“Hello. Good evening, hello. I have cancer, how are you?”
That’s how Tig Notaro opened her August 3 set at Largo shortly after being introduced by Ed Helms. People in the crowd are heard laughing nervously on Live (as in “continue to live,” according to the album’s PR), released Friday on Louis C.K.’s site as one 30-minute track. Is this some sort of performance stunt? Often comics will dig holes to see if they can climb out of them. That’s not what’s happening. “Just diagnosed with cancer,” she finally says. “Oh, God.” She pauses to take a few deep breaths, and it’s clear this is no clever misdirection. This is a human being staring up at something bigger than herself, readying to take a big swing at it.
What follows is remarkable, not just as comedy, but on a human level. It’s funny, raw and life-affirming. “It’s weird because with humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy,” observes Notaro, only a few days into her diagnosis of breast cancer at the time of the recording. “I am just at ‘tragedy’ right now. That’s just where I am at the equation.” Notaro allows her audience to watch her processing this information, in doing so granting both them and herself permission to laugh at it.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, we found a lump.’” she recalls of her mammogram. “I was like, ‘Oh, no; that’s my boob.’” They find a lump on the other side. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got one over there, too. Those are my boobs.’” She describes the pain she felt from the biopsy, eliciting moans of sympathy from an audience member. Notaro addresses it immediately, asking, “Who’s taking this really bad?” She tells them it’s going to be okay and receives applause, then catches herself. “I’m just saying you’re going to be okay. I don’t know what’s going on with me.”
It’s clear even on the recording that the air has gone out of the room, and that performer and audience are experiencing this completely in the moment. Notaro regresses four months to another near-death experience in the hospital, tragic news about her mother and a break up prior to her diagnosis. It’s okay, she jokes, because God never gives you more than you can handle. She pictures God saying, “You know what, I think she can take a little more,” while his angels tell him he’s out of his mind.
Notaro says she just wants to be able to have a normal conversation, to have her friends know it’s okay to describe their bad day without feeling guilty, or to be able to set up a dating profile…with the caveat “Serious inquiries only.” At one point she stops to marvel at what she’s accomplished in her career, and how no one can see what’s waiting for them. Sensing she’s getting too introspective, she asks, “What if I just transitioned right now into silly, just jokes right now?” The audience won’t let her. “This is fucking amazing,” says one. Hard to top that description. This is why human beings developed comedy in the first place.