Prior to last August, my life was exceedingly boring. I am not exaggerating when I say that I spent nearly all my weekends in high school on the couch with my cat, Theo, watching Doctor Who. So freshman year came as a bit of a shock to my system. I had an amazing time, but in May I was looking forward to some relaxing quality time with Theo. I did, however, decide to take advantage of living in L.A. and get out of the house some more. By the end of the summer, I had a few more freckles and the unexpected pleasure of having seen a variety of remarkable comedians.
I watched SNL cast member Taran Killam perform some incredible improv, Sarah Silverman reduce an audience to cackling fits and superb sets from Patton Oswalt, Bill Burr, Moshe Kasher, Bo Burnham, Nick Thune, comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates (Riki Linholme and Kate Micucci), Anthony Jeselnik, Todd Glass, Jeff Garlin, Ed Helms and Louis C.K. But overshadowing all of these comedy gods was Tig Notaro, delivering the greatest stand-up set I have ever seen.
Tig Notaro has long been one of my favorite comedians. She has a bit called “No Moleste,” which you should all go find on YouTube immediately. But the set she performed on August 3 was simply brilliant. It was part of a show called, “Tig has Friends.” Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe from 24) went first and was followed by Ed Helms (Andy Bernard on The Office and famed fictional Cornell alumnus). After Helms finished, he introduced Tig, who was greeted with warm applause. “Thank you, thank you. I have cancer, thank you, I have cancer, really, thank you,” she said.
The applause quickly died out and turned into uncomfortable laughter as the audience wondered if she was serious or not. It turned out she was. Notaro had been diagnosed with breast cancer in both breasts just days before she went up on that stage. She told the approximately 250 audience members that she simply couldn’t bring herself to tell silly jokes about a bee passing her on the 405 freeway with this in her life.
She continued on to tell us how, not only does she have breast cancer, but also her mother just died. And on top of that, she just went through a heavy break-up. As if all that wasn’t enough, she had just gotten over an infection in her intestine that caused the already petite woman to lose 30 pounds
I know that all that doesn’t sound like it would make a particularly amusing night at the comedy club, but, amazingly, it did. Tig joked about all of it not as though she were taking it lightly, but that she knew it was out of her control and now the only thing left to do was to feel better. I’m not going to try and describe any of her jokes from that night because I know I won’t be able to do them justice, so you are just going to have to take my word for it. You can also take Louis C.K.’s word for it. He tweeted the next day, “In 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful stand-up sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.” I didn’t stop laughing for a moment, although each punch line also made me tear up a little bit. It was comedy and tragedy and it was brilliant.
We all have heard that there is truth in comedy. Comedians have the difficult and vitally important job of talking about things that are unpleasant to talk about and do it such a way that makes us want to discuss them. Under normal circumstances, I would probably not want to spend my evening hearing about cancer, even though it is a topic that is on our minds. When comedy is done right, it shouldn’t just make us laugh so hard we can barely breathe. It should hit those personal notes that make us reflect on our own lives.
After that glorious example of stand-up comedy at its finest, I did do a fair amount of reflecting on the past year of my life, which has been the most eventful one by far. My freshman year was wonderful, but it wasn’t without unhappy moments (nothing compared to the couple of months Tig has had). And though there are many lessons one can take from Tig Notaro’s beautiful set, the one I am going to take is that some tragedies can reach comedy, even without the onus of time.
Because of Tig, my New Academic School Year Resolution is to stop wallowing over those moments. Tig reminded me that comedy and tragedy are not opposing concepts. If Tig can turn a truly tragic situation into the best stand-up comedy I have ever seen, and probably will ever see, I can certainly turn a bad day into something I chuckle about the next day. And now I’ve had about as much peace and quiet (and time with Theo) as I can take and am excited to go back to Ithaca. I will certainly be keeping an eye on Tig Notaro’s career (as should you) as she moves to New York to be a writer on comedian Amy Schumer’s new show, among other projects. I will also be sending her warm thoughts. No matter how funny tragedy can be, I think Tig has had enough.