fresh and exciting. Yes, I’m a huge Tig Notaro fan and yes, this was a very big deal for me.

Jezebel: So one thing that was very cool and interesting about your Showtime special Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro is that you’re at a point in your career when you can definitely sell out very large venues, but instead you decided to go in the opposite direction and do what is basically a tour of your fans’ living rooms. Why did you choose to do something more intimate instead of something bigger and flashier?

Tig Notaro: I’ve done these living room tours several times over the years and it was something that I’ve really wanted to release for a long time. I’ve talked to different production companies and networks that were interested in doing it, but it never came to fruition. I pitched it to Showtime as a TV series and they bought it as a special. I feel really excited to finally see this passion project come to fruition. So, yeah.

I watch a lot of comedy specials and their format gets pretty repetitive so it was fun to see that get broken up a little bit.


Oh, well, good. Yeah, like I said, it’s something I wanted to do for a long time and I guess to me it seems like I could do big venues anytime, if I wanted to.

This is reaching back a ways, but I remember listening to a Marc Maron interview you did several years ago and in it you were talking about how, as a female comic, you really reject the idea of a “safe room” because comedians should always be challenging themselves. You express a similar sentiment in your special and I’m wondering how performing in these so-called unsafe spaces has informed your style as a stand-up.


I think that it’s no mistake that a set—a comedy set—is called a routine. Because it really does become routine. And so it’s always good, as a stand-up, to be writing new material, but it’s not just that. There’s something so routine about going into a club and doing the one hour show you’ve done for the past year or two. It’s just mind-numbing, and that’s why I feel like you have to keep yourself electrified as a performer. I’m sure there’s ways of doing that without going into people’s living rooms—I’m really drawn to different uncomfortable experiences.

I don’t want to be on autopilot and I want to be growing and writing and challenging myself. And so when people say things like “Oh, as a woman, I want to be in front of a safe audience,” I’m just like, “That’s the last thing on Earth that I’m looking for.” And I’m not looking for a rowdy bunch of lunatics who are going to heckle or attack me. I just—I feel like comedy needs to have that sense of—I don’t know. I just feel like safety is the last thing that’s gonna really nurture comedy.


Were you worried that you would lose that unpredictability when doing these Knock Knock shows? Because the host who’s invited you clearly loves you, so they might not provide the most challenging audience.

Oh, yeah, it can go either way. It’s not necessarily that you’re going to be booed off stage. It’s not gonna be that severe. But it can be so awkward and so uncomfortable and so out of place that it doesn’t matter where you are. You find your way. Each show you have to figure things out all over again because you don’t know what you’re walking into. You don’t know where your stage is, you don’t know anything.


I mean, I didn’t have the most amazing sets of my career at my fans’ homes by any stretch of the imagination. There were certainly highs and lows and awkward moments. I do have the comfort and safety of knowing that the person inviting me is a fan, but I don’t know if their friends know me.

I got very nervous for you in certain people’s homes.

Did you find it hard to watch?

Not hard to watch! Maybe it’s just because I don’t love interacting with strangers all that much? It also seems like people more willing to—not heckle, but be more vocally involved in your performance in these smaller rooms.


But even when I do theaters or clubs, I usually end up having some interaction.

It’s an interesting twist because most people become more reclusive with fame, while you’re throwing yourself into these communities of strangers where you know absolutely no one.


I’m going in the wrong direction.

No, it’s great! Have you always been socially confident? Or do you have to psych yourself up?


I feel like I can be pretty hit or miss. It just depends on the environment I’m in. I think that if it’s a little controlled, I’m better at interacting with people. I’m on fire when I know people really well and it’s a small group. But when I’m bombarded by strangers—yeah, I’m sometimes not great, but I went into these situations. It’s not like these people were interrupting my life. So with me going into this, I know what I’m in for and I feel like I’m good. When it’s not in my control, I can be a little more guarded.

Is performing always in your control at this point or are there times where it’s chaotic?


It can be chaotic, for sure, and I think the best way to control it is to not fight it and that’s even if—I rarely get rude or mean hecklers, but if there is somebody out there like that, I think not fighting them is the best way to control it.

Would you control it by interacting with them or ignoring them?

I have all kinds of interactions and usually they’re pretty friendly, funny, casual exchanges. But if somebody—it’s been so long since I’ve had someone be rude to me, but if they are, I just say “I’m sorry you’re not enjoying this” and that’s truly the end of the exchange. And it really puts me back into control.


That’s a very good coping mechanism.

Well, it’s how I think it should be in general—in who you are, how you dress, what you’re doing. It’s like “Well, I’m sorry you don’t like this” and then you move on. Hecklers have never continued after that.


I’ll use that.

You should.

You’ve been successful for at least a decade now, but you had this set at Largo in L.A. a year and a half ago where you talked about these horrible things that were happening to you at the time and it skyrocketed you to a completely new level. Is the material from your Largo set still what’s driving your comedy right now, or are you finding yourself wanting to move away from it as your life changes and starts to get better?


I mean, I’m honestly so proud of that album and that time that I got through in my life. I feel so lucky that it touched so many people and I get to hear so many stories from people who feel like it inspired them through their own hard times. You know, I don’t label myself, I don’t care how people see me or what they associate me with or that kind of stuff. I just always—whether it’s doing something ridiculous or sharing a very personal thing on stage—I’m really always wanting to be doing whatever feels more authentic to me in the moment. However people see me after that… I really don’t care.

There’s that very sweet moment in the Showtime special where you’re talking with your friend [comedian] Jon Dore and you say that while you don’t want to speak in cliches, your experience with cancer has taught you that you love being alive. It’s a very a very sincere moment placed amidst some very silly, road trip comedy, slap-sticky fun stuff. Based on what you just said, those parts of the special must be a pretty fair representation of your comedic world view.



Good. Glad I got that right.

I’m writing a book right now and it’s about the four months that my life fell apart. There are heavy heavy moments and I didn’t feel like I needed to force myself into making bits or jokes to lighten the mood. It’s like, this part can be heavy and this part can be funny. I just do whatever feels right. It’s really important to think about that in whatever you do.


At this point, do fans approach you more about your Largo set or your Taylor Dayne set? Are you relieved when they want to talk about your older material or is it kind of annoying?

Oh, I don’t care. It really is all the same to me. I feel perfectly flattered and happy that someone is—I was talking to an interviewer earlier today who was asking if the Live album and that difficult period of my life eclipse everything else that I did and honestly, that old Taylor Dayne story is one of the top things people want to talk to me about. I cannot escape the Taylor Dayne story and I can’t imagine Taylor Dayne escapes it and I can’t imagine Ira Glass escapes it from when I did it on This American Life. Everybody comes up and thinks that they’re the first person that’s ever said “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you, but I just have to tell you, I love your voice.” I hear that all the time. It’s a toss-up between Taylor Dayne and my Largo show.


If people love what you do, it’s exciting no matter what.

It honestly is. If they’re talking about the Largo show, 99.9% of people are telling me inspiring stories about themselves. Even if they’re terminally ill or they lost someone close to them. They’re coming up to me, saying “I can do this.” Or, “Listening to your album made me realize that the hard day I was having was nothing.” One guy wrote me saying that I helped him find the courage to die. All of these different levels of reaction that I’m getting, it’s like, how could I not want to hear that feedback?


And then when someone comes up loving an old joke of mine, I’m like “Oh, my god! I’ve been dragging you along for awhile!” I enjoy it all.

That’s really wonderful, to echo what you said before, that people trust you with these really important parts of their lives. It becomes a full exchange.


Yeah, it’s a cycle. It starts with me reaching out and trying to express myself and essentially asking for help, you know? And the audience and the world ultimately ended up helping me out. When people come back and say “You in turn helped me out,” they end up helping me out all over again and it just keeps going and I’m forever grateful for that.

That’s true catharsis through comedy, which is what most people are looking for.



Image by Ruthie Wyatt.

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JEALOUS. Were you nervous to interview her? I’d be like uh hi giggle bye.