“I’m Not for Everyone”

A conversation with comic Tig Notaro.

Tig Notaro
Tig Notaro at her downtown Los Angeles loft in October 2012.

Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times courtesy HarperCollins

In her new memoir I’m Just a Person, comic Tig Notaro writes: “My favorite thing to wear from about first to third grade was a blue t-shirt with an iron-on monkey and the caption ‘Here Comes Trouble.’” Life as a queer kid in Mississippi during the 1970s wasn’t easy; her mom’s drinking problems made it worse. Eventually, Notaro dropped out of high school and moved west, first to Denver and then to Los Angeles with some of her more ambitious actor friends, “pursuing my dream of someday having a dream.”

The real trouble arrived later, in the brutal spring of 2012, during which she almost died after contracting the gruesome intestinal disease Clostridium difficile colitis, lost her mother in a tragic accident, endured a breakup, and then almost died again after being diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer.

But success came, too: fifteen-plus years as a successful stand-up; Professor Blastoff, one of the world’s first hit podcasts, with her friends Kyle Dunnigan and David Huntsberger; small but plum roles on TV shows like The Sarah Silverman Program; and, especially, star turns on Conan and This American Life. Plus a best-selling album of her instantly legendary set at Largo, in which first announced her cancer diagnosis, a documentary, a Showtime special, and a riotous hour for HBO—half of which she spends shirtless and baring her mastectomy scars.

I’m Just a Person recounts all this in Notaro’s unmistakable deadpan voice, thankfully free of New-Age jargon, self-aggrandizing self-pity, or triumph-of-the-human-spirit schmaltz. The book distills her dry wit into high-proof shots: After being diagnosed with cancer, she writes, “I imagined the aerial view of myself as a red target focused on the top of my car, as if there was a helicopter searching for lonely people with bad news.”    

There’s so much good news now. In January, she married actor Stephanie Allynne, and the pair are expecting twin boys. Her Amazon series, One Mississippi, will debut later this year. I called Tig at her L.A. home one sunny morning in May, where she took a break from baby-proofing the house to sit on the couch with her wife and share some surprisingly earnest thoughts about living in fear, what she calls “the pressure of expectation,” and where her stand-up will go next. The conversation has been condensed and edited.

The book begins with the death of your mother, a moment of such chaos and grief. Was that intentional: a way of signaling to the reader that this wouldn’t be a collection of jokes?

The image of my mother’s head hitting the floor was something I tried desperately to erase from my memory. I even avoided telling anybody that it happened because I felt so overloaded. It just seemed way too over the top. But once I came to terms with it and started telling people … I just felt compelled to start there. I’m not sure why. It was just so insane.

You’ve talked about these events in your stand-up, in interviews, in a documentary. Why put yourself through reliving them one more time for a book?

I’d love to do other books on other parts of my life! (Laughs.) But I immediately wanted to talk about all the details just mainly because the story has become so well-known, but only in these fragmented ways. It’s become like a highlight reel. Whereas in a book, I could really talk about these moments beat by beat.

You write about your reconciliation with your father, and then his death not long after that.

He died while I was writing the book. So … I had to. I was already writing a good chunk about him. When he died, I really took a beat to fill that in. It took a long time.

Meanwhile, on Professor Blastoff, you were sort of reporting in the moment, day by day, everything that was happening to you.

The weird part was, even though we had a decent following and I had a decent comedy career, I and the podcast weren’t nearly as big until I started talking about things. I didn’t understand the scope of what I was doing and who I was speaking to until I found out people were reporting on it. It became apparent that I was not flying under the radar. At all.

Did that freak you out?

When I’m not onstage in front of an audience, I don’t really get a gauge of what’s going on. But in that time period, I don’t know how I could have done it any other way. I had so much to say. I was very traumatized and trying to process it.

How did that change your relationship with David and Kyle?

They’re my friends. We discussed everything. But everything changed. And our change, our availability, our exposure—we had to discuss what was important for me to use professionally. And privately.

And the podcast ended not long after.

I started to feel like we were all so busy doing so many things and weren’t the friends we used to be. We were only meeting for the podcast. And I started to struggle with that, because that’s not what this was built on: We were friends who hung out. I thought, when we’re home, I’d rather just hang out with you guys. I wanted to work on the friendship. And what’s nice is, now, I do see them and we do hang out. It’s so good to not be racing across town to talk into microphones.

Do you feel like you have to keep talking about the trauma now that it’s made you famous? Or do you feel like you can’t talk about it anymore?

I didn’t worry about that when I did the set at Largo. I did that because I wanted to do that. So it’s not to say I’m going to continue to touch on dark material. But what I will continue to do is exactly what I want. And if people want to follow that, or if they don’t, I don’t blame them. I’m not for everyone.

Is it weird to have so much attention on your body—like, the state of your body?

Well … I made the decision to be open about, you know, my bodily functions. There are moments when it hits me how funny that is. But when I share something, I’m ready to share something.

You and Stephanie were married last October in your home state of Mississippi. How do you feel about the state’s recent anti-LGBTQ legislation?

(Sighs.) It’s terrible. Stephanie and I got married publicly on the beach, in front of friends and family, and the local police shut down the highway for us to cross the street back to my cousin’s house. Cars backed up for miles, and everybody in town cheered. So it’s devastating. But the main thing I want to put out there is to make sure everyone understands the importance of not putting a blanket over the entire state. There are so many loving, open, forward-thinking people in Mississippi and it makes me sad that this other part has taken over. For now. I have faith it can be turned around, and that people won’t abandon the ones who are there.

How is Stephanie? Is it true that she’s been cast in the David Lynch’s new Twin Peaks series?

All I will say is she is sitting next to me on the couch. And that she is beside herself with excitement.

And the two of you are expecting twins?

Twin boys. I was just in the babies’ room organizing closets. I don’t know how exactly to get ready. We built a commune for the babies to live with us. Stephanie’s family live in the house across the street. We’re nesting.

It must feel amazing to have so much to look forward to, after all this looking back.

I don’t want to overdo it. I don’t want to take over Hollywood. I have my moments, medical issues that will be a reminder, or waiting for results. But I try not to live in that fear. Oddly, what has put me at ease, and it took me awhile, but my mother got up that day and didn’t know she was going to trip and become brain-dead. I can’t waste more time worrying unless something surfaces that should legitimately cause fear. I’m in year four of remission and year five is the big turning point of being in a safer zone. I’m anxious to reach that place. And then I can have something just as—if not more—interesting to discuss. I’ll become one of those comedians whose fans complain, I can’t believe all she did is talk about her kids. I can’t wait.