Last fall, during the New York Comedy Festival, comedian Tig Notaro made waves when she performed her wry, absurdist set topless. This wasn’t the first time Notaro, spry and provocative, stunned audiences. Two years prior her life was inexorably changed as she opened a show at Largo, a hip LA club, with a raw admission: “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?”
After receiving a double mastectomy, Notaro, now in her mid-40s, has triumphantly recovered from breast cancer — electing to forgo reconstructive surgery. “I feel better than ever,” she says, full of aplomb and juvenescence as we settle into a sleek, monochromatic, modernly designed restaurant in Park City to talk.
Her reason for attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival was simple: Tig, a documentary directed by Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York that captures the recent emotionally fraught few years of Notaro’s life, made its world premiere.
Both in person and on stage, there’s something disarming about the way Notaro carries herself. She’s relaxed, seemingly at ease with all that has happened in her storied life. And as the beautiful doc from Goolsby and York illustrates, plenty has happened.
But Notaro speaks — and operates — at her own pace. Nothing is rushed in her delivery of a joke or story. While her comedy is anything but lethargic or inert, there’s no real sense of urgency. Even in conversation Notaro carefully calibrates her responses, looking inward to thoughtfully answer questions. In dialogue together, she is unafraid to reveal her idiosyncrasies, herself. I suppose when you perform half-naked in front of a group of strangers that fear of feeling too exposed goes out the window.
What was originally planned to be a quick, 10-minute interview with Notaro rapidly turned into something more sprawling. Her ability to craft a narrative, uncanny; her comic gifts, immediately identifiable. From thwarted childhood aspirations to become the Fifth Beatle to pop culture illiteracy, she delivered an uproarious assortment of colorful anecdotes while getting around to answering our Lucky 7 questions.
There’s no joy in putting together your specials?
It’s just … I’m listening for the beats of the show and the reaction. But I truly feel so removed on some level from this documentary I’m in that I boast about it. I have never boasted about my albums. I’ll be like, “They’re out. Go get them if you want.” It’s due to the filmmakers. It’s funny because the documentary is about me, it’s named after me, and I’m walking around going, “This film is phenomenal. I’m so proud of it.” And I sound like an egomaniac. But it has nothing to do with me.
I mean sure, sure, sure. But I’m truly in awe of what they did with my story and the footage.
What are your thoughts on the idea of a “comic’s comic?”
It’s kind of a compliment, and then it’s kind of a back-handed compliment.
As if the only people who like you are comedians.
And then that is actually very flattering, because your peers hold you in high regard. I’ve clearly broken through to another level. I don’t care what people call me. (Laughs) I’m just going to do it and then you can call me whatever you want.
What was your first exposure to Playboy?
When I was in elementary school. Probably five to eight.
That’s pretty early.
Yeah. Well, I lived by a very underdeveloped area, and there were a lot of woods out there, and there were Playboys stashed in the woods. And then my friends and I would build forts in the woods. We’d build forts in the woods. It was just me and my friends — girls. We were just like, “What are these magazines?” We were so baffled.
What movies scared you the most when you were a kid?
Well, I mean, when I was really little, I would get scared — this is so ridiculous, but Frosty the Snowman.
You have to explain.
That claymation process on that. Was it that or was it Rudolph? Well, I got scared of both of those, because I was horrified when Frosty was melting. It was devastating, and I was just, “Please, somebody get him out of there.” And then also, when the Abominable Snowman was coming after Rudolph. And I was very scared easily. And even in my house now —
Now? Are you still watching Frosty terrified?
You can admit it. This is safe space.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I’ve gotten through that. I’m not terrified. But when I’m home alone, I’m certain somebody’s going to get me.
That’s a rational fear.
If my girlfriend’s home, I feel totally safe. But there’s no reason to think that the two of us could bat off anybody. I mean, she would lose her mind and rip someone’s head off, but I feel better if she’s there. It’s hard to wash my face, that kind of thing, when I’m alone. Just because I’m scared that person’s going to come —
You feel vulnerable when you’re washing your face.
When I’m not home alone, I wash my face with soap and water, but when I’m home alone, I use those little pads, so I don’t have to have soap in my eyes.
If you ended up on death row, which hopefully you never do, what would your last meal be?
I’m not a hundred-percent vegan; I lean toward vegan. But two meals a day are raw or vegan and then the third meal I’ll kind of eat whatever I want. And I just lean toward vegan. But there’s a new restaurant in Los Angeles called The Gadarene Swine. It’s confusing.
Do people go in with that title?
Yeah, and they don’t even advertise being vegan. Just when you sit down, they say, “By the way, our food has no animal products.” And they have anything at Gadarene Swine — they even have an appetizer that’s a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but it’s not a typical peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The bread is beautiful.
So a peanut butter and jelly is your big final meal?
Yeah, I would say the peanut butter and jelly sandwich from Gadarene Swine.
What was your first car?
My brother and I shared a Chevy Malibu. It was not impressive.
First cars aren’t allowed to be impressive.
But everyone in our school had — if they turned 16, they’d get convertibles, BMWs.
Where’d you grow up?
Outside of Houston. Spring, Texas. But my parents would not get us something like that. It was my mother’s car but we shared it. When she’d gone somewhere, we got to drive it.
What was the first song you knew all the words to?
Other than "Happy Birthday”?
I don’t we’re legally allowed to discuss that song.
It’s in my first album — like in my show, singing “Happy Birthday.” We had to pay for the rights.
So, besides "Happy Birthday.”
Well, when I was a child I used to — I was obsessed with The Beatles — like a nutcase. But not only was I listening to them constantly, I thought I was going to be the fifth Beatle.
You could have been.
Yeah. [Laughs.] Yeah. They broke up before I was born, and John Lennon died the year I got a guitar.
You could have saved the whole band.
I had similar hair. And sometimes people think I look like Paul McCartney in certain photos. Older Paul McCartney. Paul in his 70s. That’s who people think I look like. I used to write out their lyrics obsessively. I would listen and I’d stop my record and I’d write the words, and in fact, it would be a Beatles song.
Was there a particular song?
I would say “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Well, it has a really great story, which I’ve thought about telling onstage, which is my grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and as an adult I was staying with her and visiting her when she was fully losing her mind.
What age was she?
I would say 75. And she asked me to come into her bedroom to see something, and so I went in there, and she pulled out all of these things of mine over the years that she had saved. And she said, “You wrote this song about me when you were little.” And I looked at it, and it was “When I’m Sixty-Four.” And I had to take credit for a Lennon and McCartney song.
There’re worse people you could plagiarize.
Yeah, but I didn’t want to break her heart. So I just said yeah.
Do you have a pop culture blind spot?
I mean, I’ve basically only seen Grease and Star Wars. I am a pop culture blind spot, fully.
Yeah. There is not anything you can name that I would know what you’re talking about, unless it’s Playboy or The Beatles. If my girlfriend was here she’d just — she thought I was kidding when we were first together. Here’s an example. We were at a movie.
I don’t remember. Oh, The Theory of Everything — maybe it was The Theory of Everything. And the previews before — you’re going to think I’m kidding when I tell you this. And this is, to my girlfriend, who I’m not trying to —
— or make laugh. In a preview before The Theory of Everything I leaned over during the trailer and I said, “Who is that? What is that guy’s name?” And she said, “I thought for a second you were kidding, and then I realized of course you’re not.” And she told me it was — now I’m forgetting his name. Wait. Wait. He’s very, very famous.
No. This is a bit. This is a bit.
This is not a bit. It’s —
No. He’s from the Godfather-type movies.
Al Pacino. Robert Duvall.
Robert De Niro. Is he from the Godfather movies?
Part II, Tig!
No, it wasn’t him. It wasn’t him. It was Al Pacino. Yeah, it was Al Pacino.
Now I’m curious as to how you spend your time?
I will go to a hotel and do shows, or do shows and go to my hotel. I don’t turn the TV on. I don’t follow — I come home from my shows and I will do some work. I’m editing my book. I’ll tuck my girlfriend in and I’ll go to bed. I try to go to bed at a normal hour just because I get — but this is only since I’ve been sick. I try to get rest so I don’t wear my body down. I try to take walks. But I mean, I don’t know. I’m just saying, I live a pretty regimented life, and I really try to stay active and get my rest and get all my nutrients in my good.
You seem far too healthy to be a comedian.
I was just talking to the woman that was here before — it’s like, everyone is unhealthy and depressed. But we’re in the spotlight.
But some comedians make a career out of depression.
But not every comedian’s depressed. I’m not a depressed person.
You don’t seem like it.
No. I’m not. I’m very grateful and happy. There are some. But I think people think that comedians and artists are depressed, miserable —
Well, Maron —albeit quite brilliantly and comically— monetized this.
Right. But I mean, if you look, your mailman is depressed, a parent of yours, a sibling, your best friend. They’re just not in the spotlight.
Also, comedians are just more open about it onstage.
Right, because they explore their feelings. They express themselves.
Perhaps that’s why people identify with comedians.
But it’s not just that comedians are miserable people.
You think we all are.
I think we are. I think in general, people struggle, and they have depression and they have angst. And I just don’t ever relate when people are talking about — I’ve had depression as a kid, I’ve had struggles in my life, but I don’t have to be miserable to write material. I’m happier than I’ve ever been and I’m proud of my new material.
What was your favorite mistake?
Well, there’s things that I’ve been told would be mistakes, and that was — I failed three grades and dropped out of high school, and I have a seventh-grade education. But I would have left sooner if I could have.
I don’t feel like you buy that.
You know, I know maybe this sounds stupid, but I don’t believe —
In mistakes? Everyone says this.
[Laughs.] I do. I do feel that way. There’s not anybody that I’ve dated where I’m like, “Oh, that was a mistake.”
No, I don’t think that’s a mistake. That’s always like, “Oh, I’m glad that happened.”
I can’t think of one. I can’t think of one, because anything I can trace back to, “I’m so glad that happened.”
It seems like that’s a good philosophy to have in life, is that there are no mistakes.
I believe it so wholeheartedly. I was told it would be a mistake to drop out with no education.
Yeah, it really screwed you up, as you can see.
No options. You can’t even write a book. You have no comedy specials. It’s like, “When are you going to get your act together?”
Founder of Movie Mezzanine, Sam Fragoso is a San Francisco-based journalist whose work has appeared in Interview Magazine, The Daily Beast, Forbes, RogerEbert.com and The Week. You can follow him on Twitter @SamFragoso.