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Creation Stories

Working Blue: Tig Notaro, Patton Oswalt, And The Comedy Of Tragedy

Cancer, death, depression, suicide. Are we at peak dark comedy?

Working Blue: Tig Notaro, Patton Oswalt, And The Comedy Of Tragedy

Stephanie Allynne and Tig Notaro stars in the Amazon original series, One Mississippi

[Photo: Michele K. Short, courtesy of Amazon]

"Hello. Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?"

On the audio recording, the audience’s applause dies down, a smattering of searching laughter is heard.

"Is everyone having a good time? I have cancer. How are you? It’s a good time. Diagnosed with cancer. Feels good. Just diagnosed with cancer. Oh, my god."

More uncertain laughter, as you hear the crowd tensing.

"It’s weird because with humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy. I am just at tragedy right now. That’s just where I am in the equation. Awww, it’s fine. Here’s what happened: It’s very personal. Found a lump, got a mammogram, you know they’re doing the ultrasound and they’re like, ‘We found a lump.’ And I go, ‘No, that’s. My boob.’"

Now the crowd relaxes and laughs deeply, the warm wash of a joke expertly told flooding the room.

That is, as both comedy nerds and many other people with a pulse can tell you, the opening few seconds of Tig Notaro’s transcendent, 2013 performance called Live, recorded just days after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in both breasts. ("Yeah, I got one over there, too," is how Notaro puts it on stage.)

The writing and performing of such intensely personal, freshly painful material marked a significant moment in the long, often intensely personal history of stand-up comedy. Yes, comedians have always exposed their inner workings and grappled with difficult, unpleasant issues. From Richard Pryor to Lenny Bruce, to Louis CK, Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, and Aziz Ansari, stand-ups have, as a collection of human beings, run full-speed into every ism imaginable in an effort to entertain, enlighten, underscore, and kill, kill, kill.

But here was something different. Here was a woman bearing her soul and working through extreme existential anguish in real time. With that half-hour show, Notaro provided an electric jolt to comedy’s nervous-laughter system that is still being felt. In fact, we may now be firmly in the middle of what could be called: Peak Dark Comedy.

Whereas Woody Allen once joked that he’d never want to be part of a club that would have someone like him as a member, comedians working dark might flip that to say they wish they never had to join this particular group. That’s certainly true of Patton Oswalt. An Emmy-winning actor, comedian, and writer, Oswalt woke up on April 22 of this year to a living nightmare. His wife, Michelle McNamara, had died in her sleep at 46 years of age. A true-crime writer, McNamara had been working incredibly hard to crack a case that had eluded police authorities for decades. She felt she was getting close, but the work had taken a toll on her sleep habits and health. On the evening of April 21, McNamara took Xanax to help her rest. According to the Times story, Oswalt is still not sure what role, if any, the medication, had in her death; an official cause has not been announced by the coroner’s office.

"I have a feeling it might have been an overdose," Oswalt told the New York Times, in a story published late last month, referring to the Xanax. "That’s what the paramedics there were saying while I was screaming and throwing up."

The comic was, of course, destroyed. But he also knew he had to pull himself together as quickly as he could: he was now a single parent to the couple’s seven-year-old daughter.

Weeks melted into months, and still the pain throbbed. Oswalt told the Times he tried counseling, reading related books, and even self-medicating with booze. Nothing seemed to defeat a monster that, for Oswalt, was more daunting even than the depression he’s fought against.

"Grief is an attack on life," he told the Times. "It stands right out there and says: ‘The minute you try something, I’m waiting for you.’"

To face down his fresh demons, Oswalt tried something, nonetheless: comedy. In September, he went to work on a new set that leans heavily on his experience dealing with grief. He’s still working to knead jokes and heartbreak together, but recently has begun to see the therapeutic benefit to this unanticipated, unwanted career shift.

After an early performance of the new work, Oswalt recalled finding solace in a thought: "Okay, the world didn’t end."

[Photo: Flickr user ABC/Image Group LA]

More than a decade ago, in his early twenties, Chris Gethard nearly ended his world. He was then an unhappy American History student at Rutgers, and an increasingly active improv comic, practicing and teaching at the Upright Citizens Brigade on the west side of Manhattan.

One night, while driving back to New Jersey from New York City with mounting anxiety and depression, Gethard had come to terms with dying. Accelerating past a truck, he decided in an instant not to avoid the vehicle as it swerved back into his lane. The collision sent Gethard’s car sailing onto a nearby residential lawn—and propelled the comedian into years of therapy, a rigorous antidepressant and antipsychotic pill-taking regimine, and, eventually, his one-man show, Career Suicide.

That show is now playing at the Lynn Redgrave Theater in the East Village, with a run through at least January 8, and is being presented by modern comedy macher, Judd Apatow.

"Sometimes comedy allows us to deal with stuff that we aren’t quite ready to deal with," Apatow writes on Career Suicide’s website. "And depression is something people still don’t like to talk about. Luckily, Chris is a hilarious storyteller and is willing to talk about all of it, to what can only be referred to as an ill-advised degree."

On the same web page, Gethard makes a similar point: "We need to start laughing about this stuff, so maybe we can finally be comfortable talking about it afterwards."

Dr. Todd Kashdan, a professor of psychology at George Mason University and co-author of the book The Upside of Your Dark Side, believes there are several reasons why comedians and other performers may be more comfortable than ever revealing their innermost struggles.

For one thing, he is quick to note that "ramping up creative work in the face of tragedy is a long story for anyone who’s a creative person." (We are already about 15 years past the dawn of the damaged-life memoir, or what some might consider The Augusten Burroughs Effect.)

And now, deep into our tech-driven social moment, "the line between private and personal is moving faster than at any other time," Kashdan observes.

Beyond the confluence of timeless truths and timely tech, Kashdan says his research has revealed that, historically, creative people do some of their best work once they’ve gone through the darkest days. As examples, he points to Picasso’s Blue Period and the work of the prolific, bi-polar Romantic composer, Robert Schumann. Kashdan says that in both cases, the artist worked at maximum creative strength only after they’d processed acute emotional pain.

"The research is clear that when we go through tragedy and trauma, our creativity increases," Kashdan tells Co.Create.

Part of the reason for this, he believes, is that the creative being who has suffered has moved closer to understanding their own mortality, and has emerged both stronger and able to see the world with, essentially, new eyes.

All of which suggests that Tig Notaro, performing while processing, is anomalous in the story of grief-driven art. And that’s true in more than one way. Because when she climbed up on stage in 2013 to perform the set that became Live, Notaro had been through much more even than her cancer diagnosis: her mother had recently died, and she’d been through a romantic breakup. She was operating with a fairly unprecedented level of rawness, as far as the world of stand-up had ever seen.

So it’s understandable that at times during the performance Notaro sounds shell-schocked. She is, at that moment, mid-free-fall. Which is why she must recalibrate comedy’s normal equation involving time. There has been and there is no time. Notaro has become a pure instrument of grief, and her great gift is articulating what cannot be said for an audience desperate to hear it.

Near the end of the set, Notaro says she feels bad about bumming the crowd out.

"What if I just transitioned right now into just silly jokes?"

Immediately, there is loud resistance to that idea.

"No!" cry out several people in the audience. And then a single voice can be heard: "This is fucking amazing."

The crowd goes wild. And Notaro nails the button.

"Thank you. Now I feel bad that I don’t have more tragedy to share."

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