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Do Ask Tig: Tig Notaro on Comedy, Cancer, and Building Confidence

Zoom screen showing Doug Herzog and Tig Notaro, with students in small screens along top of photo
Doug Herzog ’81, left, moderates a discussion with comedian Tig Notaro as part of his All Joking Aside series.

Stand-up comedian, writer, radio contributor, and actor Tig Notaro never really envisioned a career in comedy — she thought she would be a musician or work in the music industry. Things changed, however, when she followed her friends to Los Angeles. 

“I thought, well, maybe I can get into something with music out there,” Notaro said during a virtual conversation on April 18 with Emerson College Trustee Doug Herzog ’81. “Then, as soon as I landed in town, in LA, I saw in the LA Weekly all the different options to do stand-up.”

After two weeks of catching comedy acts, she decided to step up to the mic herself.  

“I wasn’t really a performer yet. I think I took [my] shyness and one-liners and just allowed myself to stay in this safe cocoon of just delivering jokes,” said Notaro. 

The event was part of the series All Joking Aside with Doug Herzog, which is produced by the Center for Comedic Arts at Emerson College and Emerson Los Angeles. The series, hosted by the former president of Viacom, where he oversaw Comedy Central, provides viewers with an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at the comedy business.

Read: Trevor Noah Talks Comedy Journey with Doug Herzog ‘81

When asked which comics inspired her, Notaro mentioned Paula Poundstone, Joan Rivers, Richard Pryor, and Whoopi Goldberg, among others. She encouraged those wanting to start their own comedy careers to dedicate as much time as possible to developing their craft.

“I was on stage five to seven nights a week, and in the beginning, I only had a bicycle. So I would even ride from Hollywood to Santa Monica to [do] my three- to five-minute set,” said Notaro. “[I thought] nothing is gonna stop me. I gotta get on stage. I gotta work this out.”  

Notaro describes one of her signature qualities on stage as embracing silence. It’s a tactic inspired by her mother.

“She was a huge influence on my comedy, my sensibility. She loved uncomfortable moments,” said Notaro. “I think seeing how things can unfold in a funny and awkward moment is just something I was raised on.”

Herzog asked Notaro about the legendary 30-minute live show that she performed at Largo in Los Angeles on August 3, 2012, just a few days after she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She opened her set: “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?” Notaro said she almost canceled the gig after receiving her diagnosis, but ended up taking the stage anyway.

“I love stand-up so, so much, [I thought] if I end up dying, I need to just go on stage one more time. I just have to do it,” said Notaro. 

At the time, Notaro was also dealing with several personal tragedies, including the death of her mother, a breakup with a former girlfriend, and battling an intestinal medical condition, C-diff. Notaro felt that doing comedy gave her an outlet to deal with these problems.

“I went on stage and I talked about it, and I knew that I was taking the risk of bombing terribly and awkwardly,” said Notaro. “But it felt worth the risk because I [would have] felt crazy if I didn’t talk about it.”  

Seemingly overnight, her career skyrocketed. Since then, Notaro has made a bevy of appearances on the small and big screen, including roles in the TV series One Mississippi and Star Trek: Discovery, in addition to podcasting, performing stand-up and recording comedy specials.She alsoco-directed a feature film with her wife,Stephanie Allynne. Am I Okay, starring Dakota Johnson, will be released on HBO in a few months.

Zoom screen showing Doug Herzog, Tig Notaro, and Aldus Puyat
Aldus Puyat ’22 asks Tig Notaro a question.

“I really appreciate and have enjoyed all of the opportunities, but I always say that… it’s as exciting to realize what you don’t want to do as it is to find out what you do want to do,” said Notaro, who told the audience that she’s realized that she doesn’t want to direct any more. 

Aldus Puyat ‘22 asked Notaro about bombing on stage and what she’s learned from her mistakes. 

“It’s a matter of being present and… using what’s happening and what’s around you,” said Notaro, who shared an example of bombing on Conan because had forgotten parts of her set. “What was really happening was that I was forgetting my set and I was acknowledging it. I think if I didn’t acknowledge it, it makes it so much worse than when you say, ‘OK, I’m forgetting, I’ve forgotten, I’m messing up.’ It just can bring you back on track when you are more present and in the moment.”

Jessamine Manchester ‘25 asked Notaro about her thoughts on the growing industry of podcasts and their intersection with comedy. Notaro was surprised that advancements in social media offered more ways to grow creatively and financially, especially with two podcasts of her own, Don’t Ask Tig and Tig and Cheryl: True Story.

“I can’t believe how far the world is moving forward so quickly – high tech, leaps and bounds, outer space, moving forward fast–and then people are just like, ‘I want to hear you talk in my ears. I don’t even want to see your face,’” Notaro said. “I can’t even believe that there’s money to be made in this.”

Notaro says that time and experience helped her hone in on her style, stage presence, and skills. She told the audience that it takes self-assurance to perform your best in any career.

“It all goes back to just being in touch with myself and gaining the confidence that I really didn’t have before. I feel like a whole other person,” said Notaro. “I started 25 years ago and I can see glimpses of who I used to be. I’m so much more confident and comfortable [now]. It’s really the repetition and acknowledging that I’m supposed to be here.”

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