Music Rags: The power of comedy in the face of tragedy

Culture Music

“I named this album LIVE as in to keep not dying — not live as in I saw her live performance. This title not only makes sense to me considering the subject matter, it simply makes me laugh to think of having to correct everyone that pronounces it incorrectly.”

 – Tig Notaro, liner notes from Live.

Great art peels back layers of life’s veneer and exposes hidden, often painful truths about the artist and the audience. Comedy stands apart from other art forms because there’s no way for a great performer to avoid their truth. There are no brush strokes to hide behind, no costumes to cover up in, no musical notes with which to communicate the pain. Unlike other artists, the best comedians stand alone on a stage, emotionally naked, hoping not only that their problems don’t get thrown back at them, but also that an audience will actually laugh with them.

Recorded approximately 48 hours after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the last in her incredibly rapid stream of life-altering tragedies, Live documents Tig Notaro taking the stage at Largo in L.A., not to tell her usual, self-described “silly jokes,” but to laugh in the face of adversity and to get other people laughing with (and maybe, more importantly, for) her. In doing this, the 41-year-old proves that the most important art is the most personal —  art that rewards audience members for their discomfort in dealing with the tragic.

Notaro opens with, “Hello. Good evening. Hello. I have cancer.” The audience (and listener) is immediately disarmed. They have no idea whether or not to laugh or, perhaps, even how to laugh. But Notaro is quick to assure them, “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.” Then, just as quickly, she says, “It might not be okay, but I’m just saying” — a statement that receives more, but still subdued, laughter.

It’s a precursor to an incredible set that finds Notaro working back from her breast cancer diagnosis through the four months prior; months filled with one tragic event after another (a bout with the stomach-eating virus known as C. diff, a breakup and the sudden death of her 65-year-old mother). Laughing in the face of tragedy is indeed one of the only ways to deal with it, but as most of us laugh at such tragedies with only ourselves or a small circle of friends and family, to hear someone do it in such an open, public way is truly moving.

The heart-opening moments on Live are numerous, piling on top of each other furiously as awkward laughs turn into genuine belly laughs.

Notaro reflects on the way the tragedies have affected her relationships with other people. “ ‘Somebody talk to me!’ ‘I had a rotten day.’ ‘Well, what happened?’ ‘Well, no, I don’t have cancer . . . ’ ‘No! Please talk to me! My time is limited!’ ” She lays bare her desire to meet a new significant other, pondering what her online dating profile would look like: “I have cancer. Serious inquiries only.”

This was a set that was never supposed to be released (and only done so because of the insistence of one Louis CK). It is raw, gritty and genuinely human. To find the best performers this unguarded and honest is a rare thing, and it makes Live an important document for both stand-up comedy and new media as a whole. It’s a shining example of what the finest art can do for both the performer and the audience.

It’s all summed up as Notaro, near the end of her set, asks if the audience would like her to just go into her usual “silly jokes” and turn away from the tragedy. The question is met with a heartfelt “No!” from the entire audience. One man yells, “This is fucking amazing!” Nothing brings people together like tragedy.

You can buy Tig Notaro’s Live for $5 at $1 from every sale goes to breast cancer research.