'Wildly inappropriate' laughter is how comedian Tig Notaro took on cancer

The author of I'm Just a Person talks about finding unexpected happiness during the darkest period of her life.

Tig Notaro

Photo, Todd Williamson/Getty Images

“Good evening, hello! I have cancer, how are you?” That’s how comedian Tig Notaro opened her career-making stand-up set in 2012, just nine days after learning her diagnosis. In her new memoir, I’m Just a Person, Notaro dissects the worst four months of her life and how laughing kept her head above water.

Your mother died in a freak accident, you went through a breakup and you were diagnosed with breast cancer, all in the same year. Did you ever expect life to completely pull the rug from under you?

I used to think, wrongly, “Oh, I’m not going to have cancer.” I thought my mother would be an old woman that I’d care for. But, on the other hand, I didn’t see myself having the crazy success that I’ve had. I didn’t see myself getting married. Everything is nothing that I imagined, and not just the bad — the good as well.

And your wife is expecting twins too! Was it strange to revisit all the bad, now that your life is so good?

Yeah, but those stories still follow me around. The book has been a slow process of writing about my childhood and raking through all the moments when everything fell apart. I have the opportunity to speak about my present life, and I try not to brag too much, but I have euphoric feelings [about it] near daily.

I don’t mean this disparagingly, but this book was not as funny as I thought it was going to be. Was it hard for you to be vulnerable without cracking wise?

I don’t ever feel the pressure to be funny; I just want to have a real exchange.

But many of us have this weird tendency to laugh when things are going badly, even if it’s wildly inappropriate. It’s just that release of tension. When I came up with the idea to open my set with “Hello, I have cancer,” I started laughing hysterically.

Comics often use humour to obscure vulnerability, whereas in that set, you used humour to amplify it.

When you’ve lost everything, it becomes easier to act like “Well, I have nothing to lose.” And even though I have such a love for stand-up, I also think there was something in me that was probably asking for help. But I wouldn’t change a thing, and I’d do it again. Though I hope I don’t have to do it again.

I'm just a person, Tig Notaro


I’m Just a Person, Tig Notaro, $34.



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