Tig Notaro knows what you think of her, and she's going to make you laugh about it.
In her August 22 HBO special, Boyish Girl Interrupted, Notaro saunters back and forth, grins over the microphone, and stares down the audience as she drags her punchlines right out to the edge of discomfort.
"Before I had my double mastectomy, I used to be mistaken for a man," she says, glancing offstage. The pause makes the audience take in her blazer, her fitted white button-down, her short, flipped hair. "And that's fine."
Tig Notaro knows she might make you uncomfortable. She doesn't care.
Tig Notaro found professional success in personal tragedy
Notaro's recent ascent is the stuff of comedy legend. In 2012, she reached the darkest point of her life after a series of horrifying life events: a life-threatening bacterial infection, a breakup, the death of her mother, breast cancer. The breast cancer diagnosis came so soon after her mother's death that Notaro, shell-shocked, thought it must be some kind of cosmic joke.
Not knowing what else to do, she attempted to process it all the week of the diagnosis on stage at the Largo Theater in Los Angeles. She delivered a 30-minute set that began with, "Hello, I have cancer!" and ended with a thunderous standing ovation. It might not have been her intention when she stepped on stage, but her refusal to shy away from the visceral pain she was feeling made her ability to keep people laughing an astonishing feat. Staring into the face of death left Notaro with no filter, no shame, and no reason to hold back.
She was brilliant.
Notaro's cancer went into remission after her double mastectomy, but her career took off. Louis C.K. convinced her to release the Largo set (Live) online, where it sold 75,000 copies in its first week. But as Notaro says in her recent Netflix documentary Tig, the pressure of following up that game-changing set was so enormous that she almost folded.
Pushing past that pressure, though, led her to another jaw-droppingly good performance. Where Live saw Notaro reeling from a bruise, Boyish Girl Interrupted celebrates the healing. Notaro found a way to build upon her previous set without dismissing it entirely, and her joy at cracking that code radiates from every punchline.
Notaro's delivery has never been more confident
She has the rare skill of recounting seemingly mundane stories — and even inside jokes — in a way that makes you understand exactly why she finds them so funny. She exploits people's expectations of her for extra punchlines, like when she refers to her fiancée as "he" and then stares at the audience in mock offense at their laughter.
She still jokes about her cancer often and with gusto, as when she recounts going through a humiliating TSA pat-down with a female officer who panics when she can't figure out Notaro's gender. "I knew all I had to do to was speak," Notaro says, low and slow, considering. "But I really didn't want to help her out." And so Notaro lets the officer spin her wheels until she finally gives up, waving Notaro on with a gruff, "you're good."
But Notaro isn't going to let her, or anyone, off so easy. Soon enough, she starts taking off her blazer on stage. The excited crowd whistles, and Notaro stops with a smirk. "Of course I'm not going to take off my shirt on my special!"
Then she keeps going.
Soon, Notaro is completely topless. She carefully sets her button-down shirt on top of the microphone stand, and it hangs there for the rest of the set, a ghostly silhouette. Notaro did not get reconstructive surgery after her double mastectomy. She knows you might be confused by her body, and she thinks that's hilarious. After the applause has finally died down, the natural assumption is that Notaro is about to do a bit about how she's topless onstage. Instead, she veers left: "I hate flying."
The audience laughs, surprised, but delighted. Notaro revealing her scars is a stunning addition to her set, but the most revolutionary aspect of it is how she barely acknowledges it. Within 30 seconds of starting her (hilarious) story about a disastrous flight, the audience forgets all about her toplessness. Her defiant nonchalance normalizes the body that so horrified that TSA officer, and proves there is nothing more exhilarating than living as yourself, without apology or explanation.
Boyish Girl Interrupted is available on HBO, HBO Go, and HBO Now.