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When Going Topless on HBO Is a Radical Act

In an interview about her new HBO special, Tig Notaro gets frank about her battle with cancer


Comedian Tig Notaro’s delivery style is dry and flat. The funny in her standup is often in the silence after and between her statements, her long pauses allowing the audience to catch up to the joke, as it is in the words she’s actually said. Case in point? When she opened a set in Los Angeles three years ago by saying, “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?” Her audience at the Largo laughed because they weren’t sure if they were supposed to, if the pause after those words was Notaro giving them time to get the joke, if that was a joke at all. It wasn’t. 

Notaro’s set was her way of coming to terms with her cancer diagnosis. “My life had fallen apart so quickly,” she said in the recently released Netflix documentary Tig of her set that night. “I had assumed I was going to die.” She did not. The buzz from that set spread quickly, praise and support pouring in from all corners of the comedy world. The recording of her set was released a few months later by Louis C.K. under the title Live—the verb, not the adjective.

This weekend, she will star in her own HBO standup special, Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted—during which she removes her top, revealing her scars from the double mastectomy that removed all of the cancer from her body. Going topless served two points. “It was a way to be able to make a statement about cancer,” Notaro told me in an interview. “It is a big deal.” At the same time, the topic of the comedy she’s delivering while topless isn’t cancer-centric. “My point with taking my shirt off and telling jokes that have nothing to do with cancer,” Notaro says, “is to say that it's okay, having scars is not a big deal, my body healed and that's all that it is.”

Notaro doing standup topless is also a personal victory for her. “When I was on the gurney and being rolled into the operating room,” she said, “I was realizing that it was the first time that I got in touch with the fact that I actually liked my body.” After surgery, “it took me a long time to look down at my body, to see the scars, and see that I don't have nipples or boobs. I'm just a completely different body.” She says simply, “It just took a while coming to terms with things.” This weekend’s HBO special is a testament that to terms she has come.

Cancer was only one of Notaro’s struggles. She went from the highs of touring, hosting a weekly podcast, a regular show at the Largo, a TV pilot, working on a movie, and her efforts to get pregnant to terrible lows not limited to her diagnosis. While working on the film In a World…, she fell ill from an often-fatal bacterium that put her in the hospital. Her mother died unexpectedly soon afterward. But she recovered, falling in love and with her now-fiancée, actress Stephanie Allynne, and working to get back on the stage after a serious crisis in confidence. At the point when she filmed the special, Notaro told me, “I had gotten confidence that I looked good, that I was sexy, or cool, or all of that stuff. I now feel really comfortable with my body.”

Notaro is gracious for the support she’s gotten from the public since her Largo show. She noted in the documentary that the hype stressed her out. Part of that hype was Notaro becoming a famous cancer survivor, one people knew was willing to talk about cancer. There are scenes in Tig of people telling Notaro their own cancer stories.

I asked Notaro if she finds it hard to listen to so many other people’s stories, and her reply was quick. “I've been able to tell my story and I've been carried by so many strangers,” she said. “I appreciate people sharing with me and I think it's kind of this cycle that keeps giving back. When I hear people's experiences, it wakes me up again on another level.”  While she has boundaries and limits, she added that on some level it is only fair to hear people out, given her line of work, “I feel thankful for everyone and anyone that's listened to my story.”

Notaro has been on the comedy scene for a long time now, most of her best known material before her diagnosis. However, her Largo set in the summer of 2012 and the frankness with which she has discussed living with cancer have given her an even bigger platform, as evidenced by the documentary and HBO special. “I'm developing a TV show now. It's going to be announced in the next few days,” Notaro told me. “I have a book coming out next year. I'm back working on new material, new standup. And Stephanie and I are planning our wedding and looking forward to building a family.”

Recognizing it is cliché, Notaro says that she’s ready for what’s next, whatever that is. “I have no idea what's around the corner, good or bad, and that's what's so exciting about life.” Exciting, and thanks to her, hilarious.