Life

Tig Notaro’s Happy to Be Here Is a Too-Rare Encounter With Lesbian Joy

We’re happy that she’s happy to be there.

Tig Notaro grins, a hand on her chest as she holds a microphone. She is performing in her new special, Happy to Be Here.
Exhibit A.
Netflix

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

In 2016, when James Corden asked Tig Notaro whether she worried having kids would flatten out her act, she responded, “I can’t wait to be the most annoying, boring, no-edge comedian.” Her new Netflix comedy special, Tig Notaro: Happy to Be Here—her first since her twin boys were born—is anything but. On the contrary, it’s that exact mundanity that makes her newest act so special. Happy to Be Here marks a buoyant return that’s simultaneously accessible and culturally specific: It’s a rare example of unbridled lesbian joy.

Saying, “Tig Notaro has had some bad luck” is kind of like saying, “Ellen Ripley doesn’t get along well with aliens.” Notaro suffered a near-fatal intestinal infection, lost her mother suddenly, went through a breakup, and was diagnosed with breast cancer over the span of four months in 2012. It was, ironically, this series of tragedies that would make her a household name. After Louis C.K. (who she has since publicly criticized) published her impromptu stand-up set about her cancer diagnosis, Notaro embarked on a number of revelatory creative projects about the darkest time of her life. Her stand-up special Boyish Girl Interrupted, the documentary Tig, her memoir I’m Just a Person, and her acclaimed Amazon show One Mississippi all repackage that rich subject material in different ways, and you can ultimately track the evolution of Notaro’s relationship to her own story through them. If her work thus far has been about processing those gut-wrenching tragedies, Happy to Be Here is a lesson in surviving them and reveling in the little joys of their aftermath.

Like that of Notaro’s mid-cancer-battle comedy album Live, Happy to Be Here is a title meant to be taken literally. Notaro seems genuinely thrilled to be performing for the good people of Houston, Texas, and that joy is inevitably tied up in her lesbianism. The documentary Tig chronicles Notaro’s courtship with her now-wife, Stephanie Allynne, and One Mississippi, in which Tig and Allynne play love interests, fictionalizes their romance. In Happy to Be Here, Notaro—who struggled with how she might ever be able to have children after her cancer—describes her mundane life with Allynne and their twins with fond, infectious awe. She’s an observational humorist by trade, but the way she delivers these domestic monologues is uniquely heartfelt and human. “I can’t believe that Stephanie exists, I can’t believe that I found her, I can’t believe that she loved me back. This is all true,” Notaro states, teetering between wryness and heart-stopping profundity, before she launches into a monologue about Allynne’s silliest quirks.

Less attached viewers will likely get a good chuckle out of Happy to Be Here, but viewing it as a lesbian is nothing short of electrifying. So many of us grow up without any real-life lesbian role models, so we instead turn to women like us online and on-screen. Even as lesbian representation evolves (and, for better or for worse, normalizes), it’s easy to grow up believing that homosexuality is a one-way ticket to sorrow—on-screen lesbians with touching coming-out arcs and romances are often killed off or tortured (as in Buffy, The 100, and American Horror Story: Asylum), or their sexuality causes them immense sorrow (as in Disobedience, Lost and Delirious, and The Children’s Hour). The chance to see a lesbian on the homepage of Netflix talking about her wife, kids, and cat should be a simple pleasure—instead, it’s enrapturing, particularly given Notaro’s past ordeals. There are so few examples of lesbian joy on-screen, and so Notaro’s real-life journey becomes all the more meaningful.

And, while Notaro’s comedy is universally delightful, it is tied up in—and therefore special to—lesbian culture. She sprinkles jokes about butch misgendering and Ellen and Portia’s joint birthday party in between quips about her family, and closes out her set by (SPOILER ALERT!) drumming with her “favorite band,” the Indigo Girls. Like in One Mississippi, where Notaro’s fictionalized Tig and love Kate (Stephanie Allynne) duet to Fun Home’s “Ring of Keys,” Happy to Be Here is steeped in lesbian-specific bliss. If you don’t live somewhere with much lesbian community, watching it can be like taking a shot of Sapphic solidarity.

I usually watch Tig Notaro’s projects with one of my best friends, a fellow butch lesbian in Australia. Our internet-based analyses of her work inevitably end in artless statements like, “I feel so seen,” and, “Wow. We’re out there.” Towards the beginning of her set, Notaro says, “I’ve been doing stand-up for 20 years, and in order to make you happy, I have to make myself happy first.” Like everything else in her act, it’s a dry introduction to an even drier punchline, but it’s also profoundly true. This is some of her most gleeful work yet, and that glee is inextricable from the pleasure of simply seeing her live her life.