Tig Notaro will go anywhere to get a laugh – whether delving into her own life or showing up on a fan’s doorstep.
The recent Showtime documentary, "Knock Knock, It's Tig Notaro," traced her travels to ordinary folks' homes and included a gig in front of about dozen people at a geodesic dome in California. Among her jokes: a crack about how she likes to confuse friends by texting them out of the blue, "What's your ETA?"
The odd and intimate venue seemed appropriate for Notaro, an intensely personal and personable performer who has fearlessly served up her own raw experiences to audiences. The ETA question also proved fitting: If put to Notaro, the answer to the time of her latest major arrival very well could be Saturday, when she plays her biggest crowd yet with her first HBO comedy special.
The standup veteran started to gain a wider, devoted audience three years ago this month when she took to the stage of a Los Angeles club shortly after learning she had breast cancer. The diagnosis followed her battle against a life-threatening intestinal infection, the sudden death of her mother and a romantic breakup. "Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?," she greeted the audience.
Word of the set spread through social media, "This American Life" and an audio recording Louis C.K. made available via his website. For many, the searing, half-hour confessional marked an unforgettable introduction to a comic who gave a performance both emotionally devastating and devastatingly funny.
She struck nary a note of self-pity, instead using her deadpan delivery style, with its echoes of Bob Newhart and Steven Wright, to underscore the absurdity of the deck of jokers dealt to her by life. Perhaps the most hilarious and heartbreaking moment came when Notaro riffed off the post-treatment questionnaire sent by the hospital where her mother died. "'[Question] No. 4, suggestions for improvements.' Such as: Should we stop sending questionnaires to dead people?"
Notaro is morphing into a comic known more for her comeback than her cancer. During some shows last year, she took off her shirt and bared the scars from her double mastectomy. In addition to the April Showtime special, Notaro also was the subject of a Netflix documentary released last month called "Tig," which included poignant looks at her attempts to have a child and at her relationship with her now-fiancée, Stephanie Allynne.
The synopsis for Notaro’s HBO special – “Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted” – doesn’t contain the word “cancer.” The hour-long show represents evidence not of a life interrupted, but one that forges ahead on the strength of a brave and smart 44-year-old comedian who offers as much insight as she does jokes. As in the Showtime road-trip documentary, Notaro is bringing her intimate act to our living rooms.
Check out a preview (above) in which Notaro muses on the fleeting nature of laughter as she attempts to extend her mark on comedy.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.