'Hello. I have cancer': When comedian Tig Notaro discovered she had a tumour she decided the show must go on

Last year, Notaro contracted pneumonia, lost her beloved mother and broke up with her girlfriend. Then she was diagnosed with cancer. But she didn't let that stop her performing a gig in LA, which her friend Louis CK called a "truly great, masterful stand-up set"

Friday 3 August 2012 did not begin well for Tig Notaro. Several months earlier, she'd contracted pneumonia, which segued into a Clostridium difficile bacterial infection that almost killed her. A week after she left hospital, her beloved mother had tripped, hit her head and died. While Notaro was navigating the depths of grief, she and her girlfriend broke up. And then, in July she was diagnosed with cancer.

So paralysed had Notaro been by the onslaught of bad news that it took her a full week to visit an oncologist, who told her that she had stage two bilateral breast cancer, that the tumour on her left breast was invasive, and that they wouldn't know whether it had spread until surgery. That was Thursday. The next night, she was booked to perform a comedy show.

Notaro was a successful stand-up, well-loved, especially in Los Angeles, where she has lived for the past 17 years. She had a full touring schedule and a handful of TV credits. She'd appeared on Conan O'Brien's talk-show, done a monologue for the popular radio programme This American Life. She was close friends with Sarah Silverman. But she was a comedians' comedian, not a household name. As for her jokes, they were mostly absurd and inconsequential. She told a great story about a bizarre series of encounters with the now-obscure 1980s pop singer Taylor Dayne. She did an inexplicably hilarious bit where she pushed a stool, squeaking, across the stage ("Stool Movement"). In the weeks preceding her diagnosis, she'd been crafting a joke about being overtaken by a bee on the I-405, a notoriously congestion-prone LA freeway.

But after everything that had happened, she just couldn't bring herself to do a regular set, to tell jokes about bees on the 405. On the other hand, she absolutely wanted to perform. "My life had fallen apart very quickly," Notaro says now, "and I knew that I was about to have surgery and go into treatment. I didn't want to be foolish and assume that everything would be OK, so I wanted to do stand-up one last time, in case I died of cancer. I wanted to be honest about where I was and what had happened – and to see whether any of it was funny."

Most people consume stand-up as polished, hour-long sets. But at Largo, one of LA's leading comedy venues, audiences often have the privilege of seeing the city's best stand-ups perform works-in-progress, comedy in the raw. And if anybody was raw, it was Notaro. That night, she clutched some notes as she waited in the wings: scribbled observations from her horrific week.

Slight in build at the best of times, she'd shed 20 pounds courtesy of the C.diff infection in her digestive tract, and regained only five of them. She's 42, but boyish enough to have some amusing stories about being mistaken for a man. Her wardrobe is exclusively, relentlessly casual.

Largo's 280-capacity house was full, not least because one of the other comedians on the bill was Louis CK – maybe the hottest comic in the world at that moment. He and Notaro are old pals, so he gave her a warm introduction, and then she stepped on stage. "Good evening," she said. "Hello. I have cancer. How are you?"

***

Saturday 4 August 2012 started a little better. Early that morning, Louis CK had posted a tweet about the previous evening's performance. "In 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great, masterful stand-up sets," he wrote. "One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo."

By the time she woke up, Notaro's voicemail was full. She'd received hundreds of emails, some of which contained offers for book deals. There is, believe it or not, a cancer comedy canon: other stand-ups have mined their experience of the disease for comic effect. But to Notaro's knowledge, none of them had ever addressed their own cancer while still in the first throes of post-diagnosis shock. Or at least, none had done it in the age of social networking, and with Louis CK standing in the wings. All the same, Notaro, who doesn't have a Twitter account, was baffled. "I'd gone on stage thinking I was having a private moment with that venue," she says. "I hadn't grasped the power of Twitter. I was so confused my head spun around. I was like some great-great-grandmother who can't understand social media."

Less than 12 months later, and thanks in large part to that single tweet, Notaro's face is in Time magazine. She has roles in several forthcoming films, including a documentary about herself. After Louis CK started selling a recording of her lightning-in-a-bottle Largo set on his website, it topped the Billboard comedy chart. Live has now shifted more than 100,000 digital copies; it was recently released on CD and vinyl, too. (Her previous album, Good One, sold 6,700.) Professor Blastoff, the podcast she presents with two comedian friends, reached number one on the iTunes comedy podcast chart. This month, she's performing at her first Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Her new material won't all be about cancer, she warns: the disease "did not transform me into a totally new comedian". But nor will it all be bees on the 405.

In the past, Notaro resisted attending Scotland's annual comedy blowout, generally considered the best way for a working stand-up to build a UK audience. "So many friends of mine have come back from Edinburgh and said, 'Oh my God, I was performing for a month to five people a night.' I didn't have any interest in struggling that way. Why would I go all the way to Edinburgh to perform for five people? I always thought that if I reached a point in my career when I had more going on, and I probably wouldn't have to perform to five people, then I might go to Edinburgh." To raise her profile in the meantime, she says, "I found a different route. I decided to go with cancer."

***

It's almost a year since that Largo show, and we're sitting in Notaro's loft apartment in downtown LA. She has been living here since before all this began. The place is modestly decorated: some framed posters from comedy shows past; an old TV given to her by Silverman, which she never watches; a string of Buddhist prayer flags from a girlfriend who helped her through the worst of times. "A friend of mine said recently that if she hadn't seen me in 15 years and she walked into my life again now, she'd never know that anything had changed," she says. "I'm not an extravagant person."

Following a double mastectomy, Notaro is in remission. She'll be in treatment for the next five years, taking daily hormone-blocking pills and making regular visits to a doctor, but right now she is cancer-free. She's dating someone new. She took up one of those book offers, and the manuscript – an inspirational memoir of that awful four months, with funny bits – lies half-finished on her kitchen table. "I thought I'd be living in fear," she says, "because so much bad happened to me so quickly. But I feel really, really good. I know anything could happen, good or bad, and I'm just going to live my life. I feel like I have a superpower. I feel very lucky all that stuff happened to me. I wouldn't take back having cancer. I wouldn't take back any of it – except my mother."

Her mother, who was 65 when she died, was an artist, a dancer and a major influence on Notaro's comedy. "She was undeniably hilarious. She was the life of the party, gregarious, loved pranks. She was really into comedy: Lucille Ball, Gilda Radner, Joan Rivers. She said anything she wanted. She was shocking. My stepfather was an attorney in the military, and they were polar opposites, but on some level it worked. He kept her in line. We all tried to keep her in line."

Notaro is from generations of Southerners – her great-great-grandfather was a one-term mayor of New Orleans. She was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1971, and grew up in nearby Pass Christian, her mother's hometown, which is best known now for having been directly in the path of Hurricane Katrina when it struck the Gulf of Mexico in 2005. Though her family's homes were among the few that survived the storm, most of the town was flattened. The loss was devastating. "But it was also my first real lesson in letting go, and realising that material things don't matter."

She spent her teenage years in Texas, where her stepfather was from. But she underachieved in high school, and dropped out after ninth grade. "I didn't really relate to the traditional life: go to school, graduate college, marriage, kids, suburbs," she says. "I had a bowl haircut for way too long. I wet my pants. I was a weirdo. I was popular, in that I was well-liked by everyone, but I wasn't going to be voted most popular at my school."

Her cultural first love was rock music. She liked the Beatles, and went through a Van Halen phase. But her all-time favourite band is the Pretenders. Given her insouciant on-stage persona, her androgynous cool, Notaro's Chrissie Hynde fixation makes total sense. She's had the opportunity to meet the Pretenders frontwoman more than once, and always said no. "I want her to remain a hero. She's my favourite thing in the world. She was very influential in my comedy, because she has the same attitude my mother had: 'Do whatever you want. Who cares what anyone thinks?'"

After dropping out of school, Notaro moved in with a couple of friends who were studying at the University of Texas, in Austin. When they graduated, she went with them to Denver, Colorado – where her older brother, Renaud, now lives and works as a sports-radio host. She joined the music business there for a while, until her two best friends told her they were moving on again, this time to Los Angeles. "I had no interest in LA," she recalls. "I thought it was just celebrities on Hollywood Boulevard, or it was [the TV show] Cops. None of that appealed to me. But I moved here, and I loved it immediately."

She always wanted to try stand-up, but had never got around to it. In her late twenties, and in LA – arguably the world capital of comedy – she finally took her chance. "I guess I struggled with depression or confusion when I was a teenager and in my earlier years," she says. "But a lot of that just had to do with not knowing what I wanted to do, or who I was. Figuring out that I'm a stand-up comedian really got me clarity. That's who I am. I remember finding myself part of the comedy scene, seeing the people I was around, and thinking, 'Oh, this makes sense!' That takes care of depression right away. Yes, I've had to travel a lot, stay in dumpy condos without a lot of sleep – and sometimes I bomb on stage. But I have no complaints."

And at her lowest ebb last year, with her mother and girlfriend gone, it was comedy that came to the rescue. "When I walked on stage at Largo, I couldn't imagine what was to come in my life. I thought that in time word would trickle out, and I would maybe run into comedians a few years down the line and they would say, 'Oh, I heard you had cancer. How are you?'" Yet as she performed, made madly funny observations about the aftermath of her mother's death, her break-up, her cancer diagnosis, she genuinely began to feel better. "I remember thinking when I was on stage, 'This is maybe a really special moment in my life. This feels good.'"

After she was done, she returned to the wings where Louis CK and the other comedians on the bill had been waiting, watching. "They were all mouths agape," she remembers, "because none of them had known what was going on. They were like, 'What the hell just happened?!' And then they all started tweeting."

'Live' is available on iTunes. 'Tig Notaro: Boyish-Girl Interrupted' is at the Gilded Balloon Teviot, Edinburgh, from 16 to 25 August (edfringe.com)

She said what?: Excerpts from Tig Notaro's set at Largo

"After I got the biopsies they did another mammogram. I had to have my shirt off, and I was standing there at the machine and the technician said, 'Oh my gosh, you have such a flat stomach! What is your secret?' And I was like, 'Oh, I'm dying.'"

"With humour, the equation is: tragedy plus time equals comedy. I am just at tragedy right now."

"How am I going to date?… Do I go online and just make a profile? I'm single and I would love to meet somebody, but this is weird timing. 'I have cancer. Serious enquiries only.'"

"I refer to it as the C.diff diet. You sit there and watch the pounds melt away. Don't like exercising? Who does, girlfriend? This diet does all the work for you."

"What's nice about all of this is that you can always rest assured that God never gives you more than you can handle… I just keep picturing God going, 'You know what? I think she can take a little more.' And the angels are… going, 'God! What are you doing?!'"

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