Culture At Large

Tig Notaro: comedy, cancer and community

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

Comedian Tig Notaro opened the stand-up set that made a splash last August with the shocking combination of comedy and tragedy that typified the entire half-hour: “Hello, good evening, hello, I have cancer, how are you? Hi, how are you. Is everyone having a good time? I have cancer. How are you?”

As the chuckling audience quickly came to realize, her claim to have cancer wasn’t just a bit. She had really been diagnosed with cancer just a few days before. To make matters worse, in the previous months, she had experienced a life-threatening bacterial infection, a relationship break-up and the sudden, unexpected death of her mother.

For the rest of the set, Notaro balanced sharing her difficult recent experiences with humor and trying to let her audience relax. In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, both Notaro and fellow comedian Louis C.K., who was at the performance, said that the variety of responses from the audience was great. Some laughed, some were actually crying, some were doing both at once, some were silent. The way Notaro soothes her audience while acknowledging the weight of what she is revealing is quite funny, but it also reveals what it is like to “mourn with those who mourn.” It can be overwhelming, and sometimes puts the sick or mourning person in the strange position of comforting their friends. "It's OK,” Notaro tells the audience at one point, “it's OK. It's going to be OK. It might not be OK. I'm just saying, you're gonna be OK. I don't know what's going on with me." Fortunately, it now seems that it will be OK. After surgery, her prognosis is good and she is cancer-free.

The way Notaro soothes her audience is quite funny, but it also reveals what it is like to “mourn with those who mourn.”

What is so profound about this recording (now available for purchase from Louis C.K.’s website) is what it tells us about community, communication and suffering. One clear lesson from this recording and the interviews about it is that there is more than one way to be supportive in a bad situation. When NPR’s Terry Gross asked Notaro about audience reactions, and their diversity, she responded that it was “a lot” and “intense,” but also that they were “just so tremendous” and “supportive.” This has been a lesson that was hard for me to learn, that supportive presence in a bad situation can take a variety of forms and still be supportive, and that one can be honest and sad and joyful all at once. I think Notaro’s brave monologue and her experience demonstrate how sharing our pain in community and supporting each other is healing in itself.

Notaro also makes fun of the cliche that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. She imagines angels trying to tell God to stop and God saying, “No, I think she can handle a little bit more.”

“I think God is insane,” she concludes. “Or not there at all.”

That should advise Christians to not reduce our theodicy to cliches. But that’s not the last word she says on the matter. The very last thing she says on the recording, over an emotional roar of applause is, “I guess God was right. I can handle this. I can totally take so much more.” That last line speaks so clearly to the power of community, even of strangers, to help us. Perhaps the truth isn’t that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle on our own, but that God sends us others to help us handle things. With community showing God’s love (whether they attribute it to God or not), we can handle a lot more than we think.

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Entertainment