In July of this year, comic Tig Notaro took the stage at Largo comedy club in Los Angeles, and opened her set by announcing, “Good evening . . . I have cancer. Good evening.” What no one in the audience knew, and what friend Louis C.K. had only learned moments before, was that she wasn’t kidding.
Notaro’s now legendary thirty-minute set chronicled a year that one might expect to find in the plot of a melodrama, or reality show on TLC. She lost her mother unexpectedly, endured a break-up with her girlfriend, and survived pneumonia and an intestinal infection. Treatment for the latter revealed tumors in both breasts, leading to Notaro’s double mastectomy. Though in a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air Notaro shared that her treatment has thankfully been overwhelmingly successful, when she began her performance in July, she fully expected to die from the disease.
Notaro’s set, immediately lauded by Louis C.K. on Twitter and now available for purchase on his website, blends the genres of performance and confession, tragedy and comedy. The audience’s response to her litany of misfortune ranges from nervous laughter to tears to heartfelt pleas for her to continue.
Notaro’s routine is upsetting in the most literal, and provocative, sense of the word. By making what is private and internal—the tumors in her breasts—public, she exposes and upends any stigmas still surrounding cancer and the female body. In the Fresh Air interview, Notaro relates her initial impulse was to hide her sickness out of fear it would hurt her career. The fact that it has had the wildly opposite effect reveals that there is an audience hungry for accounts of personal suffering that escape the inauthenticity and melodrama endemic to the Lifetime Movie Network and its ilk.
Notaro’s delivery is not aggressive, self-pitying, or cynical. She owns her suffering body and heart completely, at one point comforting a distressed audience member by reminding her “You’re going to be fine. I’m not.” Notaro’s set makes me wonder if there’s something about the genre of stand-up comedy that might be counterintuitively well-suited to expressing the absurdity of tragedy—the way it unjustly and permanently intrudes on the lives of people who don’t expect it and don’t deserve it.
When discussing this topic with my boyfriend, a New Yorker, he told me about a 9/11 widow who also told her story through a stand-up routine. It seems to be a case of function, unexpectedly, following form. The very incongruity of finding trauma in the confines of stand-up comedy highlights the relational, communicative, and heart-opening nature of healing.