Tig Notaro isn't as flashy and high profile as her comedic counterparts. She deadpans a majority of her punchlines, smirks self-deprecatingly at her own jokes and underplays her own hilarity. She's often been called a comic's comic, doesn't star in her own movie or television show and lacks the high-energy presence that drives so many others to a glossier kind of fame. Yet Notaro is much beloved among those in the know – an underrated and unsung comic hero in a button-down shirt and blue jeans.
Notaro, who has been on the slow and steady climb of stand-up success for about 20 years, received widespread attention in 2012 when, at the age of 41, she turned a bilateral invasive breast cancer diagnosis into comedic solace. Only a few days after learning she had the disease, she opened a set with the line: "Good evening. Hello. I have cancer." That evening, Notaro went on to note that if tragedy plus time equals comedy, she was only in the tragedy phase of the experience, but made cancer a punchline nonetheless. She reassured the uncomfortably laughing Los Angeles audience that everything was going to be okay, even if she wasn't sure it would be.
It was a revolutionary moment, one that offered the kind of stripped-down intimacy fans were hungering for. At a Sundance Film Festival panel this year, Notaro recalled that she had the idea to start the set in such a jarring way while taking a shower just before. "I was scared to open my show like that because I didn't want to hurt anybody," she said. "But it was a scary thing I was going through. Once I got into it, I wasn't scared about talking about it." The candid performance that followed became legendary, with Louis C.K. calling the next day to ask if he could release the audio.
The recording went viral, and Notaro's notoriety rose steadily from there. This July saw the release of a Netflix documentary called Tig, one that details the multiple tragedies Notaro endured in a short four-month period: contracting pneumonia, then a potentially fatal bacterial infection; the sudden death of her mother; a breakup; and then the breast cancer that has since been treated with a double mastectomy. Now HBO is releasing Boyish Girl Interrupted, an hour-long comedy special that showcases Notaro's rare skill for finding hilarity in the everyday, even when every day is debilitatingly hard.
Shot in May at Boston's Wilbur Theatre, Boyish Girl Interrupted is Notaro's first HBO stand-up special, and sees her making jokes about bombing Vegas acts, wandering around with food on her face and introducing her fiancée to her hard-drinking, barefoot Mississippi family. It touches on the tragic accidental death of her mother, but the delivery is such that the audience finds themselves bursting into laughter when she gives us the line, "so we pull up to the graveyard." It's immediately evident that Notaro is able to talk about the horrible parts of life with the same comforting ease that she can rattle off bad (yet funny) puns and near-dad jokes.
About 30 minutes into the performance, Notaro starts to talk about her cancer diagnosis, opening with a joke about how it has become what she's best known for. "I haven't told anyone yet," she straight-faced jests. "You're the first people to find out." She riffs on the idea that her boobs are trying to kill her, and then cunningly plays into the audience's discomfort that they're laughing at her facing death. There's brilliance to this approach, one that highlights how we so often react badly to illness, and how we don't always give those suffering the kind of reaction they need. It's clear this isn't mindless escapism in the face of tragedy, but instead healthily climbing inside it until it's no longer terrifying.
Halfway into the special, Notaro goads the audience into getting her to take her shirt off, and then after doing so, without missing a beat, launches into a long joke completely unrelated to the fact she's topless. The effect is amazing on multiple levels, asking us all to look at mortality while laughing at an extended bit about the annoyances of airline travel. The jarring nature of her partial nudity fades as the set goes on, until the powerful gesture of revealing her scars actually renders them invisible to her captive audience. She finishes things off by shaking hands with an exuberant front row, her shirt hanging from the mic stand behind her.
"Please be seated," she says in faux humility to their standing ovation. "I'm just a person."
I hesitate to use pat terms like "heartwarming" and "feelgood," but Notaro is deeply skilled in turning painful, dark subject matter into a salve for her viewers. She avoids clichés and distracting platitudes about illness, asking us all to approach hardship head-on until we find ourselves laughing while doing so. Although Boyish Girl Interrupted is not as groundbreaking as her previous work, it solidifies Notaro as the headlining comic she has long deserved to be.
Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted premieres Aug. 22 at 10 p.m. on HBO Canada.