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The Deadpan Candor of Comic Tig Notaro

I’m Just a Person

By Tig Notaro


256 pages, $26.99

By Ben Siegel

Few people had heard of Tig Notaro before Aug. 3, 2012, when during a routine gig at the Los Angeles comedy club Largo she walked out on stage, thanked the crowd for coming and casually announced she had cancer. The room’s stunned response of laughter and silence would change the way audiences would hear her voice, which had been around for years, on failed comedy pilots and small stand-up specials. Suddenly, the world was listening. And cancer was only the tip of the iceberg.

The longer version has been told before. “Tig,” a 90-minute documentary on Netflix, details the three major turning points that came crashing to a halt in 2012. It is her visual memoir, including firsthand accounts, backstage footage and interviews with loved ones. Her HBO comedy special, “Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted,” is the artistic manifestation of that unfathomable year.

In Notaro’s new book, “I’m Just a Person,” she tells the same story from somewhere between the two formats, efficient in her exposition, choreographic in her humor and candid in her reflection. It was only a matter of time that we’d have both Tigs — the long-form writer and the 20-minute comic — in the same product.

The best part about Notaro’s voice is that it never goes above a certain volume. A little louder than quiet, it sits there, deadpan and deliberate, waiting for your arrival. For some stand-up comedians, this is a strategic creative choice, rather than a fact of their personality. It’s a calculating craft. But Notaro has never exactly registered as merely a stand-up comedian — she is one, yes, but she’s more than that. She’s a sage like Louis, a prophet like Carlin. That her perspective on the truth is funny is appealing to us, but she’s not bending reality to make it funny. She’s just stating fact, and we laugh in discomfort.

But this book comes at a burdensome price. To say that Notaro’s 2012 was bad is itself a bad joke. The events sound fictional and far-fetched, but they happened in the span of four months: first, Notaro was hospitalized with pneumonia and was quickly diagnosed with C-Diff, a debilitating bacterial infection that severely inflames and devours the intestines; next, her mother fell at home, hit her head on the tile floor, developed a brain hemorrhage overnight and died within days; three months later, in a grim stupor of grief and illness, Notaro was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts, which she would treat with a double mastectomy.

She also ended a long-term relationship in the midst of this, an event that Notaro downplays a number of times as if it were inevitable; she gives credit to her ex for pushing her to get her first mammogram and defends their mutual breakup despite insinuations in the press that she was dumped. Still, wounds were salted. This is one of the only mentions Notaro makes to her own fame, partly because she gained most of it after the events detailed in the book occurred. There are far more important things to discuss.

Humility is a touchstone of Notaro’s voice. She spends little time dwelling on her childhood, except to describe her mother as implication of her loss. Instead, she focuses on the moments within the moments of these harrowing days. The uncharacteristic sullenness in her stepfather’s voicemail explaining her mother’s fall, and the tense negotiations that followed due to their strained adult relationship. The irony of her mother’s death amid her own proximity to mortality, and the things she’d come to forgive out of empathy. The need to redefine the only things whose permanence mattered:

“My crying, which I don’t even do much of privately, turned into sobbing and hyperventilating for all of the approaching and departing Beverly Center shoppers to see,” she writes of the moments after hearing her cancer diagnosis. “Needing my mother to comfort me about her death was an insatiable, unresolvable problem. And now, having cancer without having a mother brought on a similar and similarly insurmountable problem: I needed to go home but I would forever be unable to.”

These passages, clouded with despair, are grounded by clarity. Notaro’s propulsion for truth is clear in the way she descends the murkiest topics. This is the difference between a writer who has come to his or her conclusions before picking up the pen, and a writer who picks up the pen for therapy. That would have been just as enthralling a read, though it presents a different image of oneself. Even in the darkest moments, Notaro the Storyteller is in charge of everything, a payoff for the invested reader and empathetic fan, alike. She knows the ending. She wrote the ending.

Tig the Comedian makes plenty of appearances, too. The funniest bits land with heavy hearts, of course. Good wit is often sweet on the outside and barbarous on the inside, like life’s bitter truths. Sometimes it sounds that bitter. In explaining the title of the Grammy-nominated live album of her legendary Largo gig, she cuts to the chase: “[It’s] ‘Live,’ as in the verb that means ‘to keep-not-dying.’”

This tome would work well on a stage, but probably at a literary event and not in a comedy club. Her lectern is her podium is her microphone stand is her blank page. This could be the first book in an anthology of encyclopedia about loss, grieving, survival and gratitude. Let’s hope for that.

There’s not balance between funny and unfunny, just the thoughtful choice to use either when necessary. She survived the events of these stories and continues to survive now because she can retell them with clarity. More often than not, the tone is one of peace and safety.

Reflective ruminations bridge unthinkable events together that help her cross between them, moving forward and away from them. She accounts almost everything that happened, from her own brush with death, to the observance of her mother’s untimely demise, and all the wreckage she and her family would have to pick up in the moments and months thereafter. She describes these battlegrounds like a deep-sea diver communicating to the crew up top, confirming along the way.

In detailing every single thing she experienced, she’s claiming it for the record, to make sure it happened, to make sure we heard it, uncluttered. To be funny is to cope; to be witty is to survive. That’s her volume.

Ben Siegel is a frequent contributing critic to The Buffalo News.