BY JONATHAN VALANIA If Tig Notaro never existed we would have never thought to invent her, which not only points out the shortcomings of our imagination but also the depths of her originality. A tall drink of water in low-slung jeans with Billie Jean King hair, she speaks in a laconic drawl that is either medicated or chill to the point of Zen. She doesn’t so much tell jokes as construct these elaborate verbal Rube Goldberg Devices Of Funny and at the end, when you finally stop laughing, you’re like ‘I can’t believe that worked.’ If you’ve never heard her Taylor Dane bit, scroll down to the bottom and watch it before you read any further. Go on, we’ll wait. Psych! Anyway, for the rest of you that have heard that bit, I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know when I point that, a few years ago, within the space of a month she got pneumonia, the C. diff, then she split up with her partner, then her mother died and then she was diagnosed with cancer. And somehow she managed to alchemize all that horror and agony into something funny and laugh-affirming. Louis CK tweeted afterwards: “In 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.” She plays the Trocadero Friday November 7th. DISCUSSED: Richard Pryor, Texas, Paula Poundstone, lesbians, cancer, Mississippi, her forthcoming memoir, 43-year-old tomboys, and Knock Knock It’s Tig Notaro, her forthcoming Showtime special.
PHAWKER: You were born Mathilde Notaro, how did that become Tig? Why did you get that nickname?
TIG NOTARO: My brother just gave me that nickname as a kid because he couldn’t pronounce my real name and it just stuck.
PHAWKER: Tell me about growing up gay in Mississippi and Texas, that could not have been easy. I’ve been to both on numerous occasions and Mississippi in particular always struck me as a place where the opposable thumb is a relatively recent development.
TIG NOTARO: I’m sad to hear that. I feel great pride being from the south. I’m well aware of certain views on the south, but you can find ignorance in all parts of the country, not just the south. Just like you can find beauty in the people and places all around this planet, including the south.
PHAWKER: Oh, absolutely, you’ll find stupid everywhere, but it just seems like bigotry and anti-intellectualism is more deeply engrained and codified south of the Mason Dixon line.
TIG NOTARO: I am confident my experience growing up would be comparable if I had grown up in most any other place in the country, except for the fact that I was only loved and accepted for exactly who I was by my family and friends.
PHAWKER: On a related note, Googling you I found a surprising large number of stories that identified you — often in the headline — as LESBIAN COMEDIAN TIG NOTARO. How do you feel about that? Don’t really care? Or do you resent being categorized as such, or even find it somehow insulting, as if they’re saying, “she’s pretty funny…for a lesbian”?
TIG NOTARO: I define myself in numerous ways, and even in my inner dialogue, I try to steer clear of labels on myself. And I try to not pay much attention to headlines, whether it be sexuality or gender or the press defining my style on stage, etc.
PHAWKER: Who are your primary influences as a comic and what was it about them that drew you to their work?
TIG NOTARO: I was always a huge fan of stand-up as a kid- Paula Poundstone and Richard Pryor. My mother and I would always watch Joan Rivers when she hosted The Tonight Show, and it was always such an event to experience together. It was a fantasy of mine to pursue comedy as a career, but I never in a million years thought it would ever, ever be a possibility.
PHAWKER: Funny is, obviously, a subjective thing. Private jokes are always the funniest but they only work because you have some shared experience or common ground with the person you are sharing it with. What is the secret to making a room full of strangers laugh? For that matter what is the secret of making everyone in the room laugh at the same thing?
TIG NOTARO: The formula must remain a secret, I’m sorry. But I believe no matter what you do, you need to work extremely hard and love what you do. And with comedy you probably have to have a pretty good sense of things and the world around you, because when you are bringing it all back to a club to tell everyone, you really need to know exactly what you saw or what you think you saw. And chances are, people saw it to, but didn’t realize it until you pointed it out to them.
PHAWKER: You famously managed to make a roomful of people laugh at the most unfunniest thing in the world: cancer. That is the comedy equivalent of that Guinness Book Of World Records picture of the man pulling a locomotive with his teeth. How did it occur to you that A) I should use my cancer diagnosis as a bit and B) I’m going to say it with a smile because the sheer cognitive dissonance will make smoke come out of people’s ears?
TIG NOTARO: Well, authenticity is something I always strive for and so to discuss anything other than the adversity that had taken over my life, would have been all wrong to me at that moment in time. Which more than anything was the driving force that prompted me to be so open and honest.
PHAWKER: You have a role in Transparent, which stars Jeffrey Tambor as a family man who is transitioning into a woman, tell me about the show and how you got involved? Can you relate to Jeffrey Tambor’s character? Do you enjoy being a girl, as Phranc used to say, or do you ever feel you were miscast the play, as it were?
TIG NOTARO: The creator, Jill Soloway, is someone who has been a friend of mine for a little while, so I had the luxury of knowing her in the casting process. My part is very small- like if you blink you’ll miss it- small. But it was still so fun to shoot. I am so incredibly excited to see the entire series, I truly think its going to change people in the very best way. No, I don’t feel miscast in the slightest! I feel like I got the role of a life time. I enjoy being female, but I also enjoy mainly just feeling like a 43 year old tomboy.
PHAWKER: Explain the premise of Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro, your forthcoming Showtime special.
TIG NOTARO: The premise is I tour the country with a fellow comedian, in this case it was my very talented friend Jon Dore, and instead of performing at traditional venues like a comedy club, we perform at non-traditional venues, such as the homes, barns, farms and cul de sacs of fans all around the counry. The experience of shooting this was great. It is an idea I had for a while, and even did this on the road quite a bit in previous years. It just was never something that was financed by a network to air, and being that these shows I previously did were so fun, I thought this could be a great idea as a television project. And fortunately Showtime got the idea right away and were generous enough to produce it.
TIG NOTARO: Reportedly you are currently working on a memoir, what can you tell me about it? Can you share a scene or anecdote? I am polishing it up as we speak. The book is about those well publicized 4 months of hell my life turned into. Even with all of the interviews and the album doing so well, that 30 minutes on stage at Largo was just a peek into all I had been experiencing. The book goes much deeper into that whole experience. No spoilers- you have to buy the book.
PHAWKER: How is your health these days? Are you cancer-free?
TIG NOTARO: My health is great as far as I know. I see my oncologist every few months and keep getting news that I’m still in remission. I feel very aware of how lucky I am to have come out of everything.