Comic opens set with 'Hello. I have cancer.'
She uses raw story to help others laugh about tragic disease
NEW YORK — A frightfully nervous Tig Notaro stood just offstage at the Los Angeles club Largo while Ed Helms introduced her.
The audience of 300 and Tig Notaro's fellow performers that August night had no idea what she was about to do. They had no idea she was going to address the trauma and pain that had been the last few months of her life, or relay the bad news she had received just days earlier. They had no idea she was about to perform the bravest set they had ever seen.
"Good evening! Hello. I have cancer. How are you?"
With those words — said cavalierly in the normal stand-up greeting manner — Notaro launched into a 30-minute performance that immediately became legendary in comedy circles and that's now available as an unlikely live album via a $5 digital release by comedian Louis C.K. In just a week, it's sold more than 60,000 copies.
The 41-year-old Notaro, a stand-up veteran of 15 years, was in the midst of a string of misfortunes: She had been hospitalized and debilitated by clostridium difficile, her mother had died in a tragic accident, she went through a break-up, and, days earlier, she had learned she had breast cancer.
"It's weird because with humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equal comedy," Notaro told a stunned crowd. "I am just at tragedy right now."
But Notaro's performance wasn't a weepy lament. It was matter-of-fact storytelling, filled with heartbreakingly funny observations. It was taking comedy straight into darkness and grief, in the rawest catharsis.
"It felt amazing," Notaro said recently, days after moving from Los Angeles to New York. "When I was on stage, I felt, 'Wow, I think something really special is happening.' "
The audience — at turns confused, amazed, gasping, saddened, hysterical — cheered her on, some through tears. Among those there that night was Louis C.K., who insisted Notaro release the largely unrehearsed show as a comedy album. He put it out on his website, calling it "one of the greatest stand-up performances I ever saw."
"Here was this small woman standing alone against death and simply reporting where her mind had been and what had happened and employing her gorgeously acute stand-up voice to her own death," C.K. wrote on his website. "She proved that everything is funny. And has to be."
It took Notaro more than a month to convince herself to release it (mostly because it was so raw and off-the-cuff, like an open-mic performance), but she was eventually swayed by thinking it could help someone. (Part of the proceeds will go to charity.) She dubbed it the typical-seeming title "Live," but it's meant to be pronounced as in "to live."
Notaro was performing that night partly to work out material she had written on her ordeal, having been urged by "This American Life" host Ira Glass, who would later feature her story on the radio program. Just 90 minutes before going on stage, she had thought she would begin by sitting down and laying everything out for the audience. Instead, she decided such an apologetic opening was "lame" and was seized by maniacal laughter at the thought of beginning as she did: "This is how I'm going to deal with having cancer," she told herself. She paused, worried that she might offend anyone with cancer, before realizing: "Wait, I have cancer."
Notaro is now back from the brink. She had a double mastectomy, and doctors believe the cancer has been removed with recurrence unlikely. She finds herself a sensation, and has signed a book deal with Ecco Press. Her first album, "Good One," is among the best-sellers on iTunes. "I've never gone viral before," she says.
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