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Amid Devastation, Tig Notaro Searched For A Sense Of Humor

As part of a series called My Big Break, All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Like all great comedians, Tig Notaro started out small: at open mic nights in coffee shops and one-nighters in Holiday Inn lounges.

"I remember this saloon in Montana," Notaro says. "I was standing in a corner with a dusty disco ball above my head. And I think there was a man with a look of Santa Claus on his day off sitting at the bar and staring at me while I told him what I thought was funny. And, based on his response, I don't think he agreed."

Her comedy took her out of saloons and onto larger stages in front of devoted fans. Now, she's the subject of a new Netflix documentary, titled Tig, out this week.

The film captures Notaro's search for a sense of humor amid devastating news.

"In 2012, I had pneumonia and then I contracted this potentially deadly disease called C. diff [C. difficile infection] and was hospitalized," Notaro says. "When I finally got out of the hospital, my mother tripped and hit her head in a freak accident and died. And then I went through a breakup after her funeral, and then I was diagnosed with cancer."

Days after her diagnosis of breast cancer, Notaro was scheduled to perform her weekly stand-up set at the Largo nightclub in Los Angeles. She wanted to cancel, but she ended up going on stage anyway.

That show became legendary.

"I kept the performance on the books and had invited my friends Ed Helms and Louis C.K. and Mary Lynn Rajskub and Bill Burr to all perform," she says. "They didn't think it was anything other than a typical show, and I went out on stage and talked about everything I was going through."

Her opening line was shocking. As she greeted the audience, she nonchalantly told them she was diagnosed with cancer.

"I have cancer, how are you? Hi, how are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer, how are you?"

At first, the crowd nervously laughed through her routine.

I was very ill. My pants were falling off of me, I was so skeletal at the time. I felt so lucky for the audience there, because they really carried me through that and the people there were really tremendous.

"When I hear it played back, I can hear the nerves in my voice and my voice is very shaky," Notaro says. "I was very fragile and vulnerable at that time. And I also was not wanting to hurt anybody's feelings. I just didn't like that moment where people didn't know yet that I had cancer."

But they catch on quickly. Notaro says the audience became her support group. As she makes light of tragedy, the crowd roars in laughter.

"I would've felt dishonest or inauthentic, I think, if I was on stage just talking about — just observing life in general, from afar. That wasn't where I was," she says. "I was very ill. My pants were falling off of me, I was so skeletal at the time. I felt so lucky for the audience there, because they really carried me through that and the people there were really tremendous."

That performance at the Largo was released in 2013 as a comedy album titled Live. It was nominated for a Grammy.

"Things changed after that. It definitely was a big break. It was a weird break. As much as it was big, it was a weird one," she says. "You don't know what's around the corner. It could be a cancer diagnosis or the unexpected, accidental death of a parent, a breakup, a Grammy nomination, falling in love. Whether it's good or bad, in my personal life, my career, I feel OK. Nothing's going to make or break me."

We want to hear about your big break. Send us an email at mybigbreak@npr.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Hajek