I felt like the luckiest person to be around people that I could bring ideas, examples and fears and dreams and everything to the table. Having these writers just weave it all together, it was mind-blowing what they helped me do.
Calling comedian Tig Notaro’s 2012 a bad year is like calling the Civil War a small misunderstanding between neighbors. Her now well-documented nightmare year went like this: Weeks after nearly dying from a rare infection called C-diff, her mother tripped on a lamp and hit her head, falling into a coma from which she would not recover. After her mother was taken off life support, Notaro was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer, underwent a double mastectomy, broke up with her girlfriend, and tried and failed at a series of in vitro fertilization treatments.
Her debut TV show, One Mississippi, tweaks the real-life chronology a bit, but essentially starts there. The pilot, which she co-wrote with Diablo Cody, opens with her returning to her birthplace of Mississippi post-mastectomy to be at her mother’s death bed. As depressing as this subject matter is, part of Notaro’s gift is that her deceptively low-key comedy is as hopeful as it is funny. If there is a comic who could make such matters genuinely funny without exploiting sympathies or sentimentality, it’s Notaro.
Physically, she is twig thin with a dramatic swath of dark brown hair somewhere between Elvis and a young Beethoven and a voice that would be ideal for a guided sleep mediation if it didn’t have a subversively wry lilt. It’s the kind of deadpan delivery that flirts with sardonic cynicism, without ever trading in it.
Three days after her cancer diagnosis, she opened a stand-up set at Largo by saying, “Good Evening. Hello. I have cancer.” The act wasn’t just courageous, it was groundbreaking and funny, instantly becoming legendary. Louis CK—frequently cited as the best standup working today—was at the Largo set and thought it was one of the best he’d ever seen, encouraging Notaro to release it as an album. That Grammy-nominated record was followed by a book, I’m Just A Person, a documentary, Tig and now One Mississippi. Her fortune-flipping turn has extended to her personal life as well: she is now happily married and the mother of twin boys. Notaro, who says she learned an abiding hopefulness from her mother, spoke with the Writers Guild of America West, website about writing the pilot of One Mississippi, the joys of working with a writers’ room and how she considers herself “the luckiest unlucky person.”
A lot has understandably been written about the tragic series of events that became the autobiographical launching point for One Mississippi, but I’m curious how you've experienced the way the show has gone on from that point—the fictional stuff or places it’s gone that you didn’t anticipate?
The other projects were all kind of born around the same time…but the TV show took so long, just being years away from the events that happened. I do feel like I have, for the most part, spoken enough about what happened. It doesn’t end, what I went through—my health can and does get affected here and there. It is traumatic, the things that I did recover and am recovering from. But to have this distance from when everything first happened—it became clear to me that I didn't need to or want to stick to the original story. I just wanted to use it as a jumping off point…Even though I thought it sounded great to fictionalize things a bit, it was hard because you're used to how things go. Then once you start fictionalizing, so many things change. I had to just kind of loosen—I felt in some way like my hands were tied behind my back in sticking to the truth, and then as soon as I kind of loosened up, it was just so freeing.
As a standup comedian, the truth is kind of always origin material, especially for someone like you. But the fictional aspect was emancipating?
It was. But even though some things are fictionalized, there's still some element of truth that we've built upon. And it might not be in a direction that people would think…whether it was my story or somebody else's story in the [writers’] room, there's something grounding it to truth and reality. Going from there, it actually is very similar to standup because those grounding pieces that you build on, that just get bigger and wilder and crazier—that’s the fun part. Sitting in a room with some of the smartest people I've ever met, and hearing their perspective and their story and their thoughts about things—I felt like the luckiest person to be around people that I could bring ideas, examples and fears and dreams and everything to the table. Having these writers just weave it all together, it was mind-blowing what they helped me do.
Was it weird at first though for being essentially a one-person act—an author of a book, all this stuff—to be in a writers’ room?
No. I mean it was weird in that I had never done it before. But it was so much what I wanted to do. Diablo was interested in writing the series with me, but as much as I'm thrilled with what we did on the pilot, I wanted more people to collaborate with, and she’s way more used to working solo. So a writers’ room wasn't what she was looking for. It was truly no hard feelings on either of our parts. It was just like, “Okay, well, I don’t want a huge room, but I want a handful of people that are going to…”
How big is your room?
There are six of us. It was me, Kate Robin, who's the showrunner, and then four others.
You dig it, the writers’ room experience?
I just love it so much.
You wouldn't necessarily guess that for a lot of standup comedians…
Yeah, I feel like I’m always better with others. Even though I'm not used to [working with] others necessarily. I mean, even when Netflix made a documentary about my life, it's like, okay, I know my story and I know what happened, I know important moments and all that. But I couldn't possibly have known how to structure a film like that. I don't have some blown up idea about myself, that I could just run my show with zero experience.
So you were grateful…
Oh my gosh, still am. I've watched the series in its entirety two times now. I feel like I step back and don't completely identify it as just my project—like gosh, look what everybody did. I’m so happy with the cast—like there's not one person I would change.
Its like, "This is a cool show!"
I really feel that way, and not as an egomaniac, but because I was surrounded by really unbelievable writers and actors and directors.
What for you is curative or healing about making art or entertainment or comedy, about the incredible shit that you went through?
Well, I mean there's always some angle that I haven't considered or stumbled upon. Of course, I have considered others around me that were going through this with me, but writing this show, there’s a moment in the third episode, this montage when I'm taking my shirt off and looking at my scars for the first time, when it shows my stepfather Bill reaching over to the empty side of the bed, it destroyed me. Because, of course, I know he was experiencing loss. It was seeing him experience that loss in that way, that was such a private moment. All of us having our private moments then—I was floored. I realized there was a lot of thinking and consideration that still needed to be done. Even writing my book—it took me four years to write my book—in the beginning of writing my ex-girlfriend and I were not on good terms. By the end of the book, I realized she literally saved my life. And it felt so amazing—having not talked to or seen her in four years, to end the book giving her that credit.
It gives you like a perspective that otherwise you'd be too myopic [to see]?
It takes you out of the trench?
Yeah, for sure. Having all these different opportunities to explore that time period—I feel so thankful for that.
Do you feel like the most lucky, fortunate person and the most unlucky person simultaneously?
I do. I always call myself the luckiest unlucky person. And I am. I have a tremendous life. But I still struggle with [it] and have health scares and all that kind of stuff. So I don’t forget what I came out of. I have follow up doctor's appointments—it's not like I just rode off into the sunset, this doesn't just go away. I have things that I have to keep an eye on and follow up, have stuff checked out.
I would imagine, there's complete peace.
Yeah, I don't live in fear. I don't feel like I can ever get over that—any of it. I can just learn to live with it better.
Many of your peers call you a pioneer, taking the starkly autobiographical style of a legend like Richard Pryor to another level. Was that just always your nature and then this shit happened or did what happened open up that courage to try something that might not have worked?
Yeah, my personal didn't cross over to my professional or public world before that. But in my personal life and relationships, I feel like I've always been very open and honest and expressed what I was going through or had gone through or had been feeling.
I know it's always been there. That time period going on stage, feeling like I had nothing left to lose, and quite possibly was not going to be alive in the near future, I just thought, Well, I don't normally share this stuff, but I don't know how to not share it at this point. Then when people responded the way they did, I felt so free because my first reaction was just to hide that I was suffering or that I was sick—publicly to hide it. It's so weird to think of that, it makes me sad for what could have been. And that's no judgment about how anybody else would handle it, because everyone needs to do what they need to do. But it's made me a better and more open and a higher functioning person in my personal life. ‘Cuz it’s just—there's really no downside to sharing.
But there potentially is though, right? That's what makes it so courageous.
You mean like if I bombed at Largo, or if people don't like my show?
Yeah, for sure. But the other even lower point would be silencing myself—going on stage and doing stand-up, taking a risk and bombing feels so much better than just doing the same material that you know is going to do well.
Right, of course.
It feels sickening. After a certain point—when the material is still fresh and new and fun to tell, then it doesn't feel that way. But when you know you need to move on or create something else, or take some sort of risk it—the hardest I am on myself is when I’m denying myself the moment to take a chance or risk, or do something new.
Have you always liked writing?
Oh yeah. I had some of the most poorly written diaries you could ever find.
Which you will be released by Harper Collins…
After my mother died and all these things from my room and her house got shipped to me, I came across some things I had written. Of course, I couldn't help to think of Anne Frank and how—I know it's kind of an overdone premise, but I think of Anne Frank all the time when I think of myself and my thoughts and ideas, and writing as a child.
But it wasn't that tragic in Mississippi?
Well, I was in Texas when I wrote these terrible diaries. But yeah, I wrote music. I wrote in my journals and my creative writing classes, and I wrote books when I was a kid—I have a book that’s on my shelf still called The Dream That Was Not. I wrote that in elementary school. That’s uplifting for an elementary schooler. And I illustrated it.
When, where and how do you write? Like do you have a routine? Do you have a vibe?
Over the past four years I've had so much going on that there was no real routine—between filming and writing and doing press and photo shoots and getting married and having kids. I did what I could when I had any little bit of time. I am so happy with my book, but I wish I had more concentrated time because I had so much more to say about [what happened]. There was just so much more—I met a brother of mine that my father had. I met my brother right before my father died, and I have so much to say about all of that.
Well, I’m sure someone's going to let you do another book for God’s sake.
Oh yeah, but I’m making a conscious decision to not overload myself. If One Mississippi gets picked up again, then I want to concentrate on that. I also want to be a parent and I don't want to pile on a million projects and not raise my kids myself. I feel like stand-up is manageable while I'm doing a TV show, because I'm not getting some 24 episode order, or whatever those insane amounts are. Hopefully, I can do it in half a year. My wife works with me as well [so] we have a manageable life.
To close on a personal note, when a person is confronted with the kind of challenges you were, there are two roads, to be overly simplistic. How did you find the strength to not just endure what happened, but make this unbelievable success—artistically and career wise—out of it? Is there something you can point to that tilted it that way, either in your character or in your decision making process?
I feel like I am so full of hope that nobody can stop me it. When I say I'm the most positive person you can meet, if you didn’t know me you could picture like a really energetic smiley person, and that that would equal positive. Of course that doesn't describe me—I'm not any of those things, but I am so positive, I am so hopeful. I do feel that my mother—any sort of seemingly insurmountable moment of life, she really did instill this, go-to-hell-don't allow-anything-to-bring-you-down attitude. Not that I wasn't allowed to feel down or feel those feelings, but nothing was going to destroy me. Even though I'm so scared to fly, when I am flying, I feel like, you know what, I’ll survive a plane crash. I really feel like I can do anything.
So like don't let the deadpan fool you?
Well, yeah. I mean, I am a low-key person, I am deadpan, I am all those things. But I am the most positive, forward moving, no-nonsense, full-of-nothing-but-nonsense person that you could meet.
So you’re no-nonsense about your nonsense?
Yeah, but if you flip it the other way I’m that, too. I love silliness, but I’m also no-nonsense, like I can't be held back by the impossible and the darkness. So I don't know, I give my mother a lot of credit. I really feel like, as many missteps that she made, she made a lot of really great parenting decisions and instilled a lot of that in me.
© 2016 Writers Guild of America West