Thank You, I Have Cancer: How Tig Notaro Is Finding the Comedy in Tragedy (Without The Time)

After four months of misfortune, topped by a diagnosis of cancer stage 2 breast cancer, comedian Tig Notaro has to balance dealing with treatment and her growing fame. While being funny. Here’s how she’s doing it, with grace and humor.

“Today is my 15-year comedy anniversary," Tig Notaro says over the phone. "To the date." The milestone seems to surprise her as she recalls it. This number is, after all, the one most often cited as the length of time for achieving overnight success. Although she did seem to go from cult favorite to household comedy name literally in the span of one night earlier this August, success is a loaded term to describe what Notaro has at the moment. Success doesn’t usually come with such heavy baggage.

Tig Notaro

In 1997, the former dissatisfied music industry drone moved out to L.A. She gave herself a two-week deadline to brave the dreaded open mic scene for the first time, and confirm a long-held suspicion that she had what it took to succeed at stand-up comedy. In just six months, Notaro was getting booked as an opening act. Three months later, she was going out on the road. In the past year, she has released a hit comedy album, been cast on fellow comic Amy Schumer’s TV show, and earned unbidden praise from some of the most respected names in the business. She has also been diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. Now, the comic is doing everything she can to make the most out of the moment she’s earned.

Notaro’s delivery is drier than fabric softener sheets made out of sandpaper, a natural extension of her authentic personality. “I don’t think there’s ever a real shock when somebody meets me offstage,” she says. The beyond-casual tone with which she fires off acerbic quips explains why some may have assumed she was joking on August 3 when she greeted the audience at Largo, in L.A., by saying, “Thank you, I have cancer, thank you.” But she wasn’t joking about the disease. At least not yet.

“I don’t really sit down to write,” Notaro says. “I write kind of an idea down on a piece of paper or a napkin and then I usually write onstage—just talking to the audience, working my way through the material.” On that particular night, she already had material prepared. After that confessional opening line struck her, however, she let the onstage writing begin.

Mining tragedy for comedy is usually something that is done from a remove, not while the tragedy is still occurring. For Tig Notaro, though, the tragedy of the moment was in far too high supply to keep inside. At Largo that night, Notaro brought the audience into her world, revealing that in addition to the cancer she’d just discovered, in the previous four months she’d contracted and survived the serious digestive disorder C. diff., lost her mother in a freak accident, and saw her long-term romantic relationship implode.

While Notaro claims that some of her jokes and bits can take months to develop (her signature Taylor Dayne story took about nine to whittle down to perfection), by all accounts, the off-the-cuff Largo performance was nothing short of brilliant.

A resolute Twitter-holdout and blog-avoider, Notaro went to sleep after her set was over with no idea about the momentum with which her story—and talk of the now-legendary set it inspired—went pinballing across the Internet. She woke up the next day to find a bandwidth-disrupting number of emails, several calls from literary agents, and congratulation/commiseration texts from friends and well-wishers. “I was like, ‘What the hell happened?’” she says. “I was so confused at how everyone had found out that I had cancer and that I did this set.”

What has been clear to the comic, though, ever since she first contracted the digestive disorder, Clostridium difficile, or C. diff., was that she had to retain her sense of humor and creativity in increasingly trying times, for the sake of both her sanity and her livelihood. Indeed, Notaro has remained productive throughout her entire ordeal thus far, with no plans of slowing down any time soon. Here are the ways she’s working around her misfortune by facing it head-on.

Translating It For Radio

Some of the material that the comic shared with the Largo audience on August 3, she’d initially planned on honing for an upcoming appearance on Ira Glass’s This American Life.

“I wasn’t working it out thinking people were going to find out about it after the show that night. I just thought, 'I’m going to work this material out, and let him know and myself know where the material is at this point,' ” she says. “But it ended up going well enough that when I went home that night, I emailed Ira and let him know that I might have the audio he wanted. So Ira said he is planning on taking about ten minutes of the material I sent him and putting it on an upcoming show in the next couple of months.”

Engaging Her Podcast Audience

Although she devoted an episode of her science and philosophy podcast Professor Blastoff to C. diff. after her fight with that disorder, it wasn’t until her cancer diagnosis that the podcast began to get more personal, with weekly updates on Notaro’s condition.

“People who are listening to my podcast feel like I’m their friend, I think, but then going through all of the horrendous stuff I’ve gone through over the past four months made me feel like they are my friends too,” she says. “It’s given me a perspective and an idea of who’s out there, and that they’re not just listening for comedy.” She adds, “They are, obviously, listening for comedy, but there’s just been such an outpouring of compassion and I just feel way more connected to them.”

Fielding Offers of Writing Assignments

“I haven’t performed since that show at Largo,” Notaro says. “I feel a little gun-shy because there’s a little bit of pressure. I’ve also been so busy with the process I’ve been going through after being diagnosed. I have been writing a lot though. I’ve been asked to write blogs and magazine articles and proposals for book deal offers. So the comedy is in there. I’ve been processing everything through the articles I’ve been writing, rather than actually going on stage and performing. I’m in therapy, too. Much needed therapy.”

Making Videos (and Almost Making Videos)

After her C. diff. experience, Notaro set out to make a film that she’d been stewing on for roughly 20 years, a short entitled Clown Service.

“I was in a bad place back then, and nothing was making me feel better. I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just call a clown to come over to my house; maybe that will make me feel better.’ And my friend was laughing so hard just by the thought of that, she said ‘If you can get a clown to come over here, I’ll pay for it.’ So I called a clown service and they refused to send a clown over because they were like, ‘Is this for a birthday or a celebration?’ And it was just for me. So I decided to write a film as though the clown actually did come over.”

Working with actress Melissa Blake and her writing/podcasting partner, Kyle Dunnigan, Notaro had prepared a script and gotten acclaimed director Robbie Pickering on board to direct. She even successfully raised the funds for Clown Service on Kickstarter.

“We were supposed to be making the film right now, but life threw me a curveball,” Notaro says. “It’s now on hold because I have to have surgery and go through chemo, and I’m just not in any place to be making a movie.” Despite being unable to throw herself into the ambitious task of filming Clown Service, the comic recently took to the Internet to broadcast a short, bleakly funny video in the form of a personal ad.


The clip has already prompted a response video by comedian Dave Hill, perhaps made during the podcast the pair recently recorded together.

Taking a TV Writing Job To Keep From Traveling

No sooner had Notaro gotten out of the hospital from dealing with her C. diff. ordeal than she was contacted by her fellow comic Amy Schumer, who asked her to write and appear on her still-untitled sketch show for Comedy Central. It was exactly the right opportunity at the right time.

“I was going to take possibly a year off from stand-up to recuperate from [her battle with C. diff.] and not travel. I just wanted to stay in town and eat well, and just get my life back together and my health,” the comic says. “I never would have thought to go write for somebody. But since I was already planning on taking time off, I thought, ‘Yeah, that sounds fun.’ ” After watching the pilot and finding it hilarious, she agreed to move out to New York for the show. As of this interview, she still plans on moving to New York in the coming weeks, where she will join her writing partner and good friend Dunnigan, who was also hired for the show.

Sarah Silverman

Schumer is just the latest, however, in a long line of comics who’ve bestowed powerful endorsements upon Notaro. (Sarah Silverman has said Tig is a favorite comic, casting her in her own Comedy Central show years ago). It’s a reflection of how skilled at her craft Notaro is to have earned such praise, and it shows how humble she is to recognize the fact that she has to continue earning it, even now.

“I’ve been keenly aware of how lucky I am to have had the support of Sarah or Conan or Ira or any of those people that the world looks to for comedy or entertainment,” the comic says. “It’s definitely drawn attention to me and what I’m doing. But it also comes with a responsibility to make sure you’re keeping up and providing something that’s going to make it seem like they were telling the truth about you.”

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4 Comments

  • BJ Wvuscoredseventy Jones

    I met Tig a few years ago in Atlanta while she was doing a show with my hero Jim Norton, i sat up in the Comics section and spoke with her, she was the nicest person you could meet, her set was amazing and i didnt fully appreciate the conversation because i was in awe of being around Jimmy and Club Soda Kenny, I wish her a speedy recovery 

  • Corinne Delvey

    I love Tig. I think her comedy style is so subtle, and so brilliant. It's amazing to see how far she's come in 15 years on a dream to make it in comedy. I want nothing more than for her to beat her breast cancer, and continue to make people laugh (and of course keep the good one robot going).

  • getawaysticks

    Great article. I've been a casual fan of hers for a long time and am hoping she will come out of this okay.