Tig Notaro has had one of those years you write a book about. As the beloved comedian and actress has seen her star steadily rise with appearances on "Conan," "This American Life" and the release of her first album, her personal life has been dealt one harsh blow after another.
There was the pneumonia, then the life-threatening bout with C. diff that resulted from the antibiotics she was given for pneumonia, the sudden death of her mother, the break-up with her long-term partner, and then, why not, the cancer in both breasts.
But in the midst of all of that was another big step forward in her career: she was just hired to write for comedian and friend Amy Schumer's new show on Comedy Central. The job was in New York, and Tig was in Los Angeles... with cancer. So what do you do?
If you're Tig, you take a deep breath, do a mind-blowingly honest and heartbreaking comedy show that the entire world hears about, have surgery in LA, then move to New York and alternate between work and chemo.
When I spoke to Tig about the last few months and her plans going forward, she had not yet had surgery. As of this writing, she has undergone surgery for breast cancer (on September 4), and while there are few details as of yet, I'm told the surgery went well. Below is our conversation which ranges from how she approached walking on stage at Largo that night, to how her future bosses reacted to her diagnosis and why she is having the best and worst time of her life. (You might want to have some tissues nearby... I certainly needed them.)
Carol Hartsell: I wanted to ask about the Largo show. I read a blog about it the day after, and it sounded like this extraordinarily emotional yet funny moment for everyone who was there. Could you tell me a little bit about that show and what you talked about?
Tig Notaro: Well, on the show I talked about my past four months. I talked about my hospitalization for C. diff and my mother, you know, unexpectedly passing away after a fall. And then I went through a break-up. And then I got diagnosed with cancer.
I had done “This American Life” back in May and Ira Glass called me a couple of days after the show aired and he said, “Your piece is really popular and so we want you back on if you’re comfortable.” And then we got off the phone and he called me a couple days later saying, “How are we doing on that piece?” And I was like “Oh, I thought you meant in the next six months to a year… Like, I didn’t know you were waiting for my call.” And I said, “I think that right now I’m just not in the place to tell some silly story about the day I got my wisdom teeth removed,” which I had originally pitched to him. “I kind of want to talk about the horrendousness of the past few months.” And he said “Great, let’s do that, too.” This was before I got diagnosed with cancer.
And so I was in New York and I met with him and I had like ten pages of start to finish every detail of horrible stuff that had gone on and he read it and he said “Ugh, this is so depressing.” And I was like “Yeah, I know it’s my life, Ira, I don’t know.” And he said “You need to work this out in stand-up, you know, not in just a written piece of tragic stuff.” He said, “Your power is on stage so you need to utilize that. There’s nothing funny right now.” I was like, “Nothing’s funny… nothing is funny to me right now.” And he said, “Well, when and if it is just write stuff down and just start doing that.” And in my head I was kind of like, “Ugh, thanks a lot.” It sounded horrible to me to try to find anything funny about my life.
So I had this show booked at Largo on a Sunday night and a couple days beforehand I had been diagnosed with cancer, so I called the owner of Largo and I was like, “There’s no way I’m doing this show.” And he said “I understand. Do you want to move the date to next week just in case you feel like doing a show?” And I was like, “Uh, fine.” But I was thinking there’s no way.
So he moved it to the following Friday, and then the day before he sent me a text saying “Are we doing the show or what?” And I texted back “Yeah.” And I thought, “What am I doing?” And then right before that show on Friday I had visited the doctor where I found out it was Stage Two, possibly higher, but they don’t know cause the tumor is invasive so they have to get in and see where it spread, if it had spread, and I was just devastated, you know? Cause I thought they were gonna say “Oh Stage zero, we caught it.” And you know… I just thought it was… I didn’t think for a second I had an invasive tumor.
But I still did the show and, honestly, I thought, “This is gonna be the worst show ever. I’m about to walk out onstage and tell them horrendous stuff.” But I knew that I had Louis CK coming out to close the show, in case my set was just the worst thing anyone’s ever heard. I can bring Louis CK out to make everyone forget that I was even ever up there. And that night before my show I was taking a shower and I thought, “How am I gonna get into all of this material?” And I pictured myself going out onstage saying, “Hey everybody you know, heads up I’ve had a weird few months so this is gonna be kind of a… not very traditional show of mine, just bear with me.” And then I was like “That is so lame I cannot start a show like that. And one side of my brain was, like, “Oh my gosh, what if you walked out onstage and started waving to everyone, saying, 'Hi, I have cancer thanks for coming! I have cancer! How is everyone doing? I have cancer!'” And then I just started laughing so hard. And then the more time went on I kept laughing about that idea and then I was like, “I have to do that.”
So I went onstage and that’s what I did and I just remember being like, the audience was laughing so hard when I was saying “I have cancer.” I was like “Oh my gosh, they don’t know that I have cancer. They don’t think I have cancer. And I have cancer.” And I just felt like we were all standing on a bridge that was about to collapse and I was the only one that knew it, you know?
CH: So what did it turn into after that? Did you just start talking about everything?
TN: Yeah, I just went into... you know, I thought I was gonna do it in a chronological way. But then I thought, “No first and foremost I have cancer. Um, this is the freshest thing.” And then I just jumped around. There was no rhyme or reason, just whatever was kind of popping to my mind. I had some notes that I brought onstage and some jokes I had written but some information and feelings I just wanted to share and the audience was so with me that it was truly astounding. They shifted gears so effortlessly. They went from laughing so hard to, you know, somebody in the audience was like, “No no no no no.” Like you could just see her, she was starting to realize that I really had cancer. It was so bizarre to be onstage and see people actually crying and laughing.
And then when I wasn’t saying anything funny or sad I was just being informative and saying, “You know, I’m gonna get treatment and I’m gonna do this and I’m taking a job in New York and I’m looking forward to that and living my life.” And they were just listening. I felt like I was really in a room full of friends. It sounds so cliché and silly but it really was. When I told some jokes they laughed so hard and when they were bummed there were people crying, and then I was just being informative, they were just listening and I remember being onstage thinking, “Oh, I feel like this might be a very special moment in my life.” I’m not on twitter and I don’t follow blogs so I had no idea... I knew obviously the 300 people that were there and the smattering of people in their lives that they would tell, I knew it would get out. But I went home that night and I sent Ira an e-mail just saying, “You know, I think I got something that you might be able to use.”
And then I went to bed and woke up the next day and turned my phone on and there were 10 million e-mails and text messages and phone calls and interview requests and publishing companies and I was like, “What in the hell happened?” I was so confused. Honestly, I was so confused, it didn’t dawn on me that people were tweeting or blogging. I mean, that’s how my father found out. I’m not in touch with my father but I mean that’s how he found out, he was reading the news online and “Comedian Tig Notaro Diagnosed With Cancer.” It’s put me in touch with so many people, just so many people crawled out of the woodwork just wishing me the best and reconciling with me and I’m open to all of it.
CH: Between those two days did it change how you felt? Does it give you more hope and support having so many people find out about it and reach out?
TN: Yeah absolutely. It’s almost embarrassing how much support I have. I mean, I always tell people I feel like I’m perfectly set up to have cancer. I have great health insurance, I have a savings account. I have work lined up. I have friends and family. I have the best doctors I can get. Christina Applegate sent me to her doctors. And you know you have to look at somebody like her and go, “Oh, I’m sure she’s going to the best.” That’s the embarrassing part, I think, “God, I feel so lucky that I feel embarrassed, and I know not everybody gets to be lifted up by the world and get the best. Regardless of what is in my future, good or bad, right now I’m just like… it’s amazing. Not everybody gets the world reaching out to them and wanting to do things for them.
CH: What has the reaction from your peers in the comedy community been like?
TN: Oh my god, I mean they’re part of the 10 million texts and phone calls and people taking me to movies and making me food and taking me to dinner and you know… driving me to appointments. There’s just a plethora of people doing that, and that’s again where I just go, “Gosh, I’m really spoiled.” I really am.
CH: Have the doctors laid out a treatment plan for you, do you know everything that’s going to happen at this point?
TN: For the most part, but they have to wait until they get inside to see if and where the cancer has spread. The tumor on my left side is invasive and so they can’t tell until they go in there to see where exactly it is. You know, if it’s gone elsewhere. So as it stands right now after my surgery I will begin chemo. And my surgery is gonna be in Los Angeles and then I’m gonna start chemo in New York.
CH: Ok, I was gonna ask about that so you’re basically moving to New York in between surgery and chemo?
TN: Yeah I’ve been working on Amy Schumer’s show via Skype and e-mail. So I’m just anxious to get out there and actually be with everybody to work on it.
CH: So you’ll be working on the show and undergoing chemo treatment?
CH: It seems like such an odd situation. How has the show production and network reacted, is it just, “You have a job here whenever you’re able?”
TN: Yeah, after Amy hired me on the show, I had the mammogram and the abnormal results, but I didn’t tell her all of that because I was thinking, “There’s no way I have cancer. So I’m just gonna deal with this and go about my life.” And then when I was diagnosed I told her. And I just really tried to make it clear that I know this is very horrible timing and that I wanted her to know 100% I want her to be successful and happy and I want her career to just explode through the roof and I don’t want her to feel like just because she hired me that that I have to be there. And she was just like, “I love you. You’re moving to New York. You’re moving in with me and I’m taking care of you and that’s all there is.” And I was like “Oh my gosh.”
I thought she was gonna be like “Yeah, well let’s see how it goes and…” you know what I mean? Cause I didn’t come up with Amy in stand-up. She’s just somebody I met a couple years ago when I went to New York and we hit it off and laughed hysterically together. You know we didn’t sit in clubs coming up and working out material we just met at a party and that was that. So I didn’t expect her to say, “You’re not going anywhere.”
So, then I called the showrunner Jessi Klein behind Amy’s back and I said “Listen, Amy’s being so supportive but I just want to get a gauge from you and I want you to know that I want to back out if I’m gonna hold anything up because I don’t know what I’m in for, you know. And I don’t want to hinder anything.” And Jessi said, “Yeah we’ve talked about it and the only problem we would have is if you didn’t come and work on the show. If you came to work and slept through the entire session we feel like you would contribute more to the show than most writers.” So I felt like “Ok, they want me there.”
CH: You said you got a bunch of book offers, etc. Do you think that’s something you’ll legitimately look into in the future?
TN: Yeah, it’s such funny timing because I was already working on a book. I was writing a book before I even had an agent, and I didn’t even know about book proposals and somebody was like, “No, you dummy, you don’t write a book start to finish, you write a proposal.” And I was like “Oh, thank god.” So I started working on a book proposal, and then I got an agent and when I did “This American Life” a publisher contacted my agent and he said, “Oh, This is a great start.” And because Ira had asked me to contribute regularly on the show he said, “You probably don’t have to do a full proposal. You could just put together a couple of essays and I could probably get you a deal that way especially since there’s already interest out there.” And I was like, “Oh great.” And then this whole thing went viral and then all these e-mails came in from publishers and my agent called and said, “Well I don’t even think we need the two essays anymore. You can probably just write me an e-mail of basically what you want to talk about in the book, because we have people chomping at the bit.” And I was like “Oh, ok.” So I’m hoping if I hold out a little longer he’ll just write and say, “Well you don’t even have to write the book. We’re just gonna get you some money and that will just be the end.”
But yeah I’m looking forward to it. I feel pretty confident I’m gonna be, you know, signing a deal with some publishing company, I just don’t know which one.
CH: Are you ever just, like, kind of gobsmacked by the irony of everything? Your career taking off the way it has in the midst of so much personal tragedy.
TN: Yeah, I mean it is funny timing. My career has always kind of moved forward and upward. I’ve never had anything kind of stall out or go in the opposite direction. I’ve always kind of been moving in the right direction. And “This American Life” back in May bumped me. I was getting recognized from the radio, you know. Which was a bizarre thing. But this has definitely gotten me more attention and it is weird timing. Sometimes people are asking “What’s it like? It’s so crazy you’re in Rolling Stone magazine and all these people are talking about you. What’s it like now?” I’m like “I’m just sitting at home having cancer on my couch.” That’s what it feels like.
But again I have so many great things, like there’s so many great things going on in my life and Kyle [Dunnigan, Tig’s co-host on Professor Blastoff and long-time writing partner] is somebody that always reminds me of that when I kind of get down on my break up or my mother or my illness and he’s like “Tig, yes those are horrible, but you have so many amazing things going on.” Like he’s said, “I feel like I have to constantly say ‘Congratulations.’”
And so I do, I have really amazing things going on and really amazing people around me. I’m having the best and worst time of my life at the exact same time. It is really bizarre.