By Heather Millar
Do you ever notice how, when you bring up cancer, people get all serious? When you’re first diagnosed and you tell people about it: Long faces; reassuring pats on the shoulder. Or in my case, you tell people what your blogs are about, and it’s a conversation door-slammer. (I did that in a long line at Home Depot once. Don’t try this!) Or, you try to explain to a new acquaintance why you didn’t work for more than a year. More glum faces.
Then along comes Tig Notaro. She’s a standup comic, a radio commentator, a writer. Oh yeah, and she has cancer. Or rather, after a double mastectomy, she had cancer. She was diagnosed in early August and, about a day later, was scheduled to do a set at Largo, a well-known nightclub and cabaret in Los Angeles.
Notaro decided to do her set despite her diagnosis. She opened this way, “Good evening, hello, I have cancer. How are you?”
Some people laughed, some people tittered nervously, others burst into tears. Then, Notaro proceeded to do something amazing: She comforted audience members, telling one, “It’s going to be OK.” She talked for half an hour about her cancer diagnosis, her confusion, her life. She processed all of those feelings onstage, before an audience.
And it was funny, sometimes hilarious. More than anything, it was human.
According to the blogosphere, Notaro’s set became instantly famous. Fellow comedian and friend, Louis C.K., star of the FX comedy series Louie, was standing in the wings as Notaro talked about her annus horribilis: pneumonia in March, followed by a debilitating intestinal infection C. difficile, her mother’s death after a fall, the break-up of a long-term relationship, and then to top it all off, cancer.
The next day, Louis C.K. tweeted to more than a million followers, “In 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.”
Louis C.K. made the audio file of the set available on his website this week. You can also access transcripts of parts of the routine played on This American Life over the weekend. Yesterday, National Public Radio host Terry Gross interviewed Notaro on her show, Fresh Air. Gross also interviewed Louis C.K.
I missed all the hubbub in August, but I downloaded the file today. As I listened to the set by myself, in my office, I almost bust a gut as Notaro talked about the hospital questionnaire sent to her dead mother. Was her mother’s hospital stay satisfactory? Um, that didn’t work out too well. Ditto her riff on that old chestnut, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” She imagines God looking down from on high, saying, “I think she can take just a little bit more,” while the angels protest, “God, are you kidding?!”
But don’t take my word for it, have a listen to Notaro’s take on cancer. Notaro quotes the old line that “With humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy.” Then, she adds, “I am just at tragedy, right now. That’s just where I am in the equation.”
And yet, by some sort of alchemy, she manages to laugh. All of us coping with cancer should hope for that kind of strength.