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Why Tig Notaro’s HBO Special Is Unlike Any Comedy Special You’ve Ever Seen

The comedian talks about her path to the playful, glib, and ultimately life-affirming HBO special everyone will be talking about.

Why Tig Notaro’s HBO Special Is Unlike Any Comedy Special You’ve Ever Seen
[Photos: Scott McDermott, courtesy of HBO]

“I’m just a person,” comedian Tig Notaro says multiple times during her new HBO special. It’s both a deflection of incoming applause and a direct rebuke to peers who clearly relish soaking up those standing-Os. But here’s the thing: Tig Notaro is more than just a person. She’s both a living legend and someone advanced enough to hate that designation and seek to explode it.

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In Boyish Girl Interrupted, she deflates the hushed awe that her own often-told story has enveloped her in like a smothery forcefield. However, the way she does so paradoxically makes her seem even more legendary.

A quick refresher course on Notaro’s recent years. (Considering the publicity tsunami the story incited, long-time fans may skip ahead to the next paragraph.) In 2012, she endured the following life events in quick succession, any of which could be the inciting incident in a Sundance favorite: she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her relationship with her girlfriend ended, and her mother died tragically. (All chronicled in the Netflix documentary, Tig.) Although such a year cannot be said to have “an upside,” what happened next was truly extraordinary. A mostly spontaneous standup set recounting these events instantly went down in comedy history. A Tumblr post and a Louis CK co-sign later, Tig’s story spread throughout the Internet like wildfire. In the wake of an overnight level-jump in fame, Notaro released that stand-up set as an album, Live, and got a Grammy nomination out of it. For a long time, this was her happy ending.

With the HBO special, Tig’s happy ending is now even happier, and also more poignant. In order to make it happen, though, she had to start all over.

After her whirlwind year, Notaro didn’t go right out on the road. Instead, she stuck around L.A. working open mics before taking baby steps toward some of the bigger venues her higher profile had opened the doors for.

“My initial shows were very not good,” she says. “I had so much pressure and attention on me that I kinda didn’t know who I was anymore and I had to reach back into connecting with what I like, what I think is funny, what amuses me. And oddly enough it was finding old stories from my life that got the muscle of thinking and writing and performing going again.”

After all the acclaim and attention Notaro earned after her album came out, networks came calling about developing her next project. Tig pitched the idea of what became known as Knock Knock, a series in which she would travel around the country doing comedy in people’s homes. Eventually, Showtime bought it as a one-time special, which aired in April.

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Tig Notaro in 2010Photo: Flickr user Kata Rokkar

“It was really just an exercise to get out on the road and perform again,” Notaro says. “I wasn’t doing clubs, I was just doing living rooms and I didn’t have material yet so I was doing a lot of crowd interaction to try and just get comfortable on stage again.”

The experience of being back on stage–under the radar, and without being promoted at clubs–helped her arrive at the material that would make up her debut HBO special. It wasn’t a conscious decision to cobble a set together this way—”there is nothing conscious about anything that I do”—but in doing so she ended up with the hour that best represents her.

Boyish Girl Interrupted is a comedy mosaic of everything Notaro has at her disposal. There’s drily delivered storytelling, surprisingly playful bursts of silliness, physicality, crowd work, and of course a return to the ultra-personal reflection with which she’s become most associated. This is when the special ceases being merely funny and becomes transcendent.

It starts with a post-modern addressing of the elephant in the room, the specifics of which shall remain unspoiled here. Originally Tig had an even more self-aware bit worked out where she’d spend some time acting as though she didn’t know how to start talking about her brush with death, and creating an awkward space of acknowledging that she didn’t know how to get into it. She jettisoned the bit a few weeks before the taping, though, and opted for a more direct path.

Not only does she continue the narrative detailed on Live, she owns the toll cancer took on her body—by taking off her shirt and performing the final third of her set topless. It will probably be the first time a lot of people laugh while looking at mastectomy scars.

“It’s just something that came over me after my surgery, where I was uncomfortable with my body and my situation and I had this thought that, ‘God, what if I one day performed topless?'” Notaro says. “It really amused me, but I wasn’t confident about my body yet. So I just moved it out of my head. But once I started touring again, it kept popping up in my head, ‘What if I took my shirt off? What if I took my shirt off?’ And so I finally decided if this is still coming up for me then I should just go ahead and do it.”

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She tried a test run of the shirt removal twice before the taping—once during her regular L.A. show at Largo, and then again while playing Town Hall in New York. The reception was rapturous and Tig was exhilarated. But that doesn’t mean she won’t characteristically downplay the impact when given the opportunity.

“It came down to people feeling like this was just a human issue, it shouldn’t be taboo,” Notaro says. “I mean, cancer is obviously a big deal, but my body healing is . . . so what? I have scars on my chest. It’s really not a big deal.”

Sure enough, the entire time her shirt is off, Tig looks just as calm, nonchalant, and in control as she does during the rest of the special. And ultimately, that’s the point. It’s the kind of thing that’s going to be talked about for years. Just don’t tell her that.

Watch Tig tell a story about getting started in comedy in the video below:

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Correction: a previous version of this article contained the insensitive pun, “wildcancer.”

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