Tig Notaro Is Still Being Vulnerable

A decade after the stand-up set that revealed her cancer diagnosis, the comedian doesn’t care how people see her.

Photo of Tig Notaro divided into rectangular sections
The Atlantic; Larry Busacca / Getty

The comedian Tig Notaro is perhaps most famous for her 2012 stand-up set in Los Angeles during which she revealed a recent cancer diagnosis. “With humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy,” she said at the time. “I am just at tragedy.” The performance’s release as an album, Live (as in to be alive, not in person), hit No. 1 on the Billboard comedy chart, received a Grammy nomination, and launched Notaro to stardom—all while she continued to battle breast cancer, which resulted in a double mastectomy. Notaro’s illness, and the reception to it, revealed to her the value of vulnerability not only in her role as a comedian, but also in her personal life as she opened herself up to support from friends and family.

In the decade since Live, Notaro has found success as a writer, an actor, and a comedian—and stayed open about her experiences with cancer and surgery. She even performed part of her 2015 special, Boyish Girl Interrupted, topless. “I was so scared of the surgery and having scars,” she told the Atlantic senior editor Gal Beckerman. “And I was like, ‘I like my body as it is.’” In conversation at The Atlantic’s 2022 People v. Cancer summit, Notaro discussed her thoughts before that first viral performance, navigating the line between vulnerability and oversharing, and her advice for people processing their own diagnosis. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Gal Beckerman: You went onstage and famously said, “Hello, I have cancer.” It made me wonder about that moment you decided, I’m going to expose this part of my life and what I’m going through, and I’m going to do it in this venue of comedy.

Tig Notaro: When I first was diagnosed 10 years ago, I was a very different person. As a comedian, I was very withholding about personal things. So my immediate response was to keep it a secret. Then, as I got closer to this show—that was booked before my diagnosis—I decided to do it. During a four-month period of time, I had pneumonia. I had an intestinal disease. My mother tripped and died. I went through a breakup. And then I was diagnosed with cancer. I think because I had seen how quickly life goes away, I opted to share what was going on and see if I could find some levity, because I was overwhelmed.

Beckerman: Did you worry that it wouldn’t be funny?

Notaro: I still worry it wasn’t funny. It’s always hard for me to hear [the recording of Live], and people think it’s because of the time period or what I was going through. But it’s more so that, as a comedian, it’s hard to listen to myself do comedy, and especially that particular show. It was so in-the-moment and taking this risk of sharing several things that were so personal, when I usually didn’t do that. But I also didn’t worry too much, because I already felt like I had almost lost everything.

Beckerman: How did you understand the audience’s laughter in that moment? Was it catharsis, where you’re giving them permission to laugh about something scary? Was it discomfort?

Notaro: It was all over the board. At first, they thought I was joking, because I wanted to present it in the way that a lot of comedians come out onstage and say, “Hello, good evening, any birthdays tonight? How’s everyone doing?” Once people started to realize that I was serious, it was these pockets of explosive laughter, and then it was awkward and quiet. But there were also people crying. There was no part of me that was thinking that this was going to go viral.

Beckerman: Did your sense of what comedy is or what comedy can do change as a result of that reaction?

Notaro: Well, it was very much a vulnerable moment. But it taught me the power of sharing and communicating and accepting help. In time, I’ve also been going through the process of learning how to balance that and not feeling like I have to share everything. I am married with children now, so it’s not just my life anymore.

Beckerman: How important was it for you to break down stigmas around cancer—such as by going topless after your double mastectomy—once you discovered that there were certain areas that people still felt uncomfortable with?

Notaro: When I had the idea to go onstage and do comedy with my shirt off and not talk about cancer, I was actually told by one of my agents, “That’s probably not a good idea. It might come across like you’re trying to get attention.” And I was like, “That’s the whole point. I’m trying to draw attention to this conversation.” But I was also thinking about how, when I was looking at my body, I was so scared of the surgery and having scars. And I was like, “I like my body as it is.” I thought about how scars represented healing. So I wanted that challenge of Can I be onstage talking about airplanes and travel while not acknowledging that my shirt is off? The feedback, which was so exciting to me, went beyond breast cancer or women. I had men coming up to me saying that this was also about body image and positivity.

Beckerman: What kind of advice do you give in terms of helping people understand how they can make it through cancer or think about themselves and their diagnosis?

Notaro: It’s sometimes so hard to get out of bed. I felt like the most incredible powerhouse alive just when I got up and brushed my teeth, because I was so scared and depressed. Just give yourself credit for even the smallest steps. On the other side, if you know somebody who’s sick or struggling, I think that what I found most helpful was to not be railroaded with positivity. If somebody is scared or concerned, don’t deny them the opportunity to express that.

Beckerman: You’ve hinted that it was necessary to have people you could lean on and to not try to do it on your own.

Notaro: I was in a wheelchair. I was unable to lift my arms. I was so weak, I could barely stand. I couldn’t walk across my room. And I was telling my friends, “I can do it. I can handle this. I don’t need anybody’s help.” And my friends were like, “Are you out of your mind?” And they just took care of me. You hear about these different organizations: numbers you can call, websites you can go to, people you can talk to. Then you get diagnosed. You’re like, “What do I do? Who do I talk to?” And it’s important to remember that there are people out there ready to talk to you, ready to help lead you in the right direction.

Beckerman: How much has being a cancer survivor become part of your identity? Is it something that you feel pigeonholed by? Is it something you embrace?

Notaro: After the album became popular, I had a moment of not being sure how I felt, because people were always asking me, “How does it feel to be the cancer comedian?” For a while, I thought, I guess that is a bummer. And then I thought, Well, it was actually stand-up. I was doing stand-up and said I had cancer. It was just different material. I reached another level where I thought, I actually don’t care if people see me as a comedian with cancer. I don’t care if people see me as the female comedian, the gay comedian. You don’t have control over how people are going to see you. I’m going to be over here doing what I’m going to be doing anyway. And that’s being a comedian.