Tig Notaro Blew Up With the Help of Louis C.K., Got a Double-Mastectomy, Beat Cancer and Says the Secret to Her Success is Realizing "Nothing Matters"

Her legendary set talking about her cancer and her mother's death inspired Louis C.K. to call it one of the "greatest standup performances" he's ever seen. She says nothing matters -- and that's the point.
Publish date:
June 10, 2013
Cancer, interviews, comedy central, Tig Notaro, q&a

If you're watching the hysterical "Inside Amy Schumer," then chances are you saw the recent episode where Schumer uses one of her writers -- Tig Notaro -- having cancer as an excuse to get coddled hand and foot by her staff.

But if you're a comedy nerd...

...or you are Taylor Dayne -- chances are you already know Tig.

It was a year ago after performing a breathtaking, devastating, hilarious set at Largo, when Tig really blew up the Internet -- with the help of Louis C.K., who sent out an email to everyone on his fan list after her set, telling them this:

"Tig is a friend of mine and she is very funny. I love her voice on stage. One night I was performing at a club in LA called Largo. Tig was there. She was about to go on stage. I hadn't seen Tig in about a year and I said how are you? She replied, 'Well I found out today that I have cancer in both breasts and that it has likely spread to my lymph nodes. My doctor says it looks real bad.' She wasn't kidding. I said 'Uh. Jesus. Tig. Well. Do you... Have your family... Helping?' She said 'Well my mom was with me but a few weeks ago she fell down, hit her head and she died.' She still wasn't kidding.

"Now, I'm pretty stupid to begin with, and I sure didn't know what to say now. I opened my mouth and this came out. 'Jeez, Tig. I. Really value you. Highly.' She said I value you highly too, Louie.' Then she held up a wad of note-paper in her hand and said 'I'm gonna talk about all of it on stage now. It's probably going to be a mess.' I said "Wow.' And with that, she went on stage.

"I stood in the wings behind a leg of curtain, about 8 feet from her, and watched her tell a stunned audience 'Hi. I have cancer. Just found out today. I'm going to die soon.' What followed was one of the greatest standup performances I ever saw. I can't really describe it but I was crying and laughing and listening like never in my life. Here was this small woman standing alone against death and simply reporting where her mind had been and what had happened and employing her gorgeously acute standup voice to her own death.

"The show was an amazing example of what comedy can be. A way to visit your worst fears and laugh at them. Tig took us to a scary place and made us laugh there. Not by distracting us from the terror but by looking right at it and just turning to us and saying 'Wow. Right?' She proved that everything is funny. And has to be. And she could only do this by giving us her own death as an example. So generous...

"Tig, by the way, has since undergone a double mastectomy. She is doing well. Her doctors say her chances of survival are excellent. So she went there and came back. Her report from the frontlines of life and death are here for you to... Enjoy."

He then released the set online. But the album is now getting a physical release in July, and you'll be able to see her on tour.

You should buy it. And see her live.

And if you want, you should also read this interview I did with her, too.

Mandy: Do you feel you're more in the moment now?

Tig: Yes, probably more heightened? I mean, in some ways I’ve kind of described this whole thing to people as a wasted lesson, because I didn’t feel like I was someone who needed a wake-up call. I’m a pretty happy, well-adjusted person; I’m pretty OK. I don’t feel like my friends would be like, "Tig needs a serious wake-up call’" you know? Obviously, things have not been perfect in my life, but I was floating along just fine and happy, but you can’t help but have things go up to a heightened degree as far as awareness.

And as far as in the moment, it is so challenging, no matter where you are, before or after something so drastic. But what I’ve talked about a lot with people through this is how repeatedly in such a small period of time I had to surrender -- and it just kind of applies across the board, having to surrender to what is happening.

You can’t help but go into some degree of denial, or tell yourself a story to get yourself through, But from losing my mother to cancer, to any sort of thing that was going on, it's about being in that moment and trying to realize what is happening, what is really happening.

I was just talking on my podcast about freedom and Sept. 11, when the towers were hit and the paper from the offices were slowly falling and I guess even ended up in New Jersey, they were everywhere, and I think about those papers. That someone had a boss riding their ass about that and it was so important and it needed to be filed and wait it’s not in the right file! And it’s just the papers floating away and everything’s going to be fine.

My assistant picked me up at the airport yesterday in L.A. and we had to get into Hollywood by 5 o’clock, and he took the wrong turn, and we were in horrible traffic going the wrong way, and I could tell he was just freaking out, and I was a little stressed but then I thought I’ve had that job before and — we were in a tunnel and had no option — and you just picture that paper and it’s helpful to me in those moments.

Mandy: I do that too but I don’t internalize it. I’ll say to people, "It doesn’t matter, we’re all going to die." I feel like your energy is really positive and strong. What did you picture when you were going through everything?

Tig: I hate to keep going back to Sept. 11th but it’s one of those drastic things. I remember hearing the terrorists told the passengers to call their loved ones, because they were going to die. And you know, I experienced that, I felt that way, when I got the call that my mother fell and hit her head. That I couldn’t say goodbye to her, and you know, you’re making your phone calls and the plane is headed for the building -- that’s all the time you have left with that person, as you’re going toward the building and that’s the moment when you realize nothing matters in a positive way. There’s something very depressing but also freeing about nothing mattering.

This is the time you have left. That’s it. You make your call. And in that call you’re not going to say, "Remember how you pissed me off?'" That’s not what you’re going to say.

Mandy: Do you find yourself not holding resentments or getting pissed off as much as you used to?

Tig: I had a handful of people I had a falling out on a TV project, I had an ex I hadn’t talked to in 15 years, but I have that luxury where I heard from all of those people because my story spread, and I was just like man, no problem. It was really not a problem. I didn’t go into specifics with anyone, I didn’t want to rehash anything, but just know that we are good and I mean that so genuinely, like I don’t give a shit. And nothing negative about you, really no hard feelings, if I saw you in person, like me and my ex we hadn’t talked in 15 years, and we ended so terribly, so terribly. I think she wished death upon me many times many times, and I started crying when I got her email and didn’t realize how desperately I needed that resolved in my life.

My therapist always tells me, it’s obvious but it’s true, that everything you see in someone is in you, all the good and all the bad is in you, because you see it and you’ve got it. So finding compassion in there is so necessary because it's all relative.

Mandy: Do you feel less scared of death?

Tig: I don’t want to die more than ever. I didn’t want to die. But I kind of resigned myself, not just cancer but also with the bacterial infection C. Diff... I do not want to die like crazy. Like when I had C. Diff, everyone knows what cancer is, they understand it, but when I had C. Diff, it’s still very painful, deadly, and scary, and I was home from my mother's funeral just wasting away and I really was resigned that I was going to die in Texas. I wasn’t really reaching out to friends because no one could really understand what I had.

My girlfriend understood because she had been with me, and she was seeing the whole thing, but I just did the checklist: I’ve been in love, I’ve traveled the world, my career has succeeded. I was just counting off everything and just like, "OK take me." But I didn’t want to die. I had an amazing life and luckily I don’t have to worry about that for now.

Mandy: When you talk about surrendering, are you talking about God? What are you talking about when you talk about surrendering?

Tig: To the moment. Not to God, to the moment. To reality. And it's so hard, too. Because when I was going in for surgery, and I was lying in the hospital bed and they were talking me into the surgery, psychologically, I was dragging my nails along the walls and I did not want to go in and I realized in that moment that I liked my body and I didn’t want it to change, but I realized I had to go in and I have to have surgery. I have to surrender.

You don’t have a choice and you have to find immediate peace in a way. You can kick and scream but I still had to get the cancer out of my body. And then: "Your mother fell and she’s not going to make it" -- OK, what are my options? Well I don’t have any; she’s not going to make it.

Mandy: So did you go to a negative place even when it was a succession of devastating blows and devastating blows?

Tig: I was never angry. I was sad and scared. And that came out probably the most negative with my ex -- I was pushing her away from me, I was telling her to leave me. It sounds so cliché and like a TV movie but I said, "Go live your life." I was yelling at her to please leave, please, I am not getting better. Because I was deteriorating. And we had only been together for 6 months and I felt pressure not because she was putting pressure on me but because we had not been together long, and I was just bones, and she was just like "You want me to leave you?" And I was like "YES BUY A PLANE TICKET AND JUST LEAVE." Because it would take pressure off me if she would just leave and I could just be alone and that was pretty negative.

Mandy: Was that surrendering?

Tig: No, that wasn’t it at all. That was so fear based. There were so many dark ugly moments because they were just things that were happening that were dark and ugly. I feel like that was the one thing that was a reaction of everything that was happening. My mother had died and I thought I was dying so I was taking it out on her and wanting her to go. I don’t know if I could even do it differently.

Mandy: So you have no regrets about anything?

Tig: I feel like it all led me here. There’s things that are embarrassing and I wouldn’t take it away. Nothing is bad -- it’s just an experience. It doesn’t mean they aren’t hard moments, because they are brutal moments, but they do bring other forms of happiness and other experiences that I didn’t expect.

Mandy: Are there things you do now that you didn’t do before that are like, coping things or routines or mental exercise? Do you have a toolkit?

Tig: Take a beat, take a breath and be aware of each task at hand. And “ok, ok, ok” whether it’s work, projects, relationships… “OK, all this stuff I can’t deal with until I get there.”

Mandy: You talked in the set you did at Largo about having to eat super healthy. What do you eat now?

Tig: I try to eat food in natural form, but I cheat a lot, but that’s what makes me feel best, eating food in the most natural way. And I take probiotics and all that stuff but I um, yeah, I totally cheat. I was just in Sundance, this happens every time, I say I’m going to party like crazy, and just eat what everyone is eating, and the party turns into me feeling horrible, and going back to my hotel. And I fall for it every time. I’m like "I’m going to be fine” and then I’m like “I have to go back to my room” and everyone’s like “No, we’re going to an after party!” and I’m like “Yeah I’m in severe pain I need to go back to my room. You guys go on." Finding the balance is important. I have to check in with myself and see how I’m feeling? Like, I can’t go into a denial auto-pilot, like yeah! Everything’s great!

Mandy: What do you do when people try to unload on you their own pain and suffering since you've put yourself out there so much?

Tig: I get a few emails where people leave like, kind of some breadcrumbs, that they need me to contact them, where it will leave a little guilt. But I have boundaries about it.

Mandy: Can you talk about the fine line between tragedy and comedy? Especially when you look back on that first set at Largo?

Tig: It just was such a bizarre time. I’m picturing myself being on stage and the nerves I had before going on and then saying I had cancer. And then talking about my mother…

I can’t quite put my finger on what was going on with me, it was so "nothing to lose" and I knew that the opening of “Hello I have cancer how are you doing?” and I knew it would be jarring, but I was so jarred, that it was just kind of like: Sorry I ruined your night.

Mandy: Being really real. Not being fake, putting up a brave front.

Tig: The waiter says: "How are you two doing tonight?" "I mean we’re having a good night, but I have cancer." And she’d be like “Oh my god you’re getting off on this.” I would be funny about it but it was really going on and there’s only so much fun you can have when you might have cancer spreading through your body. Like "How am I doing tonight?" I’m out with the person I'm crazy about, riddled with cancer -- you tell me how my night is going.

Or after my mother died. My mother died. It’s pretty bad. It’s not “eh,” it’s not a great day. My mother, I just I took her off life support. Nah, it’s not a good day. But I don’t know if that’s really comedy, that kind of reaction, but, yeah, the stuff with my mother was much heavier, because it’s not me I guess, it’s my mother

Mandy: And it’s death.

Tig: And it was brutal. But yeah, when it’s you….

Mandy: What did you say about feeling like a Chilean miner?

Tig: That I had come through this filthy dark hole… And I came out coughing and everyone was like “Tig! Tig!” And I was like, cough, cough wait cough what? I’ve been in… I’ve just felt so weird getting all this press when I was crawling out of the hole.

Mandy: Do you still feel like that?

Tig: No, no. I think enough time has passed and I don’t feel that way. I think initially it was more telling that story and those events, and it was going through it over and over. But now I feel like I’ve had some time and perspective on it and I have some real thoughts and feelings about it whereas before I was like yeah my mother died and it was a different kind of drill that was going on, where I didn’t have too much perspective yet.

Mandy: How did you feel when Louis first tweeted about your set?

Tig: First of all, I remember after he tweeted that and I woke up to all these offers and book deals and I was like what the hell happened? And I texted him jokingly like, careful how you use your power! Because I did not expect the world to know.

Mandy: How did you feel about people's reaction? The Onion calling it the album of the year?

Tig: Yeah and I kind of had to remove myself and when people would say that was one of the best stand-up performances, and I’m like it is not. Because as a stand-up who perfects and tweaks and reworks that’s not the best stand-up performance but in time this is what’s interesting to people that you’re right there in the moment. That it’s authentically a moment of discovery and there’s humor in that. But it’s interesting to hear people’s take on it because it makes me appreciate it and understand it more, because I didn’t go out with any intention.

Mandy: That’s also what makes it compelling, when you can feel the risk a performer is taking in the moment and then the risk pays off.

Tig: It was risky. It was so risky! Just walking on that stage and saying I have cancer. My voice is shaking as I’m saying that. I was so scared. I was emotional and I was scared of upsetting anyone. There were so many feelings. And I was scared of having a bad show. But I had something to say. I was just so full of so much emotion.

Mandy: Did you almost break down because of the audience?

Tig: You could feel the support. When the crowd roared with support right after, I took a beat, and was like, man, they are with me -- I felt so lifted by that room in that moment. And, phew! It was definitely a moment.


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