Tig Notaro on Making Comedy About Her Very Famous Friends

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Emilio Madrid
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Emilio Madrid
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It’s been more than a decade since Tig Notaro broke through in a big way by walking onto the stand-up stage in Los Angeles and telling her audience, “Hello, I have cancer.” And for better or worse, she has even more medical scares to joke about in her latest special, Hello Again, streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

In this episode, which marks the five-year anniversary of The Last Laugh, Notaro returns to the podcast to discuss how she manages to keep finding humor in these terrifying life experiences. The comedian also opens up about collaborating with her wife Stephanie Allynne, who directed the new special, getting heckled by her twin boys at a charity event, mining her awkward interactions with celebrity friends for comedy, and a lot more.

“I kind of can’t get over how much I look like Stephen Colbert right now,” Notaro says as she assesses her appearance in the Zoom screen for this special fifth anniversary podcast episode. And, as she explains during our conversation, it’s been nearly that long since she started working out the material that appears in Hello Again.

Notaro was on tour in 2020 when the pandemic hit, which forced her to come off the road for an extended period of time. Then, last year, she was about to film the hour again when the writers’ strike began. “Even though I technically could have taped my special, I wanted to be in solidarity,” she explains.

The delay meant that Notaro was blessed with new injuries and illnesses to joke about on stage. “That’s the odd thing of having gone through what I did in 2012 with my cancer diagnosis. Coming through all of that and living through it, everybody was like, ‘Oh, you did it,’” she explains. “But the reality is that there are still complications. There are still ongoing issues. And even though I’m doing well, I still have stuff from that time that keeps happening. I’m in a good place, but it definitely doesn’t go away.”

It can take quite a while after those incidents happen for Notaro to start thinking about how she might incorporate them into her comedy, which means there are plenty of personal stories that haven’t made it into her act yet. “Trust me, there are things that haven’t even become something,” she says. “People always assume I’ve shared everything. And I haven’t shared everything.”

Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. You can listen to the whole thing by following The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Wednesday.

You open this special by juxtaposing these overheated quotes about how you’ve changed comedy and you’re an action movie star now with footage of your pre-show ritual, which is quietly eating carrots in your dressing room. Were you trying to capture the disconnect between your public and private personas there?

Well, my wife, who directed the special, that was her idea. And I just thought it was so funny because she is endlessly amused by what people think. Being in an action movie and in Star Trek and a stand-up that beat cancer and all of these things. And she sees me shuffling around the house in slippers and eating vegan and taking walks, and there’s just nothing like that going on in my life. So it’s so great that she was able to express that in the special, because it’s something that she relentlessly teases me about. Especially when I was in that Army of the Dead movie, I don’t know if you know, but I was trending online for being sexy and hot. And of course she thinks I’m attractive—she married me—but she’s just like, oh my god, that is not who I’m living with.

She didn’t know she was marrying a “sexy AF” action star.

She had no idea. And in fact, when we were in the editing room working on this movie we co-directed—it’s called Am I OK?, it’ll be coming out, I think on HBO Max or whatever it’s called, this summer—and I kept getting all these texts that I was blowing up on Twitter. And I didn’t know the trailer [for Army of the Dead] had come out, and I was like, “People are texting me saying I’m blowing up for being ‘sexy as AF,’ what’s that?” And Stephanie said, “Oh my God, it’s sexy AF, meaning sexy as fuck.” And I was like, “Oh….” But yeah, she teases me about all that stuff.

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So Stephanie Allynne, your wife, who I’m also a big fan of, directed the special. How does that dynamic work? What’s your working relationship like?

We’re often asked in a tone of voice like, [feigns concern] “So… you guys worked together on that? How did that go?” And we love it. I can’t imagine not working with her. I feel like we have such similar sensibilities, but just slightly different enough to where we elevate a mutual idea and vision. And it’s really crazy, we can read a script and both come out of it with a similar note, even if it’s about a word that rubbed us the wrong way. We’ve acted together, we’ve directed, we’ve produced, we’ve created, written, podcasted, raised kids. We’ve been together for 11 years now and I think it’s similar to just being together, which is when there’s a difference of opinion, you just have to stop and sort that out and move on. And so far we’ve been able to do that in our personal life and our work life.

Is there an example of some piece of material in this special where she helped you find something new or gave you a note that really changed things?

She doesn’t give me a lot of notes on my material, but when she does give me a note, I am all ears because to this day she makes me laugh so, so deeply. She’s so funny.

I heard that you did get notes from your kids, though, the first time they saw you do stand-up. Is it true that you got heckled by your [7-year-old] twin boys?

Yeah, just by Max though. Finn was sinking in his seat mortified. They had only seen my animated special on HBO. And then I did this vegan benefit that was at 2 in the afternoon. We had plans later that afternoon, our family, and I said to Stephanie, “Should we just all go to my show, since it’s a matinee show?” And it never crossed my mind that something like that would happen. And sure enough, Max, who, mark my words, he is a comedian—but he wasn’t even trying to be funny, he truly was just fact-checking me. I think he thought I was exaggerating or not telling the truth. And so he just piped up, “No, you didn’t!” And I was like, oh my gosh! And the entire audience bursts into laughter. And I said, “I’m so sorry, my sons are here” and continued, and then Max kept saying, “That isn’t true!” Then I eventually had to talk directly to him. I was like, “Max, this is true, this happened, you weren’t there, we can talk about this later.”

Maybe he’s just very tuned into the cultural conversation about how much comedians are allowed to exaggerate.

Oh, yeah, quite possibly. But I wasn’t even bending the truth! I was telling a story that he had no information about. It had to do with going to Lake Bell’s bachelorette party weekend. And what set him off was I was talking about how I was in this party bus with all of these beautiful actresses—and me—and people had penis hats on and were drinking out of penis straws. And he was like, “She’s lying!” And I think it was just the mention of the word penis, he was like, uh-uh.

“That doesn’t sound like my mom!”

Yeah, exactly. “She’s not always talking about penises.” But the party bus, while we were going down the road, started filling with exhaust. While everyone’s drinking and spinning around the poles, the bus starts filling with black exhaust and breaks down on the side of the road. So you would see people like Cameron Diaz with a penis hat on, looking underneath the party bus to see what happened. And I was talking about what a sight it was, and Max just thought I was making this up.

It does sound pretty made-up.

It’s very true. Ask Cameron Diaz! It happened.

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You tell a story near the end of your special about a time when you sang Adele’s “Hello” in a room full of a lot of famous people, including, I believe, Adele, which is another insane, true story like the Cameron Diaz one that I think actually happened to you. In general, it seems like you’re not overly impressed by celebrities.

Yeah, I guess I would want to make it clear—sometimes I feel like unimpressed sounds like—

Too negative?

Yeah. And I’m impressed by so many of these people. But I think what it is is, I don’t feel starstruck. If Obama walked in the room…

Your heart wouldn’t start beating any faster?

I mean, no, but I would be like, “Oh my God, there’s Barack Obama.” And I would be interested to talk to him and meet him. Same with somebody like Oprah. I would say I have a little bit of a weakness, though, with musicians. I had the opportunity to interview Chrissie Hynde one time. She wanted me to come out to New York to do the interview in person, and I just could not. I guess I was a bit starstruck there and did not want to meet her.

What do you think it is about musicians that makes you more starstruck?

Probably the same reason people are more interested in actors, because they’re following that. I just don’t follow TV and film closely. And that is, I’m sure, confusing, because I’m in TV and film. But it’s a real thing. I asked my son the other day, “Have you ever seen me watch TV?” And he said no. But I obviously have seen TV and film. And I obviously work with celebrities and I’ve socialized with celebrities. But I’m missing a huge chunk. And I know so much more now than I did when I moved to L.A. 28 years ago. I mean, talk about chip off the old block, I remember mentioning Arnold Schwarzenegger to my mother at one point before he was governor, and she had never heard of him. So that’s where I come from. So I think there are certain musicians that just kind of send me a bit and make me blow my cool.

When you tell stories about celebrities on stage, whether it’s that one about the bachelorette party, or there’s a story in the new special about meeting with Reese Witherspoon, do you warn these people that you’re going to talk about them?

I mean, I didn’t tell Reese about that story. I was just telling it on stage. And then I told it on Colbert once and I don’t know if I reached out and told Reese, or if somebody from her office sent it to her, but she was well aware of it and thought it was hilarious. But I don’t feel like my intentions are ever going after anyone.

Do you feel like a celebrity, whether it’s on that level or not, at this point in your career? And how has that changed since you started out? Because you’ve obviously become a lot more famous over the last 10 or 15 years.

I guess I know I am a celebrity. Again, my son Max, who heckled me, I took him to martial arts class and when we left, we were going to get in the car and this other kid from the class, he and his mother were getting in the car next to us, and she said, “Are you Tig Notaro?” And we’re talking and then you hear Max in the car say, “Quit bragging about being a public figure!” And I was like, “Max. I am not bragging about being a public figure, oh my God!” So yeah, I guess I know I’m a celebrity. But I don’t identify with it at all. At all, at all, at all, at all.

Listen to the episode now and follow The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, or wherever you get your podcasts to be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Wednesday.

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