"Tragedy + time = comedy. But I don't have the benefit of time. So I'm just going to tell you the tragedy and know that everything is going to be okay."
So began Tig Notaro's set last night at her show "Tig and friends" at the Largo.
Actually, that wasn't the beginning of her set. It began when Ed Helms welcomed her to the stage and she crossed over, took the microphone, and said "Thank you, thank you, I have cancer, thank you, I have cancer, really, thank you."
Applause gave way to reticent laughter as she explained how she had planned a set about bees flying alongside her car on the 405, but that she couldn't possibly do her "silly jokes" when all this was going on. And that's when she told us that three days ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, in both breasts.
But she didn't just have cancer. She went on to explain that in some manic twist of fate, while her career is at an all-time high -- she is moving to New York to work on Amy Schumer's new television show, she was on This American Life -- concurrently, all these terrible circumstances have befallen her over the past three months: pneumonia made way for a debilitating bacterial infection in her digestive tract for which she was hospitalized and lost 30 pounds off of her already small frame, days after being released from the hospital, her young mother died suddenly and tragically (fell, hit her head, died), then she went through a bad breakup, and then, now, cancer. In both breasts. ("You have a lump." "No, doctor, that's my breast" -- one of her most renowned bits is about someone remarking upon her small breasts).
For the first half of her set, even though she was telling the story in perfect grace and humor, I couldn't laugh. For the second half, for the first time in my life, as far as I can recall, I genuinely laughed and cried at the exact same time, bewildered at the tragedy and the remarkably calm, clever prism through which she assessed her terrible set of circumstances.
While telling us anecdotes from these personal tragedies, all along the way, she assured the audience, "It's okay, I'm going to be okay." At one part, when she reached a dark place wherein most of the audience could not find the will to laugh, she said "maybe I'll just go back to telling jokes about bees. Should I do that?" there were several "NOs" and one insistent loud male voice who cried out,
"NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT. THIS IS FUCKING INCREDIBLE."
She looked genuinely taken aback, and relieved. She'd managed to make the tragic not only palatable but overwhelmingly engaging. She'd done it.
Tig's been one of my favorite comedians for a couple of years now. I told her how much I loved her work after a set at UCB one night, and she received my words so kindly that she came towards me and gave me a hug. I've gone downtown to bars by myself and sat for hours alone, just waiting to see her headlining set.
At the end of her routine last night, when everyone in the audience gave her a standing ovation for me her wowed, grateful, happy face blurry with my own salty eyes. She'd released her horrific story into the hearts of her fans. I'm sure we all felt like I did; we were made witness to a truly historical moment in comedy, by one of the industry of comedy's absolute greatest.
Bill Burr followed her set, inexplicably able to make the whole audience uproarious with laughter by the end. Bill Burr then brought on Louis C.K., the surprise guest of the night, which was a shock -- it was my first time ever seeing him live -- but it was very difficult to give him my enrapt attention after Tig's on-stage confessions.
My head is still swimming around what happened last night. We all saw the ultimate embodiment of what comedy is supposed to do: deeply personal tragedies somehow transformed, with the enormous, necessary power of an open-hearted audience, into brilliantly-written truths that we'll all take home with us and keep with us as long as we'll have a sound-enough mind to remember that show. If schadenfreude is pleasure derived from the misfortune of others, we all shuffled into another corner last night, schadenfreude's cousin; we're not laughing at you, we're crying with you but trying very hard to accept this avalanche of misfortune through the more edible prism of humor.
I'm so grateful I could bear witness to what happened last night, and more than that I'm grateful to comedy and to Tig Notaro for being not only courageous enough and not only spirited enough, but for being so endlessly, achingly HONEST with all of us, the stunned, mouth-breathing strangers in the dark.