Photo by Ruthie Wyatt.
Comedian Tig Notaro is in the right profession. The 44-year-old Mississippian-turned-Angeleno famously delivered a set at Largo in 2012 in which she revealed she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, her mom had tragically died, she’d been through a terrible breakup, and she’d had a near-death bout of C. difficile, all in the span of four months — and still moved the crowd to laughter (amid tears).
Her knack for turning the not-funny-into-funny (and the already-funny-into-funnier) is on display again in Showtime’s new one-hour special Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro, coming out April 17. The film follows Notaro and her good friend, comedian John Dore, on a road-trip from a geo-dome in Topanga Canyon, California, to a sprawling farm in Pluto, Mississippi, as they perform standup in strangers’ homes. Notaro and Dore embrace all the awkwardness, well-intentioned heckling (“You should say ‘Just kidding’ afterward!” advises one attendee), and ramshackle green rooms as only two comedians can: hilariously. But the film’s real draw is the pair’s interactions with each other as they drive from place to place. Their improvised bits, like when Dore expresses concern for Notaro’s health or as they both marvel at their surroundings, are more tender than funny. And sometimes, like when Dore buys Notaro a tombstone, they’re a little bit of both.
We caught up with Notaro on a recent Thursday to discuss the film, the current state of her health, and her favorite activity: watching the birds in her backyard.
How did the project come to be? You’ve been doing stand-up in strangers’ homes for a while now, right?
I’ve done this tour for years. I wanted to sell it as a weekly series, but Showtime bought it as a special. At the beginning, it shows some earlier clips from years ago when I did it. So [this special] is really just having somebody fund this ridiculous tour I’ve been doing with my friends.
What’s the process of choosing whose houses to go to?
Basically, we asked people to send a video, introduce themselves, and show us where the show would be. Beyond that, I show up half an hour before showtime and then we go from there. But as far as picking people, it’s just that gut feeling that you have to go on in life of meeting somebody. There were insane submissions, sexual apparatuses, weird songs, and photos and dances that were created, but I wasn’t looking for anything too weird or too funny. I feel like everybody has an interesting life or story. You see it as soon as you walk into their house, go into their town, and meet their friends.
Did you hang out with people after the shows?
Oh yeah! We hung out at every place. Every single place. We hung out, had food. That’s part of the thing: They have to supply the food and drink and friends.
Has going on these trips and meeting these people given you a new outlook on America?
Well, I feel like I’ve always had a pretty decent gauge on what’s actually going on even though I’ve lived in major cities. But, with my job I am always driving to the tiniest towns, to the biggest cities, flying overseas, and I’m doing living rooms, theatres, colleges, clubs. I’m very aware that not everyone gets the perspective I do. But it didn’t change too much for me because of that, because I’ve always been in run-of-the-mill and utterly unusual situations doing my shows and interacting with people. I’m not shocked when you hear about bigots or you hear about kind, compassionate people in small towns.
You know, being from Mississippi, people always say “Oh God, what was that like?” I’m from a very small town and my family is very loving and open. And I’m just aware that there’s all kinds. There are bigots in big cities and other states as we’ve found out, but I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on what’s out there.
I’d say it leaves the viewer with such a good feeling about our country, in general.
People have said that to me after they saw that. We’re not on the road making fun of people, we’re just kind of stumbling upon them and enjoying each other. It’s an oddly heartfelt comedy roadtrip. There’s no edge to it. I’m sure some people who need an edge will be missing that. But I just love the feeling of it.
Tig Notaro performing stand-up in Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro.
Did you discover any awesome roadside attractions as you were clocking hours on the road?
We found one of the best, which is a place that sells fireworks and tombstones in Mississippi. I mean, how does that exist? I mean, if people are against Mississippi, if you take that state away, you are going to lose fireworks and tombstones.
Speaking of, what happened to the tombstone John bought you?
We ended up letting the owner keep the tombstone, but we still bought it from him. We gave him his $400 or $450 just for giving us his time. So that’s a little behind the scenes secret.
Did John prove to be the perfect traveling companion?
Yes. John is just somebody that tickles me on a deep, deep level to no end. And he’s such a light-hearted, good, kind, silly person. And I didn’t want somebody with massive anxiety or negativity, though I’m sure that could’ve been funny, too. But I really just wanted to go have a good, light-hearted ridiculous time and John is always the perfect person.
How are you feeling these days, health-wise and everything else-wise?
I’m very healthy, as far as I know. I go in every couple months to get checked for cancer. I had a bit of a health issue a few months ago where I had a cyst burst on a blood vessel. I was bleeding internally for a few days in Philly. But I took a couple months off, had surgery, and recovered. So now I have a home that I love, I am engaged and I am happy with all the material that I’m producing. My standup is very strong. It’s embarrassing how good things are. My life is just filling up bird feeders and watching birds all day long. It’s silly but it’s very true. I mean I watch bees and birds. I am so ready to be 90 years old.
Watch the trailer for Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro.
It must feel good to have everyone rooting for you, too. After you did your standup performance in 2012, so many people were rooting for you. How did that feel?
It was amazing. I mean, when Louie [CK] encouraged me to release that act as an album, I thought he was insane. I thought it was going to be one of those things that you had to be there for. I thought it was going to have mixed reviews. But when I finally did release it, I couldn’t believe how supportive people were. I feel like I will forever owe this planet everything I can give it — and the people in it. There are just so many people in need and that’s what I learned when I spoke out. The response was supportive and also, “Here’s my story.” It was amazing to get that kind of help and it’s amazing to want to give back, truly, all the time. Not just with cancer charities or benefits. There are so many people in need and I’m glad that I went through what I did to awaken me on a whole other level.
Do you have a philosophy on life?
Gosh. I wish I could sum it up. I know that I like to keep moving, even in just tiny steps. That’s what I had to do when I was so sick and lost my mother and was going through my breakup. I just had to remind myself that these tiny steps will lead me a very long way. And they sure have. I can’t believe where I am now, as far as my health and happiness and career and my love. Everything that I’ve gotten to experience. I feel like, just always keep moving. But not in a “gotta keep moving” panicked way, but just in a keep going forward way.
I also always think of, even though it’s very clichÃ©d, the saying “use it or lose it.” I think it applies with relationships, your body, your mind, anything. If you don’t use something it goes away. I think it’s really important to remember that and I think it ties into keeping moving.
I used to be very closed off and protective. When I lost everything in my life, I shared everything in my comedy and that broke down so many barriers. I had nothing else to lose in life and I just spoke out and it taught me the importance of sharing with people and being open. I can’t believe how empowering it is.
So what is next for you, with so much behind you?
Like I said, I’m really interested in the birds and the bees. I’m hoping to adopt a turtle. We’re looking into getting a kitten. I know — juicy details. I’m hoping to become a beekeeper in my own backyard. And as far as my career, I’ve kind of done everything that I wanted to do. So anything beyond that will be fun and interesting. I have a TV show I’ve been developing with some really cool people. I can’t go into details on that, but if that goes into production, great. But, if not, like I said, I’m still just thrilled to be watching the birds in my backyard.
When is the documentary about your life, Tig, coming out? Can you tell us a little about it?
It could come out as soon as this summer. Tig follows me throughout the past couple of years, as I’m rebuilding my life and my career and my health. It captures my entire relationship with Stephanie, my fiancÃ©. I’m so lucky that I’m equally proud of the Showtime special and the documentary. I got to go to both premieres feeling not like an egomaniac, but feeling confident we did the best we could on both of these. It was really interesting with Tig to be in a theatre and hear people crack up so hard and then moments later be sobbing. It was really intense. It’s a very, very personal movie and I foolishly thought that I had been through everything life was going to hand me in 2012 when I went through those four months. When I agreed to do the documentary I forgot that life keeps going and twisting and turning. They were able to capture some really intense moments and when they were happening, I thought “Oh my God, why?” I could’ve told them to not film, but I wanted to make the best movie that I could so I allowed them to film everything.
It must’ve been hard to open yourself up and be so vulnerable, as someone who is known for being a comedian.
It was. I didn’t think it was going be. I thought that I’d already been through the worst, so if you’re going to make a documentary about me, sure, it’s just going to be me having a great life after everything was hell. Then I forgot that’s not how life works. I forgot that just because you went through hell doesn’t mean that you won’t go through it again. I didn’t have my nosedive to never have a bad day again. So I really was so naive when I agreed to do the documentary. Because it’s so personal; it’s so intimate.
Congratulations on your engagement by the way. Have you guys set a date?
We keep setting a date but then we both keep getting jobs or something. We’re realizing we just have to set a date and say no to whatever job comes along and get married to each other. We’re hoping within the next year.
Okay, last question: Is there any question you’ve always wanted to be asked?
Just that one. You nailed it.