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Tig Notaro was already in so much emotional and physical pain when she was diagnosed with cancer. “It was like something switched,” she said. “What I was going through had become so extreme, so over the top that I had to see it as funny.”

Rachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

Tig Notaro knows a bit about having a crappy year. In 2012, the standup comedian was diagnosed with C. difficile, a potentially fatal bacterial infection. A week after she was released from the hospital, her mother died following an accidental fall … and then Notaro was diagnosed with cancer. The new Netflix documentary Tig details Notaro's inspiring ability to find hilarity in the darkest places. Here, she shares some of the secrets to her success, including why her bucket list is full of everyday delights.

Get cancer, and the world laughs with you …

After I went through treatment for C. difficile and my mom died and my relationship ended, I wasn't feeling like I could have a sense of humour about anything. I was in so much emotional and physical pain. Then when I was diagnosed with cancer it was like something switched. What I was going through had become so extreme, so over the top that I had to see it as funny. When I did that first act, it's not like I was thinking, "Oh yeah, this will totally be a Grammy-nominated album." [Nataro's 2012 performance where she walked on stage and declared, "Good evening. Hello. I have cancer," became an instant comedy classic.] I didn't even think I was going to live. But it was still coming to this realization of how cathartic and therapeutic it was for me to be on stage, communicating and being so vulnerable and honest. There is always lightness in the dark and of course it's all so cliché, but it was honestly shocking how true the cliché turned out to be.

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Choose your own (tiny) adventure

My fiancée Stephanie and I started to do this thing where we write down the things that we want to do on little strips of paper and then we put them in a box and pick them out one at a time. It's nothing crazy. Mostly just stuff like, "Let's feel clay in our hands at a pottery class. Let's wake up and make coffee and watch the sun rise on our patio." I have found that life just gets going and you get into your patterns. You wake up, you go to work, you take your nightly walk or whatever it is you do. I love the stability and habit of my life – I wear the same clothes, I eat the same things and I'm kind of boring in that way, but there are so many new experiences that I want to make sure that I have, so this is what we've come up with. You don't have to be in a relationship to do it. It's really for anyone who wants to be active about enjoying life.

Don't sip every tea they offer you

Sarah Silverman has been a good friend and a mentor for me ever since I started out in comedy and I feel very lucky for that – to have had this person who has had so much experience and who was so happy to support me and to give me good advice. I got to witness her navigating her success and it was never about money. Sarah's whole thing is to say, "It's not my cup of tea," which doesn't mean it's terrible or doesn't have value, but just that it's not for her. She has always taken on jobs and projects that she believes in and maybe there's not as much money in that, but she can sleep at night. I remember saying to her, "So-and-so offered you a role in their movie and you're not going to do it?" Now that I have had a few more opportunities in my professional life, I really appreciate that you go toward the things that speak to you and the things you support.

There's power in a pause

There is a lot of pausing in my act. There are comedians who I love who can do the really fast-talking thing, but it's just not me. I like to really sit and have a beat with the audience and take everything in together. It's funny because even if they know where the story is heading, when you pause there is still this sense of discomfort and squirming and you build up all of this tension. People are just sitting there thinking, "When is she going to say something?" And then when you do, that release is just amazing.

This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea

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