Comeback

How Comedian Tig Notaro Found Love After Cancer

After Notaro’s set about her diagnosis went viral, she set about rebuilding her life—and met her fiancée in the process. She talks about her Netflix documentary, Tig, her scars, and more

Ruthie Wyatt/HBO

Tig Notaro didn’t know whether she would live or die the day she went onstage at Largo in August 2012 and greeted her audience with, “Good evening, hello. I have cancer, how are you?” But with the way things were going, she says she “kind of assumed” she’d be dead soon.

In the four months before that now-legendary set, the comedian, who had already been fighting off pneumonia, was diagnosed with clostridium difficile—a life-threatening infection that ate away at her intestines and put her in the hospital for weeks. She recovered in time for her 41st birthday—but days later, her mother fell, hit her head, and passed away in a freak accident. After the funeral, Notaro went through a breakup. Then doctors found a lump in her breast.

That, Notaro says, is when everything started to seem funny.

“It’s weird because with humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy. I am just at tragedy right now,” she said from the stage in 2012. Over the next 31 minutes, Notaro relayed both the mundane and the hilarious indignities of cancer and death, in the stunned deadpan of a person diagnosed less than a week ago. She wondered how she would date people now. “Should I go online and make a profile?…Profile: ‘I have cancer. Serious inquiries only.’”

She described the questionnaire a hospital sent her mother after she died, asking how her stay went. (“Not great.”) She laughed at the notion of God never giving us more than we can handle—even when that means pneumonia, a life-threatening infection, a parent’s death, a breakup, and a cancer diagnosis all in one year. “I just keep picturing God going, ‘You know what? I think she can take a little more,’” Notaro says.

Live, the audio recording of Notaro’s set—posted online by an awestruck Louis C.K., who was in the audience that night along with Ed Helms, Bill Burr, and Mary Lynn Rajskub—went viral overnight, outselling a KISS album released that week and later snagging a Grammy nomination.

Now Notaro is the star of her own Netflix documentary, Tig (directed by Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York) which follows her in the months after the Largo show as she undergoes a double mastectomy and slowly puts her life back together.

We watch her struggle to find the confidence to go onstage again, wracked with insecurity about living up to hype of Live. We watch her defy a doctor’s advice and try to have a child via a surrogate, despite the deadly risk the fertility drugs present to her fragile health. “I don’t think it would be possible to have another bad day while I’m alive,” Notaro says as she waits to hear if her only viable embryo takes to a surrogate’s womb.

And we watch her gradually fall in love with Stephanie Allynne, her co-star in buddy Lake Bell’s film In a World. Their romance is slow, beginning with jokes and text messages Notaro finds so funny she wonders if there’s “a team of writers writing for her.” Allynne, who had never dated a woman before, eventually realizes she has feelings for Notaro, and the two become inseparable. Today they’re engaged, own a house together in Los Angeles, and are in the process of adopting children. Notaro says it feels like she’s always smiling: “I have not been in love like this before.”

We called Notaro up as she lounged in her backyard to talk about Tig, her scars, relationships, and her upcoming HBO comedy special.

It feels weird asking you questions about all the most awful things that have ever happened to you. Is it weird that so many strangers—including me—know all this stuff?

I’m just so completely used to it. And I’m fine with it. It’s part of the strength of sharing and vulnerability and honesty and comedy, all mixed in. You can’t go wrong when you’re that wide open.

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You and Stephanie are in the middle of the adoption process right now. Do you still feel like you’d never have another bad day if you were able to become a mother?

Oh yeah, I mean that’s my focus, is building a family. Even though it’s so fun and exciting to have the career and life that I’m having, that’s its own thing. My focus and drive and excitement [go] toward building a family.

And you’re planning a wedding in the middle of all this.

Yeah. (Laughs.) We have a lot going on. But that’s gonna happen this year. It’s nice, even though we have a 15-year age difference between us, we’re both on the exact same track in life as far as having a family and kids and marriage. We both wanted it at the same time. It’s all moving forward.

You mention that you had never wanted marriage until you met Stephanie. What was it about her that changed your mind?

I just didn’t have any hesitation in any area. Everything was easy. I was always searching for answers and talking to people who had had relationships and fallen in love and wanted marriage. [But with Stephanie] everything was easy: our families, our sense of humor, our sensibilities, the way we live together in a house. Her brother and his girlfriend live in our guesthouse, and I had no hesitation moving them into our property. You know? It was all like, “Of course, of course, yes, yes.” It was glaring. I didn’t know how to not be that way.

I know you agreed to the documentary in part because the screenwriter, Jennifer Arnold, is a friend of yours, but even still, there must have been times when you wished the camera wasn’t following you, like when you find out that the embryo didn’t take.

Yeah, of course. It was not even the hard moments, it was falling for Stephanie and not wanting to be filmed. I mean, even in the boring moments I was just like, “Oh my god, this is still going on?” But I didn’t want to say no to any of the good or bad moments because I know those are the moments that made people care about the movie and enjoy it. I had committed to it and I felt like if it was done right, it could be something very exciting and inspiring, or funny or emotional. All of the beats they hit, I think they did a great job.

I’m not sure how serious the relationship was that you mention in Live—the one that broke off after your mother’s funeral.

You know, we were in a committed relationship, but we had only been together six months when I started to get sick. We were together two or three months after that, and we broke up before I was diagnosed with cancer. So you know, it wasn’t this long-term relationship. I wasn’t abandoned in the middle of having cancer.

So you were never angry at that person?

Oh, no. No, I mean, it couldn’t have been more mutual.

You went viral again at the end of last year when you went topless during a set and showed off your mastectomy scars. What was the reaction to that set like?

It was really cool. People came up after the show, men and women. I mean, men just saying, “God, it’s not just about being a woman or being a cancer survivor, this is just about being a person.” And [for me] to be saying, “This is our bodies. Everything’s OK and we’re putting way too much on something that shouldn’t be. It’s OK to have scars. It’s OK, you know.” That’s the reason I did it, was to say, “You know, cancer’s a big deal, but this is just my body that’s healed. It’s not a big deal. So what, I have scars? I lived.”

How long did it take before you felt OK with the loss of your breasts?

Well, I had the idea to take my shirt off right after my surgery when I was in the midst of not feeling comfortable with my new body. It took me weeks to look down at my body, I was so uncomfortable. But once I had some distance and I started dating, and I had feedback from people [who said] that I was attractive, then I started to feel more comfortable. And then I started touring and that idea kept coming up, like, “God, I could just take my shirt off and blow people’s minds.” (Laughs.) So that kept resurfacing for me and I finally was just, like, “I’m gonna do this.” I would say it took maybe three months after the surgery to kind of be, like, “OK, all right, this is my new body and I think I’m OK with this.”

It was more of a private thing between me and somebody I was dating before Stephanie, where that kind of helped me. She thought I was hot and was very vocal about it. Like a “in fact, I’m really into scars”-type thing. (Laughs.) And I was like, “Woah. Well, this is perfect!” And then after that three-month period of time, it was just a slow process of [coming to realize] “This is all right.”

Is there anything else you’re saving to blow people’s minds?

Yeah. Bird watching. Bird watching and starting a family.

Part of the conversation people are having about comedy right now is whether offensive jokes have a place or purpose. Amy Schumer ran into trouble recently for old material including racist jokes, Trevor Noah got in trouble for sexist tweets. Where do you think political correctness fits in?

I think that there’s always an angle that you can approach something. I haven’t followed Amy’s story, but I know there’s people who have told me, with cancer, that it’s not funny and it isn’t something to laugh at. You’re always gonna run into something or some situation or some person, but I personally feel like if you have something to say and you find the right angle, you can find levity anywhere.

And you have your first HBO special coming up—what went into the making of that?

Oh, just the past year of working out new material. I toured all around the world with this hour working it out. There’s a lot of storytelling, there’s confessional stuff, there’s just jokes, there’s improvisational things and physical, silly things. It’s just kind of everything I’ve ever done, there’s a taste of it all in this special. I feel very proud of it. And I’m already off to my new material.

Correction 7/21/15: A previous version of this article stated that Jennifer Arnold directed 'Tig.' She is the film's screenwriter.