Tig Notaro on Taking Her Comedy Cross-Country

The comedian’s new Showtime documentary is a wonderfully intimate way to see her at work.

Stand-up comedian and writer Tig Notaro is taking her show on the road for Showtime’s special “Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro” (April 17th, 9 EST). It’s an easy-going documentary in which she and her opening act John Dore travel through the heart of Americana, performing sets in fans’ living rooms and backyards.

Notaro talked to Maxim about joking about her cancer, her topless set, and why she loves performing in Cleveland so much.

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Why’d you decide to go cross-country?

Well, my friend Martha Kelly and I started the tour together almost a decade ago. She didn’t have an interest in continuing to do it, so I pitched it to Showtime and they bought it as a comedy special.

Did you and John ever get sick of each other on the road?

No, not at all. We were only actually on the road for maybe a week. He’s just such an easygoing, nice, open, funny guy that I just thought it would be the perfect pairing. He and I  have really fun interactions.

Yeah, the chemistry was pretty great to watch. Now, I know you guys got thousands of submissions  from fans wanting you to perform in their houses. How did you ultimately choose the venues?

I’m never really looking for something utterly insane. I always have faith that everybody’s interesting and has a story to tell or that their town or their house is cool. I’ve been doing this for almost a decade and nobody ever lets me down.

Do you learn that there are any parts of the country where your sense of humor resonated?

I’m constantly surprised at how I can find my audience anywhere. I had never performed in Cleveland until a few months ago and they would not let me leave the stage. I almost did a two hour show, and I never would’ve guessed that that’s my sweet spot on the map. Nothing against Cleveland because, like I said, any person’s house is interesting. I’m just surprised when it’s city that’s not totally obvious, where people were into it.

I called my agent immediately and was like “I never want to skip Cleveland again.”

One of my favorite scenes from your Showtime special was the one where you and Jon are talking about merits of different types of gravestones and then one that you’d want to buy. It’s hilarious, and also pretty dark – but then again, a lot of your act does work in your cancer, and openly discusses death. How did you become able to joke about that?

There was a period in time when I was in such a bad place: it was before I even had cancer and I was diagnosed with this thing called C-diff. I was unable to eat food, and right in the middle of it, my mother died. I was in so much pain – emotional and physical pain – that I didn’t have a sense of humor about anything for a while.

I think it was actually my cancer diagnosis; I don’t know if I had snapped and become insane but when they were like “Oh you have cancer” I was like “Oh my god oh my god oh my god, you don’t understand, I can’t eat food and my mothers dead, I can’t have cancer.” I think that’s when I snapped, and that was when I really got a sense of humor about those things because it was so over-the-top ridiculous.

Another thing I noticed was that you have a very interesting relationship with your audience. You will often talk to them and bring them to the act. How did you build that rapport with your audience and decide the way that you were going to interact with them during shows?

Well, I like for it to happen naturally, and it always seems to. But I also think it originally came from being so reserved and deadpan in the early days of my stand-up. I would maybe be bombing and feel disconnected from the audience, and it started to help me get their attention a little more. I still use that as a way of just everyone feeling connected in the room. I certainly don’t like being rudely heckled, but when it naturally or authentically I think it could be so fun.

My shows feel like we’re all at the same party. I mean, I’m the one who’s talking the most at the party, but I want people to feel like they left and felt like they were all in this experience together, not that I was just up there talking to them. I love that style as well, but as for what excites me, I love telling what I’ve written or thought about, but also involving everyone.

You recently did a topless set at Town Hall  that’s been lauded as an incredible, brave stand-up set. Is that something you want to replicate or did it just happen spontaneously?

I actually did it twice. The first time I did it was in Los Angeles at Largo in a more experimental way because I had felt compelled after I had surgery to take my shirt off. It dawned on me how taboo it was to be topless as a woman, whether you have boobs or a double mastectomy. There’s no place socially to take your shirt off, and I was thinking how odd that was in either case.

In my case my skin just healed and I have scars that just show that I got through a potentially deadly disease. You see scars on people’s legs and their faces; because they’re placed on my chest it’s not any different. So I just tried it out at Largo, and they gave me a standing ovation in the middle of my show. Then in New York I did it at Town Hall and was like, “okay, I’ve done this before, I’m going to do it tonight.” I got so much feedback – from men and women, cancer survivors, people who have never had cancer – just everybody saying that their heads exploded when I took my shirt off, then 30 seconds later, they didn’t even notice and they were just listening to my stand up. And that was the whole point: to show that it’s really nothing.

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