Inappropriate laughter

Tig Notaro is still making jokes about stuff that sucks

Chamberlin, Bob –– B582416858Z.1 LOS ANGELES, CA – OCTOBER 03, 2012: Comedian Tig Notaro at her downtown loft on OCTOBER 03, 2012. She has had an amazing and tragic year with success in her comedy career and the loss of her mother and the discovery of her own cancer. ( Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times )
Courtesy of Integral Entertainment/Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times

The pilot of Tig Notaro’s semi-autobiographical Amazon Prime series One Mississippi wastes no time setting up the darkness that is — in all its uncomfortable glory — the foundation for the show’s humor.

Notaro’s character (also called Tig) flies to her hometown in Mississippi to be with her mother as she’s taken off life support. It’s an unexpected loss, much like the death of Notaro’s real mother in 2012. Fictionalized Tig is sick, recovering from a bilateral mastectomy for invasive cancer and still in the throes of a severe intestinal infection, all of which was true for the real Notaro in 2012.

Her character deals with a cold stepfather and a kind-but-oblivious brother, who find it perfectly acceptable to leave the hospital to feed an elderly house cat, leaving Tig alone to listen to her mother’s labored last breaths for hours.

It would be brutal to watch, but Notaro inserts blunt levity with surgical precision.

“Tig, you’ll stay here?” her TV brother asks with unmistakable innocence.

“Are you sure we all three don’t need to go home and feed Bonkers?” her character responds with Notaro’s notoriously dry delivery. “Yeah, of course I’m gonna stay here.”

From the timing to the content, Notaro taps into exactly what makes dark comedy work: Sometimes life is dark and scary and merciless, and there’s nothing left to do but crack a joke.

Comedy like One Mississippi — a traumedy if you will —allows viewers to examine their own fears and reactions in a safe way: Who would we be in such a situation? Are we capable of listening to our loved one slowly dying, or do we need the mundane tasks of life to help us cope?

One Mississippi reminds us there’s no wrong answer.

For those in the midst or wake of loss or illness, dark humor gives us permission to laugh at the absurdity of it all — the many trips an intestinal infection forces you to make to an airport restroom, or a stepparent’s painful observation that you are no longer legally related — because, in the end, ain’t nobody gettin’ out of here alive, so yuck it up while you can. It doesn’t mean you don’t care, it just means you dare to smile at the edge of the abyss.

It’s exactly what Notaro chose to do when things got hairy for her in 2012 — she got up in front of a crowd at Largo nightclub in Los Angeles, a day after her stage 2 cancer diagnosis, and made jokes about having cancer… in her boobs. It was a success and a turning point in Notaro’s career, not that she really ever thought about it that way.

“I never saw that moment as something that was going to push me over the top and so it always felt like a weird fluke that happened,” she says in a phone interview.

She’s honest that she’s got no aspirations to top that magical accident at Largo; she just wants to enjoy herself and keep doing what she does best, which is being Tig. One Mississippi, which enters its second season next year, is a caricature of Notaro’s real life, a distortion that allows her to be herself while creating ample space to riff on the dark realities of the human condition.

“Whether I’ve been totally sticking to the [real] story in stand up or a documentary or fictionalizing my life in television, all of it’s cathartic and therapeutic,” Notaro says. “I think the TV show has allowed me to see other people’s perspectives, family members that were going through the same time period. I think it gave me a lot more insight, and I think there’s a lot of healing that comes through having new insights.”

There’s certainly been a lot of healing for Notaro since her annus horribilis in 2012. For starters, she and her wife Stephanie have 5-month-old twins, Finn and Max.

The couple is taking a note from Notaro’s mother, who lovingly allowed Tig to be the self-described tomboy she is. They’ve opted for outer space and animal themes in the twins’ bedroom, avoiding what Notaro once called “that sickening pink and blue, boy and girl stuff.”   

Notaro plans to let her children “tell us who they are and what they are into.” For someone like Notaro, that could mean not forcing her kids to conform to the restrictions of traditional classroom learning. After failing three grades, Notaro dropped out of high school — a smart but bored kid, there was just no point in sitting through another day of detention. She went on to get her GED and find meaningful work, some of which occurred in Denver’s music scene in the mid-’90s.

“I think I thought it was my age, and then I went to take a motorcycle class to get my license and I found that I hated that class as well,” she says. “I just don’t like classroom situations. I like learning. I like it more on my terms. I do feel like I am a curious, interested person, but definitely that environment doesn’t speak to me.”

She’s taking things pretty easy these days, “just” working on One Mississippi and a little bit of stand up when she’s in the mood. Filming the television shows takes about six months of each year, with pre-production, writing, casting, filming and post-production work, all of which Notaro is an essential part of.

She’s content, and now seems like a great time for Notaro to slow down just a bit and enjoy being on the other side of tragedy.

“I’m really just every day and night with the babies, and that’s about all I can be into, you know?”

Sounds pretty great.

“Yeah… yeah,” she says in that straightforward, dreamy way she has. “It’s not too shabby.”

On the Bill: Tig Notaro. 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 11, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.

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