Because Tig begins the set with this age old formula used as an excuse for 9-11 and holocaust jokes, I’ll begin with it too. Tragedy + Time = comedy. But what happens when the formula looks more like this: tragedy – time = what does it equal?
In today’s internet age, a moment can become legendary without warrant or deserving. At any particular moment dozens or perhaps even hundreds of people are ready to falsely immortalize anything with a tweet, an instagram photo, or a youtube video. Go to any concert or sporting event and the galaxy of flash bulbs will have you convinced that you are sitting before a legendary moment. When that doesn’t happen we manufacture it.
How many truly legendary moments can we really think of, the moon landing? Willie Mays infamous catch in the 1954 World Series?… okay, I’ll admit that most of the legendary moments I can think of our sports based. Comedy has had it’s share of legendary moments, imagine being in the audience the first time George Carlin unleashed the seven words you can’t say on television, or sitting in the crowd at the Aladdin hotel in Vegas when Richard Pryor changed course on his career by exclaiming “What the fuck am I doing here?” and walking off stage.
A truly legendary moment rarely happens, and when it does it is almost never documented for later generations to gush over. Let’s also be clear, I’m not talking about Michael Richards berating a heckler with racist bigotry, or Daniel Tosh being misinterpreted by someone who’d never seen him before. Those moments are controversial, and not the stuff legends are made of.
The best, most raw, and honest half hour of comedy ever.
It first appeared in my twitter feed on August 4th, when Jesse Thorn of Bullseye made a somewhat cryptic comment on something awful happening to comedian Tig Notaro, the tweet linked to an article by fellow comedienne Kira Hesser. The blog post wasn’t just some story about how Tig Notaro has breast cancer in both breasts, the article was about how Tig Notaro found out she had breast cancer three days before walking out on stage at Largo in Los Angeles and performing for a half hour about it.
By all accounts, notably Kira Hesser, Ed Helms, Louis CK, and Bill Burr, it was a fucking incredible half hour of comedy. Generally stand up comedy follows that simple formula above, the further away from a tragic event you get the further away from the raw emotions you get, and thus freeing up the comic to find the humor within. Though they want us to believe that these events happened “the other day” we casually notice the lack of sincere emotion attached and we laugh freely and openly. After all, this story might not even be true.
What Tig Notaro did was the height of vulnerability and rawness. She shed the armor that comes standard issue to most comedians and (I’m not sure you could even call it material) unloaded the most exposed and sincere comedy possible. This instantly became a legendary moment in comedy, a moment it seemed that only those in attendance at Largo that night would experience.
Skip ahead to last Friday, when I got an email from Louis CK or rather his email newsletter. In it he detailed his experience the night of that fateful show, and then he got to the heart of the email, he had the recording from Tig’s set, and it was now for sale up on his website. By the way if you didn’t know, Louis CK has been selling his own work on his website for just $5 for almost a year now.
I don’t need to tell you that I immediately jumped at the chance to download the audio of the performance, and it goes without saying that it is nothing short of legendary. It was the pinnacle of what comedy could do when done just right. Tig lives within the awkward laughter of the audience and miraculously pushes past it all to find sincere humor out of what turns out to be three bits of devastating revelations. Prior to being diagnosed with breast cancer, Tig was battling a severe intestinal disease called C. diff. And after that her mother fell, hit her head, and died unexpectedly, for added measure of tragedy, she broke up with her partner.
“Jesus Christ! That really sounds like a laugh riot.” You’re sarcastically exhaling. Which is exactly what I thought before I listened to the set. And it’s not a so called “laugh riot” you’ll have to forgive the saying, but you laugh because if you don’t you’ll cry. You laugh because Tig laughs, you laugh because here is a woman standing on stage without a shred of armor exposing her raw emotions, humorously.
It reminded me of two other performances, the first being that of Julia Sweeny’s God Said Ha, only without the benefit of time to dull the sting of shock and loss. The other was a recording I have of Spalding Gray’s Life Interrupted, which he was in the early stages of developing when he committed suicide. Tig’s set has the feeling of a well rehearsed and polished piece, but the fact is that it just couldn’t be, she was so close to the story that it could practically burn her. There was tragedy, but no time.
At one point it seems she almost becomes self conscious about divulging so many personal details so vulnerably, she begins to get lost and jump around, then she addresses the audience, asking them if they mind her set of “bad news” and would they rather hear her silly jokes instead. The audience recognizing what they were witnessing quickly defended Tig’s previous twenty five minutes, with one audience member shouting back, “This is fucking amazing.” Yes it was.
It’s amazing because Tig Notaro was being so honest with her audience, but it was also amazing because you don’t expect wounds this fresh to generate a half hour of comedy so neat and complete. From almost the moment she began that night she mentioned a silly joke that she’d intended to tell about a bee traveling down the 405 freeway, but always stopped short because to her it just felt weird to tell some silly joke when there were so many more heavy issues weighing on her. In either a stroke of genius or a happy accident she closes her set with that joke. It’s such an amazing moment I don’t even want to ruin it for you, in fact I won’t. Go buy the album.
I’ll be honest, I knew when I downloaded the recording of this set that I was going to hear something amazing. How could it not be, isn’t this what we all crave? Don’t we watch reality television hoping to come across a honest and genuine moment and connect with the person on screen. Tig did that with an audience and now she’s able to do that with an audience at home. What I didn’t realize at the time just before I listened to this album, is that I would hear the greatest half hour of comedy of my life.
A big thank you to Tig Notaro for taking the biggest risk you can take as a performer, especially a comedienne, and spend a half hour being vulnerable. For finding the light out of many of our greatest fears. And a big thank you as well to Louis CK who recognized a legendary moment in comedy history and approached the owner of Largo to see if the set had been recorded. And another thank you to Louis CK for then taking that recording and making it available to all of us to listen to.
There is literally no one I can think of who shouldn’t fork over 500 pennies to louisck.com and buy this album. Once you hear it, you’ll have a hard time listening to anything else, it will just feel a little empty. A portion of this album was featured on this weeks This American Life, and you can listen to it right here.