Tig Notaro and Dealing with Tragedy Through Humor

Teens girls boys with talk laughter during contrasts late afternoon sunset“BEFORE I HAD A DOUBLE MASTECTOMY, I already was pretty flat-chested. I made so many jokes over the years about how small my chest was that I started to think that maybe my boobs overheard me and were just like, ‘You know what? We’re sick of this. Let’s kill her.'”

A few years ago, comedian Tig Notaro made a name for herself with a most unconventional performance at the Largo comedy club in Los Angeles. When Notaro unleashed her raw and shaken report of the pure-sh*t events of her 2012, including a life-threatening intestinal infection, her recent breast cancer diagnosis, and the death of her mother, something special happened in the room. The audience was gutted. They were also laughing. And they wanted her to keep going – to keep subjecting them to that strange, uncomfortable, all-too-human world where tragedy is transmuted through humor.

Notaro’s new special, Boyish Girl Interrupted, was released on HBO on August 22nd. About halfway through her set, after teasing her audience with feigned hesitation, she removed her shirt, baring not mounds and nipples, but the scars of a double mastectomy. She remained topless for the rest of the set, something viewers are likely to notice less and less as the jokes keep coming.

Discussing her topless set with The New York Times, Notaro said, “[M]y point in doing it is I want to convey a message, but there is also a silliness to it. It’s like when I opened my Largo set, with, ‘Hello, I have cancer.’ There’s a message there but also a silliness. ‘Is anybody drinking tonight? How’s everyone doing? Any birthdays? Y’all having fun? I have cancer. How are you? This is a great night!’ I love silliness…”

I’d planned to write this piece to sing the praises of Tig Notaro, and to focus on the possible messages of her topless performance – normalizing the breastless female body, a show of solidarity with other women who have lost their breasts, etc. But what’s impressing upon me most now is not this specific act, but the general theme underlying it: the power of humor over tragedy – of the human over the circumstance. The silliness was important, after all.

The existentialists of the 20th century were troubled by a concept called facticité – basically, the many, many things about human existence that are beyond our control. Facticité is the given, the limit of human power. It’s everything we didn’t choose, from our birth to where we were born to how we were raised to the fact that we suffer (pain, loss, etc.) and eventually die. Having some sort of power over our lives in a human condition full of facticité was important to these thinkers, both for the existence of the ethical concept of responsibility and for the ability to have a sense of meaning in our lives.

We exercise our power when we act by creating something new within our situation rather than merely reacting to the given circumstances – when we insist on inserting the distinctly human into the inhuman, and even the inhumane. Tig Notaro, and others in my life who have burst the confines of tragedy with laughter, have helped me see humor as one form of power.

So I want to sing the praises of all those people. Of my grandma, who measures the importance of an occasion by whether or not she puts her prosthetic boob in for it (she received a unilateral mastectomy courtesy of breast cancer). Of my aunt, who referred to her full-torso cast as superhero body armor (her breast cancer spread to her ribs and spine). Of my college acquaintance, who gave silly names to her medical equipment and posed in pictures with them to share with her Facebook friends (from the hospital where she eventually died of cystic fibrosis). And of my uncle, whose exclamation, “Beam me up, Scotty!” as a machine lifted his ALS-stricken body from his chair will forever be fresh and vivid in my memory.

To everyone who refuses to stop laughing and to make others laugh with them amid the most intrusive, obstructive, and grimmest of facticités: You are not only strong and brave, but powerful.

Nobody should feel forced to act strong or put on a smile in the face of tragedy. Nobody should expect that of anyone, either. And those who are capable of it certainly can’t hold to it all the time. But those fleeting moments of power over tragedy, whether taking place on a stage before an audience or in a living room between friends, deserve praise. To all those who have turned the darkest of voids into an echo chamber of their laughter, and the laughter of others, thank you.

Notaro is now cancer-free. Her Largo performance is available in audio-form on Spotify. Boyish Girl Interrupted can be found on HBO. Also check out the documentary Tig on Netflix.

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