Last summer, Tig Notaro performed one of the ballsiest acts the comedy world has ever encountered. Her set at Largo in L.A. became so legendary so fast that Louis C.K. persuaded her to release it via his website. The performance, meant to work out some material for a related This American Life episode, indeed ended up on the popular radio program, in the raw, just edited for time. It’s likely the first (and hopefully the last) time a comedian warms up the crowd with “Good evening, hello, I have cancer, how are you?”
Her 30-minute portion of the Largo show, released last year via Secretly Canadian, is titled Live, as in “not die” rather than “in concert.” This week, a reissue with a bonus story recorded by the Moth is included. I’ve listened to Live three times now, and I’m sure I’ll listen to the Moth story many times more. In the liner notes, Notaro writes that she was reluctant to release such an unpolished set, but then, “I realized that if I could help a single person on the earth feel that they can push through something—whether it’s a rough day at the office or a deadly diagnosis—it made zero sense for me not to release it.”
Notaro’s material deals with an amazingly hellacious four months she experienced last year. The bulk of Notaro’s set deals with her still-fresh cancer diagnosis. With her husky, deadpan delivery, Notaro calmly dissects her doctor visits, “funny” cancer greeting cards, awkward conversations with friends (“no one will even casually talk to me”), and getting back into the dating pool (should her online profile read “I have cancer. Serious inquiries only,” she wondered).
Rolling Stone described Live as “an amazing, uncomfortable document.” Maybe it is uncomfortable, for those who have never dealt with cancer up-close. For the rest of us, or at least for me, it’s quite the opposite: it’s honest, relatable, relieving, and funny. When you or a close loved one have cancer, everything quickly becomes all hushed tones and sympathetic glances, and attempts to combine reality with humor typically fall in the lame “funny cancer greeting card” territory. It’s one of the most unbearable parts of the experience, especially if you have a well-honed, sardonic sense of humor.
I find the same to be true of death in general, and Notaro touches on this as well in discussing the tragic passing of her mother. While she shares some tales during Live, Notaro’s 15-minute story for the Moth deals exclusively with the aftermath of losing her mother, and in turn growing closer to her “robotic” stepfather. Again, when someone in your immediate family dies, most people don’t start cracking jokes. It seems, well, crass. But Notaro walks this fine line, blending the poignant in with the ridiculous. You’ll laugh. You may cry. And if you’ve ever stared cancer or death in the face, you’ll get it.