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Cancer, Events, Medicine and Society

Tig Notaro: Using comedy to deal with cancer was a “godsend”

Tig Notaro - smallStand-up comic Tig Notaro brought her unique brand of comedy to Stanford early this week, and she didn’t disappoint the standing-room-only audience of students, faculty, staff and community members gathered on campus.

Notaro, a fairly successful stand-up comic before 2012, exploded on the national scene when she greeted an audience at the Largo in Los Angeles with the words, “Thank you, thank you, I have cancer, thank you, I have cancer, really, thank you.” She then told the audience: “Tragedy plus time equals comedy. But I don’t have the benefit of time. So I’m just going to tell you the tragedy and know that everything is going to be okay.”

In that now legendary comedy set, Notaro went on to share the tragedy of her bi-lateral breast cancer diagnosis, the unexpected early death of her mother, and the ending of a romantic relationship: all within a four-month span. Well-known comedian Louis C.K. was in the audience that night, and he tweeted: “in 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.”

During her Stanford performance, which was sponsored by the Stanford Storytelling Project, the Stanford Arts Institute and ITALIC, Notaro gave a hilarious impression of a TSA agent trying to pat her down in the front. Notaro chose not to have reconstructive surgery after her bi-lateral mastectomy, so the agent had a hard time deciding if Notaro was a man or a woman. Laughing, Notaro said, “I had small breasts before, and I would joke about them all the time… how small they were.” Pausing for a moment, she grinned and said, “You know, I think my breasts heard me and decided to get revenge.” Notaro’s statement, and the audience’s responding laughter, illustrated what Louis CK has said about her comedy: “It is an amazing example of what comedy can be. A way to visit your worst fears and laugh at them.”

In a Q&A session after her performance, Notaro said using comedy to deal with her cancer was a “godsend. I hadn’t planned to talk about it as part of my act, but it just came out.” And today, she says, she’s glad it did. “I get letters every day from people who have been diagnosed with cancer, or people who have lost a loved one to cancer. If my comedy can help just one person who has to travel the same journey I have traveled, it is worth it.”

Jacqueline Genovese is assistant director of the Arts, Humanities and Medicine Program within the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.

Previously: Saying thank you with art: Stanford undergrad pens one-woman play on cancer
Photo courtesy of Tig Notaro

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