Tig Notaro Stands Up

Published April 16, 2015

ABOVE: TIG NOTARO. PHOTO COURTESY OF RUTHIE WYATT

“I like to send text messages to friends of mine at random times of the day that just say, ‘What’s your ETA,'” begins one of Tig Notaro’s jokes. “I love knowing somewhere across town somebody is frantically rifling through emails and text messages in their underwear, trying to figure out what they agreed to do with me.”

Even when she is at her silliest—making clown horn noises or pushing a stool across the floor of a late-night talk show or doing an impression “of someone doing an impression”—Tig Notaro maintains a sense of sincerity in her comedy. Told in an even, measured voice, Notaro’s bits are mischievous, but they are never mean-spirited. When she tells a story of meeting and being snubbed by the ’80s pop star Taylor Dayne, you believe Notaro when she claims she is a genuine fan. In the often-cruel world of stand-up, it is this underlying compassion that enables an audience to accept her comedy completely. It’s tempting to attribute this quality to Notaro’s personal life—three years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer, lost her mother, and broke up with a serious girlfriend—but it has always been there.

Tomorrow night, Notaro’s comedy special Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro will debut on Showtime. The show follows Notaro as she travels across the country performing intimate sets in the gardens, living rooms, and basements of her delighted fans. She also has a full-length documentary Tig due out later this year.

Here, Notaro talks to her friend the actress, singer, author, and Brat Pack icon Molly Ringwald.

MOLLY RINGWALD: Is it true that this might be the beginning of a series?

TIG NOTARO: There’s no official word. It’s something that I would like—that’s how I pitched it to Showtime and then they bought it as a special.

RINGWALD: I loved it. It was the only thing that I saw at SXSW, other than The Breakfast Club. It was not completely what I expected—I don’t know exactly what I expected—but [my husband] Panio and I kept talking about how nice it was. It was funny, but there was an absence of snark. It seemed like such an easy place to go to make fun of people, and I loved that you didn’t go in that direction and you still managed to be funny—if not even funnier.

NOTARO: That’s what I hoped. I had no interest in hitting the road and being snarky. I think every person and place is interesting, and there’s an interesting story behind every door. That’s what I was eager to reveal and to find.

RINGWALD: The humanity in it was so appealing and endearing. I told you in a text, I think I said you were terrifying and charismatic. [laughs]

NOTARO: I think I responded with, “Hey.”

RINGWALD: [laughs] I changed the word to formidable. You have this incredible, unflinching presence on stage. You have a stillness to you that I think a lot of people are scared to do or they don’t know how to do it, [but] the payoff is so much greater. I was wondering, is it something that you thought about or is it innate?

NOTARO: I’m sure there’s an element of protecting myself. In chaotic situations, I feel like I can take a breath and look around and assess the situation and see the big picture. Going through the traumatic time that I did in my life, that’s also given me even more of a breather in life to just be like, “I know everything’s going to be fine. Even if this is the worst show in the world, no matter what happens, everything’s going to be fine.” It’s an accumulation of things.

RINGWALD: Your cancer obviously changed you and your life. How do you feel like it changed your comedy?

NOTARO: It was the first time that I shared something really personal publicly. It wasn’t calculated. When I saw the response from everyone, it made me realize the importance of sharing and communicating with people and being open. It’s really empowering. People have similar experiences and fears and once that opens up, I think it’s healing for everyone. The way it changed me as a comedian is that I allow myself to be more open on stage. I still allow myself to do silly things; I think that’s just as important. The important thing to do always is to be the most authentic you can be, which is really hard! Even as a comedian, people got to know me through having cancer and if I wanted to I could play with that and I could always deliver heavy stuff or emotional stuff, but there’s a huge silliness bone in me and sometimes—a lot of times—I just want to be that. I want to be silly, and that’s being authentic just as much as being open and honest. It’s authentic to make weird clown horn noises when it strikes you.

RINGWALD: Which I actually did on stage the other night during a show. I totally credited you, though. And it got a laugh. It was amazing.

NOTARO: Can I hear your version of it?

RINGWALD: No, no! [laughs] It’s probably on YouTube somewhere. I can’t do it for you.

NOTARO: What town were you in?  

RINGWALD: I was in Texas, I think. I’ve been touring this album that I gave you—the jazz album—on and off and I can’t remember where I go or where I say what. You know what that’s like. What is it that you get out of doing comedy? Aside from the fact that you’re good at it, what’s the payoff for you?

NOTARO: I’m always curious what the answer to that is because I don’t know if I know. When you first start out in stand-up, and probably as any performer, you enjoy the attention so much, and even though that hasn’t died down on stage, it certainly has satiated whatever was in me that was needing that much attention. When I’m off stage, it’s not something that I really need. But I also know that I never took it very seriously when, years ago, people would earnestly thank me for my show, and say, “You have no idea how much it meant to come out and laugh tonight, and we needed it.” I just took it for granted: “Oh yeah, cool. Thanks. Glad you had fun.” It’s only been in the past couple years that I’ve started to really hear that and realize that people really need it. I’m so used to laughing and being around funny people that I think I’m getting a whole new thing out of it. Not that I’m taking myself too seriously, but I am realizing that I’m providing a particular service to the world and I feel proud on a different level.

RINGWALD: Do you ever feel a responsibility that goes with that or is it all good?

NOTARO: Having come through that time period when my life fell apart, I feel responsible to give back, even though I felt like I gave back before—I did charities, I felt compassionate. [But] I can’t imagine just dusting my pants off and going about my life like, “Phew! I sure made it through a tough spot, now where am I headed?” I feel more of an obligation to be helpful.  

RINGWALD: Why do you think that you feel that obligation, was it that you were given another chance at life?

NOTARO: Not just another chance, but I lived and I thrived and I am happy—

RINGWALD: And you feel grateful?

NOTARO: Oh my gosh, so grateful. And people—strangers, fans, family, friends, the comedy community—really lifted me up during that time. It’s not against my natural feelings or will to give back; it really is running through my veins now. Not just cancer charities but my friend and I have been producing this show to support an underprivileged or underserved charity. One year we did transgender youth and then this year we did a charity called Angels In Waiting, and it’s foster kids that have major medical issues going on. You think that if you’re an orphan, that’s your story, but these kids might also have massive medical issues and I didn’t think about that. It was great to unearth this charity that I was unaware of and try and support them.

RINGWALD: When did this all happen?

NOTARO: In July, it’ll be three years ago that I was diagnosed with cancer and then my mother died three years ago on March 29, so I’ve been hitting all the three-year anniversaries of my diagnosis and my breakup. The first two years didn’t seem real. It used to shock me every time I used to say, “My mother is dead.”

RINGWALD: Were you close to your mom?

NOTARO: I was, but we also had a very up-and-down relationship. My mother was very wild.

RINGWALD: She was an artist, right?  

NOTARO: Yeah, she was an artist and a dancer, and she was very funny and very free-spirited and did her own thing. She was definitely the cool mom that everyone thought was so pretty and funny and crazy, but then as a kid, you’re like, “Okay, but I need a mother. I need my mother to act like a mother sometimes.”

RINGWALD: That strikes fear in my heart. That’s what I worry about with my kids. I want to be a good mother but then I also want to be these other things too and can the two go together, or does one inevitably have to suffer?

NOTARO: No, I bet they can go together. My mother and I adored each other, but we were also at each other’s throats at times.

RINGWALD: Well, I think that’s normal; that’s pretty much the way that it is with my daughter. I have three kids, but my older one is the one that I get into all that stuff with. It’s just so hot and cold and up and down, but that’s just the nature of mothering. You’re interested in having kids?

NOTARO: You know I am.

RINGWALD: I know you are—five!

NOTARO: Well, [my fiancé] Stephanie wants five but my sneaking suspicion is that there wouldn’t be more than two or three. I’m not opposed to five, I’m just 44 years old. I don’t know when she thinks that’s going to happen.

RINGWALD: You came from a family of two, right?

NOTARO: My father had a bunch of kids on his own time, but I was raised with my brother.

RINGWALD: And he’s a radio host?

NOTARO: Yeah, he hosts a sports radio show and he lives in Denver. We’re very close.

RINGWALD: What about your half-siblings?

NOTARO: I just recently met one of my brothers; he’s 19. I think it was two or three months ago. I was so impressed by him. My father hasn’t really been in my life much and I had gotten a call that he wasn’t doing well, and so I went out to see him and I ended up meeting one of my brothers. I was so impressed by this kid. It was really an emotional, exciting thing. Then I have two other sisters. I met them when they were younger, but we haven’t really been in touch. Life gets so complicated and busy and we’re such different ages, but I exchanged numbers with my 19-year-old brother and we’ll send a text here or there.

RINGWALD: I can text him if you want. I’m really good at it. [laughs]

NOTARO: [laughs] “Do you mind if I give your number to Molly Ringwald?”

RINGWALD: [laughs] I told you that I’m terrified of comedy. I really like it, but I get so upset when people bomb, or when they seem like they’re going to bomb. At a certain point I was like, “It’s not worth it, I’m just going to feel anxious all the time.” You’re one of the people that has really made me come around. I also love Demetri Martin and Louis C.K., of course. I wanted to ask how it feels on the other side, when you’re know you’re going to bomb, or you think you’re going to bomb. I know how to deal with it as an actress—how to deal with a difficult audience as a singer—but I’ve never done what you do. How do you handle that?

NOTARO: Sometimes I think the best thing is to acknowledge it. I think that’s just symbolic in life—to be able to check in and be like, “Hey guys, this isn’t going well is it?” Usually that will break the tension and people will laugh. I think if you show them that you have an awareness and a sense of humor about what’s going on, it’s easy to reclaim things. I did a set at UCB on Sunset Boulevard the other night and I was telling a story that usually goes alright—it’s not totally polished—but I was not getting much of a response. I had to come out of the story and just be like, “Wow. Just so you know, you’ve missed 15 punch lines.”

RINGWALD: [laughs]

NOTARO: And I’m not upset with them, I’m just like, “Where are we missing each other?” And by the time that I got off stage, everything was fun, everyone was laughing, and I had connected with the audience. But for whatever reason we just didn’t have that connection. Communicating always helps everything.

RINGWALD: I haven’t had the health problems that you’ve had, but I’ve had emotional stuff that’s gone on and I’ve still had to go out and perform. How have you dealt with that? Does it help you in a way?

NOTARO: Oh, definitely. When I went on stage at Largo [in L.A.] and announced that I had cancer and that my mother died and all that stuff. I’d already lost everything: my relationship, my ability to eat, my mother. Everything. I didn’t have anything to loose.

RINGWALD: That must have been liberating in a way.

NOTARO: It was so liberating. There’s this part of me that just thought, “Oh my gosh, this might be utterly depressing and I might have an awkward show and then I’m going to die and everyone will be like ‘I was at Tig’s last show and it was so awkward.’ ” But I think it’s exciting that comedy makes you nervous—[that] it might not go well. It’s certainly been helpful for me in so many aspects of making light of things and examining things.

RINGWALD: Is there anyone that you have wanted to meet for any reason? When you admire somebody, do you actually want to meet them or do you want to keep them at a distance?

NOTARO: I have somebody I admire and want to keep at a distance. I’ve had the opportunity to meet her a couple of times—it’s Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders. I just am nuts about her, but I have no interest in meeting her because I just don’t think she could live up to what she’s been to me in my head.

RINGWALD: What has she been to you?

NOTARO: She’s just somebody that doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks. She does her own thing, she says what she wants; she has this kind of edge to her that I just adore but I also wouldn’t want to be cut by it.

RINGWALD: I’ve met her.

NOTARO: [laughs] Oh you have? Did she cut you with her edge?

RINGWALD: No, she was totally cool. She was married to [the lead singer of Simple Minds] Jim Kerr, and so she was at a Breakfast Club screening. It was a long time ago. I always liked her but she didn’t mean to me what she meant to you. I have this feeling sometimes where I’m afraid to meet people because of exactly what you said—I’m afraid that they might not live up to what I’ve built up in my mind. There’s this poet that I really love. Do you read poetry at all?

NOTARO: Not really, no. I would have to say flat out no.

RINGWALD: [laughs] I don’t read a ton of poetry, but there are some poets that I will read, and I’ve gone through periods in my life where I’ve read more poetry, where I wasn’t able, for whatever reason, to focus on prose. There’s this one poet named Mary Oliver. I’m going to send you one of her poems; I guarantee you’ll like her. I’m totally afraid to meet her because she’s been so meaningful to me in my life that there’s just no way that she can live up to that.

NOTARO: But it doesn’t seem like you should need to meet your heroes. You should blow up in your mind what they are to you and leave it at that.

RINGWALD: [laughs] How often have you spoken to Taylor Dayne since you did that story? 

NOTARO: When I was diagnosed she texted me a few times just to see how I was doing and she said if I need anybody to talk to, just call her. And I thought it was so funny that she pushed me away so many times and was telling me to call her when I had cancer. Then I also thought through how hilarious it would be if I was calling Taylor Dayne in the middle of the night while I had cancer.

RINGWALD: That’s kind of great.

NOTARO: I thought it was such a nice gesture, but I didn’t take her up on it. What I really appreciated about her when I met her was that—I don’t like her ironically; I really do like her voice—she didn’t make any excuses or deny how she acted, she was just like, “Yeah, that sounds like me.” I’m not saying that that’s great behavior…

RINGWALD: But it’s human behavior. People come up to me and I’m in a great mood and I’m really happy and other times I’m breaking up with someone and somebody comes up and says, “I’m sorry to bother you, but your movies have been so meaningful to me.” It’s like, I can’t be that person right now. I can’t. It’s just not humanly possible. You must experience that—you’re pretty recognizable, right?

NOTARO: It definitely pops up. I have to remind myself not to worry about that. If I’m caught off guard or I’m not in a great mood or if I’m feeling down or if I’m in my head and somebody comes up to me and I can’t match the energy, I just have to think, “Well, I did my job, which was to do the show or release the album or be in the TV show or write the joke. Beyond that it’s kind of a hit or miss what happens between us.”

KNOCK KNOCK, IT’S TIG NOTARO AIRS TOMORROW, APRIL 17, ON SHOWTIME.