Tig Notaro on standing up, coming out and why it’s OK to joke about Israel-Gaza

The American comedian became famous for using her cancer diagnosis as part of her stand-up comedy routines

"Hello, I have cancer," is the opening line that changed Tig Notaro’s life.

Until 2012, she was a little-known American stand-up on the circuit. Then an onslaught of bad news and unfortunate circumstances led her to take a frank, bold and altogether more personal approach to her live performances.

Contracting pneumonia months earlier, the complications of which nearly killed her, her mother died suddenly after hitting her head in a fall. Then she ended a relationship with her long-term girlfriend. And shortly afterwards, she was diagnosed with cancer.

How did she get through it all? She joked about it. And pretty soon her comedic catharsis became a viral talking point.

It led her to have a sell-out run at Edinburgh Festival last year with her debut UK show “Boyish Girl Interrupted”. And she’s just about to embark on her first mini-tour of the UK this September, which will see her take to the stage in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow.

Here, she talks life on the other side of success, coming out in the eyes of the media and why there is no topic comedians shouldn’t joke about – including Israel-Gaza.

The Independent: You’ve got your first UK mini tour coming up in September. What can audiences expect from that?

Tig Notaro: "I definitely have a whole new chunk of material, I did some of it at Edinburgh but I have a lot more that I’ve written since then. Some of it touches on my personal life and, stories of things I’ve gone through, just… I don’t know, I’m excited about it. It will be a good show."

I: You’ve spoken in the past about using comedy as a vehicle for your own catharsis, especially in terms of the diagnosis you had. Is this still the case with your new material?

T: "Well I don’t really have anything… My life couldn’t really be better right now, and I’m happy and healthy and so I touch on what I went through briefly but that’s not the majority of my show. I’ve definitely always used humour with tragedy and… Well, hopefully I won’t continue to! I won’t need to. But it’s certainly helpful."

I: You shocked a lot of people when you came out on stage in 2012 and your opening line for your material was "I have cancer". Are there any topics, do you think, that comedians shouldn’t joke about?

T: "Nothing that comes to mind. I think everything can be done appropriately, you know there are a lot of people that just try desperately to shock with topics that there’s nothing really behind their need to shock. And I think, for me, like my friend Sarah Silverman is a great example of… There’s so much behind her point and what he shocks people with."

I: So as long as they have something to back it up with? A reason behind why they are joking about something?

T: "Yeah, that’s my feeling. I think as long as you have something to say about the topic and you can be funny about it, and make it light, I think that’s how I feel."

I: A good example could be the fact that a lot of comedians are jumping on Israel-Gaza at the moment, and making jokes about that conflict quite publicly. Bill Maher being one of the people that springs to mind. What do you think about that? Is it appropriate?

T: "It’s not a territory that I go into. But of course it’s all very upsetting. I guess I feel that if there’s the right angle… It’s not that you’re making fun of something, it’s all in how it’s done."

I: You also used comedy, and your stage show, as a platform to come out as gay publicly. How easy was that for you? Did it make the process easier to be able to throw theatrics behind it?

T: "Well, it’s something I didn’t do much previously, but after I came out about having cancer and everything going on in my life, it’s something that I’m way more open to in my life and knocked open in that show. Like I said before, my life is really great right now so there’s nothing terribly revealing other than personal stories and anecdotes and things. But I’m finding it to be a lot easier and I’m more open to sharing personal stories about myself than before."

I: Why did you find it so difficult to share that you were gay with your audiences before this?

T: "It wasn’t that I found it difficult, it’s just where my thoughts in comedy were. It wasn’t an angle that I was aiming for."

I: In a few interviews you conducted back in 2011, a number of journalists inferred in their pieces that discussing topics of sexuality, and your sexuality, used to be subjects that were completely off-limits. What made you change your mind?

T: "I really, I think I just felt a particular separation between working and private life and when I was going through that four-month period at the time, I guess I just felt like I had nothing to lose, and I also didn’t know that my story was going to go viral. I thought I was just telling a room full of people one night. I didn’t know that my life was going to change in the way that it did. But yeah, there wasn’t really a spotlight on me too much, before anyway. And there wasn’t a million interviewers lining up to find out about my personal life, it just wasn’t something I was really sharing. Really, any part of my personal life."

I: There has been a lot of discussion in the media recently about whether famous people coming out as gay should be news at all. What’s your opinion on that?

T: "I mean, I see the importance of people knowing, the power of knowing someone that’s gay and changing people’s minds, with acceptance and… I think there’s certainly that importance to it. But, I mean, I certainly understand people’s need for privacy and wanting not to go into it whether they are gay or straight. I really feel like its each person’s choice to share their personal life, and as far as things making headline news, I think they just what people want to read about, so of course they’re going to make it headline news. It doesn’t feel like headline news to me, but I can see all angles of it."

I: There has also been some debate over whether people in the public eye have a "responsibility" to the LGBT community to come out, and whether not doing so means that they are projecting shame in some sort of way. What do you think about that?

T: "Well, like I just said, I think it’s everyone’s choice. I don’t feel like its projecting shame. People have very different personal reasons that they do what they do and they are on their own timeline in life to get through what they’re getting through. I don’t feel like you have to… I think it’s all what each individual is comfortable with."

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