Tig Notaro’s Comedy of Dying
Good evening, hello. I have cancer,” Tig Notaro started her standup set, four days after receiving her devastating diagnosis, “How are you?”
“Is everybody having a good time?” she asks, as the opening applause shifts to awkward laughter, then fades into a heavy silence.
After battling the near-fatal C-DIFF disease, going through a breakup, and just one week after burying her mother, Notaro was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts in the summer of 2012. She ultimately didn’t succumb to her illnesses, but much of her comedy became about the experience of dying.
“Feels good,” she deadpans. “Just diagnosed with cancer.”
Perhaps Tig Notaro’s ultimate draw is how she typifies joy on the other side of the calamity we are all bracing for. Staring into the teeth of death, she jokes. Listening to death’s routine, we laugh.That first set she performed after the diagnosis—which she thought might be her last—went viral in an audio-only format and helped rocket her career from a blue collar, niche comedian to a Grammy-winning darling of the genre. And now a Netflix documentary, Tig, chronicles her rise. She is much more than the comic of death. She had the respect of her peers before and after the cancer arc, and has maintained a long career in comedy because of her talent, not her condition. But the dynamic between her story and the attention of a growing audience is undeniable.
The dynamic is evident in the recording of that first set. The audience does find her funny, even hilarious, but they also find her intensely fascinating. She stumbles, at times proposing to the audience that she retreat into more pleasant, traditional subjects. To her surprise, the crowd is vocally adamant that she should continue with the raw set.
While most comics relate to crowds with anecdotes and observations about relationships or work or current events, Notaro became something much different as a performer. She was pleading her nakedness, not her normalness—she had lost nearly all that binds our lives and joins us in common ground. One of the deepest but often unspoken questions nagging us all was embodied on stage: When all of the dressings of life are stripped away, what’s left?
What was left of Job? Just 20 verses into his biblical account, the author gives us a familiar setup: Good day, hello. Job has lost everything. How are you? Our deep preoccupation with suffering is why the book of Job has found such a wide audience throughout history. It’s also why cultures such as ours go to great lengths to avoid the subject of death, adding layers and layers of euphemism to bury the specter that haunts us every day. We often look away from those who are suffering, some of us unable or unwilling to reckon with the mortality of a friend. Some avoid out of a misguided sense of propriety, or because we feel inadequate to do anything that would lift the burden of a brother or sister, if not make it worse. Instead, we settle for sending our “thoughts and prayers” at the news of someone’s “passing”.
Aside from Notaro’s jarring, magnetic mortality ambushing the audience into a vulnerable but refreshing moment of honesty, her wit cuts through those common devices and clichés we use to keep suffering backstage. “It’ll be okay,” she comforts one gasping audience member. “For you. I don’t know about me.”
Death isn’t funny. Bloated conventions around death certainly are. From the stage Notaro tells the audience about the time administrators at the hospital at which her mother perished mailed the deceased a follow-up survey afterward, asking about the quality of her stay. “Not great,” is the answer Tig gives the audience.
On the surface, the testing of Job can be read as a twisted, comically dualistic game of oneupmanship between God and Satan. Does the suffering that hits us also not feel twisted and cruel? A lesson on the purposes of God in our suffering is most compelling—if still incomprehensible—when dealing honestly with this feeling of unfairness. We can’t seek a more palatable resolution from God’s perspective without acknowledging the doubting of God’s character, presence, and wisdom that visits us along with the pain itself.
A clean explanation of such pain can seem laughable. Notaro spots the ludicrousness for us, exposing religious clichés, meant to be offered as consolation, as jokes. “God won’t give you more than you can handle – What?” She imagines a scene, where angels worryingly watch as God adds trouble upon trouble to her life, dismissing their concerns with a cool “She’s got this.” “The good Lord giveth and the good Lord taketh away,” she wryly parrots the idiom meant to convey a sense of balance and fairness, with an addendum: “But sometimes the good Lord taketh and just keeps takin’-eth.”
Job is really only remarkable in a chronological sense. Everyone loses everyone if they don’t die first themselves. Everyone withers away, if they don’t die in a more sudden tragedy in between blinks. The wisdom in Notaro’s comedy — the kind that most of us aren’t seeking — addresses this reality: eventually, each of us loses everything. The Teacher says that it is better to mourn than to feast, to find sorrow than laughter, and to attend a funeral rather than a party. (Ecclesiastes 7:2-4) “The end of all mankind” is worth understanding, and certainly of more value than elaborate pretenses we build in its place.
Notaro’s set finishes, frighteningly unresolved. Her documentary ends on a much brighter note. I’ve often found the earthly bright side of Job’s story—him receiving replacement family members and property to go along with his strengthened faith—to be wholly lacking, if not trivial. But as a stand in for the rest of us, his bittersweet, temporal reward is a type for the eternal silver lining promised to God’s people: to receive new life, new family, new living quarters, to be perfectly rejuvenated from every earthly ailment. Our present life is not worthy of being compared with the bounty awaiting us in the new creation, on the other side of the sum of our suffering. Tig’s movie ends fairly conventionally, with her sense of self-worth and contentment recalibrating after the rocky patches of sickness and the pressures of celebrity subside. It feels trite considering the grave heart of the film, but all happy endings would be trite were a future of redemption orchestrated by God not a reality.
One thing either indiscernible or impossible to accept from the text of Job is a recovered sense of joy and mirth for the man broken and glued back together. Surely we can expect a deep happiness in the next life to anchor us in new ways our fleeting bliss in this life can’t, but examples of transcendent joy after great loss are hard to come by. Perhaps that is the ultimate draw to Notaro: she typifies joy on the other side of the calamity we are all bracing for. Staring into the teeth of death, she jokes. Listening to death’s routine, we laugh. Even with her deadpan style, riffing on the most somber topics at her disposal, she brightens the room. She won’t indulge in clichés or pat our heads, but her momentary victory (her mother is still gone, her body only healed until something else wrecks it again) hints that a sentiment so implausible and hokey as life after death might actually come true.
Could we, really, be okay in the end? The gospel, utterly concerned with death, answers in the positive. Death’s reign is real, but numbered. Death itself will die. Christ is risen, and we’re up next. This is still a truth too mysterious to fit on a Hallmark card, and just distant enough to keep the Jobs and Tig Notaros of our race questioning the purpose of all this suffering, with plenty of tears — and laughter — in the meantime.