How Tig Notaro made cancer her comedy muse

When life beat Tig Notaro down, she responded with a joke

Photo by Ruthie Wyatt
David Accomazzo | Boulder Weekly

It’s been more than a year since Tig Notaro’s now-famous set at the Largo in Los Angeles. Just days before the performance, Notaro received word that she had cancer in both breasts, and she was still processing the news. The cancer diagnosis wasn’t the only blow to hit her life. Her mother had suddenly and tragically died, and on top of that, her relationship had just ended.


As all this swirled through her head, her normal set — quirky jokes, such as what a bee thinks about when it’s in a car going down the highway — just didn’t seem doable to her. So she chucked it, went on stage and bared it all.

“I wasn’t really sure what my future was going to be,” Notaro tells Boulder Weekly. “I didn’t know about my health. I love doing stand-up, and if my health was going to be deteriorating or if I was dying, I wanted to do it one last time before I went into treatment and recovery.”

The reaction to the show was explosively positive.

Louis C.K. called it one of the greatest stand-up performances he had ever seen.

“The show was an amazing example of what comedy can be. A way to visit your worst fears and laugh at them. Tig took us to a scary place and made us laugh there. Not by distracting us from the terror but by looking right at it and just turning to us and saying, ‘Wow. Right?’ She proved that everything is funny. And has to be. And she could only do this by giving us her own death as an example,” he would later write on his blog.

Since that set, her career has exploded. Suddenly, news outlets everywhere wanted to interview her, and offers for book deals came rolling in. She would eventually sell almost a hundred thousand copies of the set, and when she started doing stand-up tours again, she found herself playing bigger venues for more money. She’s developing several television shows and has a Showtime comedy special coming out soon. After a double mastectomy, the cancer is in remission. Putting her personal life on display for the world was a risk born out of exasperation, but so far, it seems to be nothing but positive.

The show itself started out in the normal way. You know how comedy shows start — the emcee hops on the stage, grabs a mic, says some kind words about the comedian, maybe cracks a joke or two, then says the comedian’s name, and the comedian enters the stage saying things like, “Thank you,” “You’re great,” or other such inconsequential greetings. After the applause dies down, the set begins.

But for Notaro, on that night, with everything that had just happened to her, normal wouldn’t cut it.

“Hello. Good evening, hello. I have cancer, how are you?” said Notaro as she started the set.

It was a confusing opening for the audience. Even a seasoned comedy fan probably hasn’t heard many jokes about cancer. Some in the audience laughed nervously, but as Notaro launched into her story, they eventually came around. Notaro was being brutally honest and revealing, and the audience was along for the ride.

“I was definitely scared or nervous and not quite sure how the audience would be, and they were absolutely amazing, and the show went so much better than I could have imagined,” Notaro says.

Notaro went on to take everything that had hit her in the past few months of her life and find a way to make it funny. Her appearance is somewhat androgynous, and in the set, she told a story about a guy who constantly called her “sir” as she walked home.

Normally, she has a sense of humor about that, she said during the Largo set, but that day, she couldn’t have it.

“After the news I had just gotten that I probably had cancer … I said, ‘I just got diagnosed with breast cancer in both breasts. That’s how much I’m not a man,’” she deadpanned.

She proceeded during the set to take many things cancer patients struggle with — how every conversation with friends changes, how she didn’t know how she would date, how her body had changed — and found ways to make them funny. It was a stunning display of light-heartedness in the face of soul-crushing adversity.

“I always think about how lucky I am that I have standup as an outlet, because I always wonder, what do other people do?

How do they handle life?

How do they get it out?” Notaro reflects. “I never had to deal with dark subjects to the degree that I did in that point in time. I just didn’t feel like it was an option to go on stage and my normal, typical material. It just seems like this is how it’s going to go, this is what I’m going to do. It just seemed like an obvious thing for me to do, to use comedy for that.”

She pauses when asked how her comedy has changed since the set.

“Oddly enough, not really at all. I feel like I’m pretty much the same comedian I’ve always been,” she says. “The Largo show was a moment in time. … I realized I was exactly who I was before that show.”