Tig Notaro — “Live”

In addition to being a big dork about music, I’m also significantly dorky about comedy. I fit nicely into that stereotype of the person who “takes comedy seriously”: I’m the guy who explains jokes from The Simpsons, tries to explain to you why Family Guy sucks, and spends too much time writing and analyzing his own jokes that aren’t even all that good. And my views on comedy aren’t that dissimilar from my views on music: I think the best, most enduring stand-up comedy comes out of some sort of personal fear or despair, and at its best it will make you think in addition to enjoying it on a basic level.

Comedian Tig Notaro performed her set that comprises Live (the title is the verb, as in living) a couple months ago at The Largo, a club in Los Angeles. Word spread of it pretty quickly among comedy-types on Twitter and elsewhere: Louis C.K. described it as one of the few masterful standup sets he’d ever seen, and fellow performers Ed Helms and Bill Burr both expressed their awe of Notaro’s performance. Louis liked it so much that he decided the world needed to hear it, and he’s currently selling it at his website for five dollars.

So what’s so special about this performance? Notaro performed it just hours after being diagnosed with cancer in both of her breasts, and just weeks after her mother died in a freak accident, her long-term partner broke up with her, and she suffered from a life-threatening bacteria in her intestines that caused her to lose 20 pounds. In the face of that mind-blowing adversity, Notaro remains calm and good-humored, even starting the show by greeting her audience with “Hello! How are you? I have cancer! How are you?”

Notaro’s comedic voice is very wry and calm, which in some ways makes her a perfect fit for subject matter that sometimes goes to the darkest places imaginable. At first her audience is stunned and not sure how to react to her brazen material about potentially being near death — frequently during the show she has to assure them that “it’s going to be okay,” before adding “well, you’re going to be okay. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.” A lot of what makes Live such a unique and incredible document is how the classic relationship with stand-up and audience unfolds over the course of the 30-minute set, as eventually the awkward silence gives way to laughter (and, according to people who were at the show, tears). Near the end, Notaro decides maybe she should go back to performing some of her old material, at which point a man with a booming voice in the audience yells “NO! NO. THIS IS FUCKING INCREDIBLE.”

Live resembles a typical comedy set even less than Tig’s usual stuff, which has always favored longer comedic storytelling over “jokes.” For the most part it’s just her talking about all the crazy things that have happened to her with a baffled sense of resignation. On paper it may not sound too funny, but Notaro is remarkably able to wring tons of laughs out of the most morbid subject matter. One of the funniest parts of the show comes when Notaro wonders if God is looking over her and saying “I think she can take a little more.” Notaro never is angry or blames anyone for what has happened to her, but instead is just nonplussed at the litany of horrible things that life has thrown at her for no reason.

So, even though it’s not music, Live is maybe the best thing I’ve listened to this year. If Tig was a musician it could be a classic, moving album, and if she was a writer it could be a touching, heartfelt memoir. (Notaro actually did land a book deal after this whole ordeal.) Like the best comedy, it’s funny and thought-provoking, but it is also incredibly inspiring to hear someone who has been through hell just go on stage and make people laugh about it for 30 minutes. And while most comedy albums are rehearsed endlessly, there’s a spontaneity to Live that makes it unique beyond just the rare and frank subject matter.

Notaro is apparently doing better since Live was recorded. She appeared on Conan saying she has received a double mastectomy and is currently cancer-free. I urge basically anyone to go to Louis C.K.’s website and download the special. Four dollars from each purchase will go to Tig herself, and she plans to donate some of the money to breast cancer research. I highly doubt you’ll find a better way to spend five dollars this year.