How do you even begin to try to capture and encapsulate something as beautiful as Tig Notaro’s “Live?” I’ve already accepted the fact that I won’t be able to do it justice and, judging by what I’ve already read about it, I won’t even come close to doing it as well as others (especially Louis C.K.). And yet, I still feel compelled to say something.
By now I’m sure you’ve heard about this amazing set. First it started off as an internet rumbling, random posts popping up here and there that basically said, “Tig Notaro had an amazing set last night.” “Tig Notaro went on stage and announced she has breast cancer, it was amazing.” “I just saw a comedy set like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
It wasn’t long before it was picked up by the media and soon, thankfully, C.K. helped make it available to those of us who weren’t there. I’m glad he did. I’m still reeling.
What do you do when you’re booked to go on stage and tell jokes about bees taking the 405 Freeway and you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer? Do you cancel? Do you just press on? Surely you don’t mention what’s really going on inside your head. If anything can take the life - and laughter - out of a room, surely cancer can.
Never before have three words said so much. Notaro opens with a simple “I have cancer” and immediately the crowd knows they’re in for something like they’ve never experienced before. A wave of cautious and uncomfortable laughter sweeps through the room as they try to figure out whether or not Notaro is being serious. As she repeats those words a few more times, you can’t help but notice the life-shattering tone in her voice of someone who is still processing the news.
"I have cancer."
As she relays her story from the discovery of a lump all the way through the process of the mammogram, contracting pneumonia, and then C. Diff before finally being officially diagnosed, everything becomes real and stark. And still, all the while as sympathetic “Ohs” and “Aws” float from the crowd onto the stage, Notaro becomes the one doing the consoling ("I can't believe you're taking this so hard...").
If breast cancer isn’t enough, throw on top of that, in just a few weeks’ time, going through a breakup and the sudden tragic passing of your mother. Now try to go on stage and tell jokes about a bee taking the 405.
You can’t. Or at least, Notaro can’t. With so much going on in her life, there’s no possible way to tell a joke about a bee on the 405. Instead of silliness, Notaro goes for honesty, and I think that’s what touched me the most. I’ve had good friends and family members go through cancer but none of them have been as open and honest about what they’re dealing with than Notaro is in front of a room full of strangers. As she goes through each stage of grief in a public forum, it’s simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious. Notaro, after all, is a very funny comedian and she finds a way to wring laughter from the somber burden she is bearing.
Hearing Notaro relay the anguish she feels (Why even bother going to the store to buy food?) and understandably questioning the whole “God never gives you more than you can handle” adage that offers little comfort to those actually being loaded up, one can’t help but want nothing more than to reach through your speakers and give Notaro a hug. She sounds like a small child standing at the mouth of a dark cave, knowing she has to go through it, and doggonit, deciding that’s just what she’s going to do.
Fortunately, she’s not going through it alone. Notaro has a strong supportive community rallying around her and the crowd who was there that evening is vehemently on her side, reassuring her the whole way that she is doing the right thing by forgoing that bee who took the 405.
And still, I laughed. Yes, Notaro is going through a really dark time and she’s trying, she’s really trying, to process it all, but she remains hopeful. Her sense of humor is still in tact as is her appreciation of what is good. She holds on to the fact that her career is going well and despite the horrible things surrounding her, there are also things in her life that are looking up and she hasn’t forgotten them.
Finally, when it’s all out there and you’ve talked about it openly and honestly, what Notaro has really done is taken away some of tragedy’s power. If you can laugh at it, maybe it’s not as scary. If you can laugh at it, then you can overcome it. And, if you can laugh at it, then maybe there’s room for a joke about a bee on the 405.
This recording wildly succeeds in capturing what happened that fateful night at Largo. There is a sincere air of intimacy and it doesn’t take long for you to feel like you were there in person, too. The pain you hear - and feel - is real. But so are the laughs.