In early August of this year, Tig Notaro performed a set at Los Angeles comedy hotspot Largo that changed her life. The show had been delayed a week because Notaro had just been diagnosed with breast cancer—the climax to a year of Job-like personal tragedies—and she needed time to process that. But the diagnosis still dominated her thoughts, and when the time came for Notaro to take the stage, she couldn’t do her normal material, like a joke about being passed by a bee while stuck in traffic on the 405. She couldn’t even greet the crowd without blurting it out. “Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you?”
The news of what followed in the subsequent half-hour—a mixture of pitch-black laughs and gut-punching candor—quickly spread online, fueled by numerous tweets (Louis C.K. hailed it as one of the few “truly great, masterful standup sets” he’s seen, adding later that it “was an amazing example of what comedy can be”) and a widely read account of it by comedian Kira Hesser. When Notaro woke up the next day, her phone wouldn’t stop ringing, and she had “literally hundreds of emails,” including one that led to a book deal.
As great as the buzz was for Notaro, it was lousy for comedy fans who didn’t happen to be in the 280-seat venue that night. Luckily, Largo recorded it, and C.K. persuaded Notaro to release it via his website. (A portion of it also aired on This American Life.) Last Friday, Live—as in “to live”—was released for $5, with a portion of the proceeds going to cancer research.
Considering Notaro’s set at Largo quickly earned “legendary” status, fans can be forgiven for going into Live with high expectations. That it meets them goes to show that sometimes hype is justified. If nothing else, Notaro’s epically terrible year—pneumonia, which led to a life-threatening infection, which healed just before the sudden death of her mother, which preceded the end of a long-term relationship, then the cancer diagnosis—has provided a wealth of material.
It’s difficult to know how much material Notaro worked out ahead of time and how much came from the moment. Her joke about a doctor mistaking her tiny breasts for cancerous lumps is clearly the former, while her observation about her friends’ reticence to talk about trivial, everyday matters with her seems to expand as she talks about it. “Just somebody talk to me, please,” she says. “My time is limit—ohhh.” That produces one of Live’s many uncomfortable laughs, as Notaro digs deep into the darkness but jokes about it in her deadpan style. She’s not known as an expressive performer, but “Just somebody talk to me, please” has palpable, heartbreaking yearning.
As skillfully as Live treads the line between comedy and tragedy, Notaro doesn’t bother separating them sometimes, like in a particularly brutal passage about her mom’s death. After it happened, the hospital sent a questionnaire to her mom to rate the quality of the care she received, a perfect setup for Notaro’s observational style as she recites a couple of questions. “No. 2: Was the area around your room quiet at night?” Notaro says, before adding her own addendum. “Or could you hear the 12 hours of your daughter alone at your bedside sobbing and telling you things she wished she was brave enough to tell you when you were conscious?”
As gut-wrenching as that moment is, Notaro nicely balances it with her signature style. When the hospital asks for suggestions to improve service, she deadpans that they should maybe not send questionnaires to dead people. Her comedic voice remains even as the subject matter is more serious. Instead of joking about a bee passing her in traffic, she has a story about a nurse asking her secret for having such a flat stomach. “Oh I’m dying,” she says.
As she recounts everything that went wrong this year, Notaro maintains an impressively steady voice; only a couple of times does she sound a little shaky. About 25 minutes in, she describes her tendency to look a month ahead, saying that she wouldn’t have believed 25 years’ worth of tragedy would be crammed into four months. She sounds drained. “What if I just transitioned into, just, silly jokes right now?” she says, her voice at its shakiest. The crowd immediately objects, and one man shouts, “This is fucking amazing!” During the rapturous cheers and applause that follow, Notaro pauses say thank you. “Now I feel bad that I don’t have more tragedy to share.” She never misses a beat.
As she wraps up her set, the crowd prods her into telling the bee joke she’d referenced earlier, and its sheer triviality produces some of the biggest laughs of the night. In just a few seconds, Notaro deconstructs the artificiality of stand-up premises, then slyly uses every beat of the joke to punctuate its triteness. It’s a nice meta commentary about Live’s subject matter that drives home the true message of the recording: Notaro’s misfortunes may have earned her some attention, but her considerable skill should sustain it.