Tig Notaro Is Not Afraid of the Dark

Her life back on track, America’s bravest comedian remixes a year from hell.

Bob Chamberlin

For democracy in America, 2016 was a particularly rotten year. But comedian Tig Notaro’s Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Year is already four years in the rearview. If you’re familiar with Notaro, whose deadpan routines invariably leave audiences in stitches, you probably know the basic outline: In 2012, she was stricken with a stubborn intestinal illness (aptly named Clostridum difficile), split up with her girlfriend, buried her mother—and got a cancer diagnosis that resulted in a double mastectomy. But Tig being Tig, on the night after her diagnosis, opted not to cancel a show scheduled at Los Angeles’ Largo club. Instead, she went onstage and transformed her personal shit-show into a bold tragicomedy routine (“Hello, I Have Cancer!”) that would propel her to far greater fame. You can read more about all of that in our 2013 interview with Notaro here.

The gods have since been kind to the 45 year old. The cancer—knock wood—has stayed away. Her career is kicking butt. And more importantly, she met and fell for actress Stephanie Allynne—they were married last year; in July Allynne gave birth to twin boys, Max and Finn.

Beyond touring and cuddling babies, Notaro’s big project has been her semi-autobiographical Amazon Prime series, One Mississippi, recently renewed for a second season. In this decidedly dark comedy, a lightly fictionalized “Tig,” still shellshocked from losing her breasts to cancer, travels from Los Angeles to her Mississippi hometown to say goodbye to her mother, attend the funeral, and sort through her mom’s affairs. She stays at the home of Bill, her super-uptight stepfather, where elder brother Remy—a sweet, hapless guy who never ventured too far, emotionally or otherwise, after high school—lives in the attic. It’s basically the story of a dysfunctional family coming together around tragedy to work through their issues, which include a mother’s dark secret and resentment at parents who failed to see that Granddad was molesting their little girl.

Yeah, like I said, dark. But if anyone can find levity amid darkness, it’s Mathilde O’Callaghan Notaro (please, call her Tig), who famously noted in that 2012 Largo set that “tragedy plus time equals comedy”—not that she bothered to wait.

Mother Jones: Happy Thanksgiving! First things first: How’s your health?

Tig Notaro: Good as far as I know. I go in every three months and get checked out and I’ve gotten good news for four years now. Waiting on the big five-year marker, which is a huge…marker.

Mother Jones: So now you’re not only married to this lovely actress, but you have twin boys. Had you previously imagined yourself as a mom—before or especially after your cancer diagnosis?

Dealing with cancer has “also really shortened the amount of time I can deal with hogwash in the world.”

TN: Oh, yeah! That was like my main focus in my life, trying to have a child. When I got sick, it threw everything off course.

MJ: Wait, you’re not joking.

TN: No! There’s actually a whole movie about it on Netflix.

MJ: Alas, I haven’t seen it. But you famously had a big breakup not long before you were diagnosed with cancer. I mean, I can’t imagine. I’m curious whether going through that made you despair about whether you’d ever meet somebody new?

TN: It was definitely a concern. I didn’t know what my fate was as far as being alive. I didn’t know whether I’d be attractive to anybody. Even when I was healthy I was always concerned if I would ever meet somebody I would fall for the way I ultimately did for Stephanie.

MJ: Would you say there was any positive side of going through this hell, insofar as the relationships that emerged from it?

TN: Well, I’ve had a really positive response after my story went viral and I’ve shared vulnerable aspects of my life. I would say the positive aspect of all of that is knowing people had comfort in knowing they weren’t alone in the world, or could see somebody that made it through that kind of horrific time period. I still get letters daily from people sharing their stories or thanking me for sharing mine. That’s been positive. Also, I think it’s really shortened the amount of time I can deal with hogwash in the world. [Laughs.]

“I think my brain just has a natural way of going to the most insane thing: “What if I did stand-up and not even acknowledge that my shirt was off?”

MJ: I can totally see that. So, you’ve taken to showing off your mastectomy scars. You’ve performed topless a few times. And in One Mississippi, you take it a step further and expose your chest during this awkward sex scene. I’m sure this is the first time, other than that Ken Burns cancer documentary, that I’ve seen mastectomy scars in a TV series. What was your thought process leading up to doing these things.

TN: It all was born out of fear of my own body and discomfort and insecurities. And wondering how I would get used to myself and my body just being out in the world—whether it was just me alone, or dating, or anything really. I think my brain just has a natural way of going to what would be the most insane thing, the least likely option. When I announced I had cancer on stage, it was my brain leaping to that insane moment of, “There’s no way I could start a show saying, ‘Hi, I have cancer!'” And also for me to have these scars, and then think, “Oh my gosh, what if I did stand-up and not even acknowledge that my shirt was off, or that I have scars.

MJ: So this is your basic approach to life?

TN: I think so. I think it’s jumping immediately to reality and truth without giving much time in between.

MJ: Would you have considered doing any of this pre-cancer?

TN: I mean, my chest wasn’t much bigger than it is now before the surgery. But I probably wouldn’t have gone on stage topless. I didn’t have a point to it or a political statement that really resonated with me that would make me think I needed to do that. And I felt my surgery was a nice collision of politics and comedy in the silliest way possible, because I talk about airplanes and things like that while my scars are on clear view.

MJ: One Mississippi is billed as semi-autobiographical. Let’s talk about the “semi” part. How far from reality are these portrayals?

TN: The actress who plays my mother, I feel like she is my mother. When she walks on set and when I interact with her, I can’t see her as anyone other than my mother. She’s so perfectly cast that even my stepfather, my brother, family friends are blown away. My [real-life] stepfather is warmer than Bill on the show, and he has more of a sense of humor, but he definitely has very rigid ways that pop up even still. He’s come a long way since my mother died and I got sick, but John Rothman, the actor, really plays that part of him phenomenally. He’s so fun to be in scenes with and to watch. He’s so good. The guy that plays my brother, it’s that same thing. There are elements there that are similar, but it’s certainly not his twin. I wanted a total guy’s guy, but that had a heart—believably flawed. I feel like [actor Noah Harpster] walks those lines perfectly.

MJ: Bill, the stepdad, is this this super-uptight, controlling guy who is terrible at expressing emotions, and yet he’s likeable because he’s really trying.

TN: That’s what I said in the writers’ room. I want people to see Bill as, oddly enough, a hero in some ways. That he’s really trying and really got everyone’s best interests in mind. I wanted to show these flaws, but have people say, “Love that guy.”

My real father “was very charismatic and kindhearted, but also had a gun or a knife in his cowboy boots at any given moment.”

MJ: What do the real-life Bill and Remy think of these portrayals?

TN: They love the show! My stepfather watched the whole series the day it came out and sat down and wrote me a letter, and just raved about it.

MJ: Your fictional biological father shows up at your mom’s wake, and he’s a bit of a yahoo. What can you tell me about your real father?

TN: He passed away, actually, while I was making the pilot. He was very charismatic and kindhearted, but also had a gun or a knife in his cowboy boots at any given moment, and he was always kind of struggling in life to find happiness and make ends meet. He really did mean well, but was just a little misguided in ways. What is nice is at the end of his life, he was married to his wife for 20 years and he had a nice relationship with three other children—my brother and I weren’t as involved in his life as his other kids, but it was nice to know he had that in the end.

MJ: What about your own character? Is TV Tig much different from real Tig?

TN: Well, I think it was important for me to show that I’m flawed like everyone else. I didn’t just want to be the one who was always looking around at the weird family members. I wanted to make my mistakes. But when people ask me about my acting, I’m like [laughs], “I really just tried to remember my lines and do my best.” I didn’t really have any huge plan.

MJ: But you’re on stage performing monologues all the time.

TN: Sure, but it’s so different when there’s a camera inches away from your face and you’re crying or doing something very emotional. In standup, you don’t have anything near you except a microphone. There’s something a lot more self-conscious feeling when there’s cameras coming in for close-ups. It makes you very aware. But yeah, the character isn’t too far off from me.

MJ: The tricky thing with “semi-autobiographical” is that we get confused about what’s real and what’s not.

TN: I think that’s the fun part.

MJ: Sure. But in particular when there’s heavy stuff, like your character has memories of being molested. And you say to yourself, “Wow, I’ve never heard Tig talk about this. Did that really happen, or is it fiction?”

TN: Mmm.…I don’t know. [Laughs.]

“Life can pile things on. It doesn’t dole out the heartache and pain, or joy, perfectly.”

MJ: Well, what I wanted to ask was, if it is fiction, given all your character is going through, why lay even more baggage on her?

TN: But who’s to say that’s the end of the baggage? Who’s to say that’s not how life goes? I had a conversation with Ira Glass about the idea of randomness and that time period in 2012. He was saying people think randomness is kind of a spread-out, odd pattern of events. But randomness can be all in the same place. I was foolish to think, “Wow, everything’s happened to me. Nothing can happen to me now.” That’s just not how it works.

MJ: Density may vary.

TN: Yeah. Life can very genuinely and realistically pile things on. It doesn’t dole out the heartache and pain, or joy, perfectly.

MJ: Well, it sounds like you’ve had your share of joy lately!

TN: I truly turn to Stephanie every day and express appreciation for our relationship and my life. I can’t believe I’m breathing and happy and thriving. I hope life doles things out excessively on this end, because it’s euphoric.

MJ: What was the hardest part about going back to re-create this awful period of your life?

TN: The fun part is people thinking they know my story because there’s a book out, and the Netflix movie, but with this show, I can say with confidence, “No, you can actually tune in and there’s a different story.” There’s the skeleton of what happened or what you think you know, and then to be able to fictionalize and move things around with the timeline and facts and people. There are moments and interactions that never happened—moments with my mother that never happened. It was still very therapeutic. True or not, it gave me a feeling for what other people in my family may have been going through. Playing with the moment brought out thoughts and emotions I had never considered. Of course I knew people were struggling around me, but I really was able to get in touch with that very quickly.

“In real life, I was at my mother’s side [in the hospital] for 14 hours. And I was alone. It was brutal.”

MJ: In the pilot, you’re alone in the hospital with your mother when she dies.

TN: In real life, I was at my mother’s side for 14 hours. And I was alone. It was brutal, and I wanted to show the emotional and drawn-out and not-glamorous part. In movies, you just see somebody close their eyes, and you go on to the next scene.

MJ: So let’s talk about your real name, Mathilde. I had to look it up. I didn’t know you and your mom shared the same first and middle names.

TN: Yeah, my grandmother had the same first name as well. It’s pronounced “mat-teel.”

MJ: Do you think you would have been successful in comedy using that name?

TN: [Laughs.] Who knows? I always wonder, aside from even my name, what if my parents never split up? What if my mother never died? It swirls in my head all the time.

MJ: I read that your brother nicknamed you Tig when you were two.

TN: Yeah. His name is Renaud in real life.

MJ: So you were named by a three-year-old?

TN: Yes.

MJ: What’s the family lore about why Tig?

TN: I think he couldn’t say Mathilde. I don’t know why Tig. There’s some theory that my grandmother, even though she was named Mathilde, she went by “Thilde” and maybe he was trying to say that. I don’t know. But it’s been with me for 43 years.

MJ: It’s great the show was renewed. It seems like you left plenty of doors open to take it in new directions.

TN: I think so. I just hope people keep watching. I’m so proud of One Mississippi. We’re going into the writers’ room in January, and I think we’ve got plenty to talk about.

You can catch Tig Notaro live in her post-Thanksgiving tour of the western United States, with bonus stops in Vancouver, Chicago, and Minneapolis.

HBO/Scott McDermott


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