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Tig Notaro turns pain into laughter

Comedian Tig Notaro's life was in turmoil when she took the Largo stage. The next 30 minutes changed everything.

October 10, 2012|By Deborah Vankin, Los Angeles Times

Notaro asked her friends if one of them would perform some stand-up to lighten the mood. Before any of them could take her up on her offer, one last comedian friend, Natasha Leggero, rushed in, flustered, complaining about L.A. traffic. That gave Notaro the perfect opening to make her own money-joke: "I ... just ... got ... my ... entire ... chest ... cavity ... removed," she mumbled. They all cracked up.

Notaro is relieved to say that her health prognosis is positive after the successful surgery; the cancer hasn't spread. And it led to a communication from her estranged father. He read about her illness in the news.

"I found out through my aunt, that he found out," she says. "But I haven't talked to him yet."

Notaro, 41, grew up in Pass Christian, Miss., and outside Houston with her mother — her parents divorced when she was 6 months old. Tig is a name her older brother made up; her given name is Mathilde.

She dropped out of high school after failing three grades and, as a music lover who played guitar and drums, thought she might go into the music business. When her childhood friend Beth moved to Los Angeles with ambitions to produce sitcoms, Notaro, then in her mid-20s, tagged along. When she arrived, she discovered a wonderland of open-mike nights.

"Coffee shops, laundromats, clubs," she says of the late '90s L.A. comedy scene. "It was something I'd always wanted to do."

Notaro's humor evolved from crafted one-liners, to two- and three-minute bits and more recent avant-garde stunts, like silently pushing around a wooden stool on "Conan." Her longer stories at first seem like improvised conversation; but ultimately reveal a crafted, often cyclical structure that makes brilliant use of repetition.

Take her piece about successive run-ins with '80s pop star Taylor Dayne, performed in May during a live staged show for "This American Life." "Tig plays on the audience's expectations in a completely masterful way," host Ira Glass says.

Notaro doesn't actually sit down to write material. Instead, she jots down a few key words on a cocktail napkin — "tube socks," for instance. She records her performances, then tweaks the routines. That's why Notaro recorded the Largo show — she never intended to make a second album that night.

"It's not my typical stand-up," Notaro says, noting that she initially wanted to edit the recording before allowing C.K. to release it. "It's me just sifting through the craziness. 'Cancer … my mother … girlfriend …' This is just so raw."

Is she concerned about being typecast as a "cancer comedian"?

"I'm aware of it, but I'm not worried," she says. "I'm not gonna start headlining the cancer comedy tour.

"Right now I just feel so open …" she says. "I don't know if it's just for this time period, in a therapeutic way, but I'm very excited. I'm also scared, but I'm very excited about life."

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

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