Comedian Tig Notaro’s best-known joke is no joke at all. “Hello, I have cancer,” she announced in her trademark deadpan as she began a set at a small Los Angeles club in 2012. Notaro had just been diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer the week before, the latest in a string of misfortunes. The frankness with which Notaro approached her struggles on stage that night propelled her career forward and, more importantly, helped her process her own grief. Two years later, Notaro stood on another stage, this one in New York, and performed topless, revealing the scars from her double mastectomy. How has Notaro found the courage and humor to move past her most painful experiences in this way? And moreover, how is she using it to help her cope with the pandemic? Notaro hosts a new advice podcast called Don’t Ask Tig—but we asked her anyway. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Charles Duhigg: During this 2012 set, you got up on a stage and talked about having cancer. Can you tell me about that night? What were you thinking before you got up onstage?
Tig Notaro: Well, it started as a series of things over four months. I had an intestinal disease that was eating my insides and essentially killing me. I broke up with my girlfriend. I was diagnosed with invasive cancer. And then my mother tripped and died. I was emotionally destroyed. The last thing I thought I would do was get onstage and do stand-up. And when I called to tell [the club owner] everything, he said, “I’m going to keep this on the books just in case you change your mind.” I said, “OK, we’ll keep it on the books. I just am not going to be there.” And he said, “We can cancel it a second before showtime, but you might want to perform.” Sure enough, I started to feel very inspired. The night before the show I was taking a shower and it just came over me that I would start my show with the line “Hello. Good evening. I have cancer. How’s everybody doing?” with a delivery in comedy clubs like, “Hey, good evening. Are there any birthdays tonight?” It just made me laugh maniacally in my own home. And so I went up onstage and delivered that opening. I thought I love stand-up so much, maybe I’ll never get to do it again, and I don’t feel like I can make the typical jokes I’ve always made. So I’m going to take a chance.
I felt very much like a baby giraffe trying to stand up. I was so sick. I was so sad. I had never been so vulnerable or personal onstage. I had not shared my dating life. Even when I was diagnosed with cancer, I called my manager and said, “I don’t want anybody in this town knowing that I’m sick.” I was scared I wouldn’t work again. I was operating out of fear. But then something came over me where I just thought, you know what, I essentially lost everything—I have nothing to lose. So why not go onstage and try to find the humor here and see if I can shift the story to feel something different? And I did.
One of the things I’ve always loved about your comedy and your presence as a performer is that you take these difficult things that happened to you and turn them into something you own, something you control by joking about them. Does getting up on a stage and making jokes about something that is terrifying and sad change how you start seeing it?
I was on a roller coaster. I had moments of strength and then it would go away. But I would have been only rock bottom or a long time if I hadn’t put myself out there—I was essentially asking for help. A part of me was saying, “I don’t think I can do this on my own.” I was somebody who would not ask for help. That night kind of cracked me open in that way where I started to ask for help. And it took me a long time. Even after I was released from the hospital, I came home with scars across my chest and I couldn’t lift my arms. I remember my friends saying, “We’re going to stay with you and take care of you and make food and drain the blood from your wounds and take your trash out and do your laundry.” And I truly said, “Oh no, I’m fine. I can do this.” They’re looking at me like I’m insane. I couldn’t lift my arms. I couldn’t stand up long enough to walk from my chair to my couch, without feeling like I was going to faint. So I let them clean my wounds and do my household tasks and feed me.
How have you learned to take ownership of other hard things in your life since then?
I have no doubt allowed myself an opportunity to swim around in pain and loss and fear. But there also comes a point when I have had to take charge. One of the things that I’ve done is get serious about my health. I changed my diet. I started exercising every day. I’m concentrating on my sleep. Nobody else is gonna do it for me, so I have to be the star of my own story. It feels really incredible.
I hate to be totally gay, but have you seen Fried Green Tomatoes? Imagine yourself in Fried Green Tomatoes when Kathy Bates’ character really gets in touch with herself and starts becoming empowered and she speaks up to that person in the parking lot. You need to get into that headspace of, “You know what? No more. Do not mess around with me.” Picture yourself in a movie and follow the storyline of somebody who is taking charge of her life.
Even in this pandemic, considering the fact that I’m gonna be home and working out of my house, I’m going to do everything I can to create different areas in our house. Here’s a little reading corner. We’re gonna hang a swing from the tree. We’re gonna create different options within our home. I am kind of pretending that I chose this for myself. I chose to stay home and spend more time with my wife, Stephanie, and our kids. And it’s actually all of the long hours of work that I’ve done and traveling around the world and surgeries and hospitalizations that I’ve reflected on those times I’ve thought, “Oh my gosh, if I could have anything in the world, it would be to spend time with my children and Stephanie.” So I’m pretending like this is me saying, “You know what? I’m just going to spend more time at home.”
What I love about this idea of seeing your life as a movie is that you can ask yourself, “What’s the next scene that I would write?” and then go from there. How do you get to a place where you can make up that story about something in your life and rewrite it?
OK, this is very dark. But I was FaceTiming with my stepfather and he had never FaceTimed before. Both of my parents died within a couple of years of each other and so my stepfather is my parent. When we were FaceTiming, the camera only caught his nose up to his forehead. He just didn’t know how to FaceTime. And I was talking to him and then I noticed he stopped talking. He wasn’t responding. I would say “Rick! Rick!” and he wouldn’t answer. And I immediately thought, “Oh my God, my stepfather died on FaceTime with me.” And then my very next thought was, “Oh my gosh, I have the greatest story to tell now. Whenever the pandemic is over I cannot wait to talk about how my stepfather died on his first FaceTime attempt.”
Just to confirm, he did not die.
No, he did die. [Laughs.] No. But I know he’ll be so amused when I tell him that I couldn’t wait to tell this in my stand-up.
To hear Tig help a listener be the hero of her own movie by confronting a crazy neighbor, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.