Funny Side Up

6 minute read
Lily Rothman

Last August, comedian Louis CK witnessed something special. “In 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful stand-up sets,” he marveled to his millions of Twitter followers. “One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.”

Prior to that night, Notaro, 42, had achieved success within stand-up circles with a popular podcast, a busy touring schedule and some TV-writing gigs, but such praise from one of mainstream comedy’s most admired talents set her apart. In the days that followed, other comedians who were at that August show took to the Web to tell what they had seen. Notaro was approached about crafting a book from her material. By the time she visited New York City in June, almost a year after the set that sparked the frenzy, her schedule was so full that she almost snubbed Louis CK when he called her to hang out. “I told him, ‘Because of you, I’m so busy that I don’t have time for you anymore,'” Notaro recalls, with a hint of awe in her voice.

That sense of disbelief is typical for Notaro these days. The recording of that night at Largo, in Los Angeles, became an album called Live (“as in, ‘to keep not dying,'” in her words), which has sold more than 100,000 digital downloads. It was dubbed the best comedy album of 2012 by numerous outlets and reached No. 1 on Billboard’s comedy chart. On July 16, Live will be available for the first time as a physical CD and LP, packaged with a second set taped in December. But while Notaro’s celebrity is largely due to a single show, she’s now navigating fame without that material.

Which is surely a good thing. During the half-hour set that became Live, Notaro recounted months of true-life horrors. After a bout of pneumonia, she was nearly killed by a C. difficile bacterial infection. (“I had this bacteria eating my digestive tract. So I lost 20 pounds … How do I look?”) Her mother died suddenly. She and her girlfriend broke up. She learned that she had cancer in both breasts and, the day before she went onstage, received word that it might have spread. Her set–delivered in a more intimate style than her fans were likely expecting–was moving. It was also funny. (The hospital sent her mother, who had died, a customer survey. How was her stay? “Not great.”)

The Live story almost ended there. Before she talked about her health issues onstage, Notaro was working on a C. diff story for This American Life–she’d had a popular bit on the radio show months earlier, and host Ira Glass asked her back–but it wasn’t done. In fact, she doubted if comedy was the way to address such topics, Glass recalls. It was Louis CK who convinced her to think again, encouraging her to release the Largo show. “I feel so lucky that Louis said, ‘You should put this record out,’ because I wouldn’t have had that insight,” she says. “I just thought that wasn’t the best set I could do.”

Notaro’s record label, Secretly Canadian, was also unsure how the emotional album would go over with listeners. “We loved the idea in concept,” says co-owner Ben Swanson. “We were like, ‘It could do as well as [Notaro’s other album] Good One, maybe a little bit more, maybe a lot less.'” Good One sold about 6,700 copies.

By the time Live hits stores, it will have already sold 15 times as many copies as Good One. It’s the rare comedy set that inspires ailing listeners–well, at least one, according to Notaro–to tell a comic that she gives them the strength to face death. And its impact goes beyond the stage: in addition to the book, she’s working on a one-woman show. A documentary is being made about her remarkable year. She’s even thinking of starting a foundation.

But while Notaro became famous as the comedian to whom terrible things happen, that’s just not the case anymore. After a double mastectomy, she is cancer-free. (And though she says there was a time she couldn’t imagine being attractive to anybody ever again, she’s now dating.) Fans need a new shorthand for her–“the person who still doesn’t have cancer,” she suggests–and she’s hoping her career doesn’t change with it. “If people start to drop by the wayside, I’ll realize, Oh, they wanted cancer,” she says. Louis CK doesn’t think that will happen. “The impact of her story is what got people interested,” he says, “but I think the reason she’s continuing to do well is because she’s so good.”

So far, the evidence bears him out. Notaro’s first feature films are on the way: the comedy In a World … will be in limited release Aug. 9, followed by Walk of Shame, with Elizabeth Banks, and Ryan Phillippe’s directorial debut, Shreveport. There’s a TV project in progress too. And she’s touring, working on new material.

Her new stuff can’t be another Live–but it likely won’t be another Good One either. There’s a moment in Live when Notaro tells the sort of observational joke for which she had been known, about seeing a bee on the highway. The reaction, says Glass, indicates that she may not be able to go back to that old style. “It’s a funny joke,” he says, “but you feel like the whole audience is feeling, Wow, this is nothing compared to what we just saw.”

Notaro isn’t worried. Asked if she feels pressure to match Live’s success, she says no. Sure, lightning doesn’t strike twice–but needing a new energy source is freeing. Her mission: to keep doing her thing, just as she has since she first arrived in Los Angeles 17 years ago. “I feel so lucky. I wish people could have my life sometimes. I know probably people from a distance would say, ‘No, thank you. That sounds horrible.’ But I do,” she says. “I walk around going, I have a really great life.”

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