'One Mississippi': How Tig Notaro Turned Tragedy Into 'Traumedy'

Comedian attempted to turn a long, hard year of sickness and death into an Amazon show — and made a brilliant series in the process

Credit: Amazon

You may have heard about Tig Notaro's terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year. In the spring of 2012, the stand-up comic found herself suffering from life-threatening bacterial infection that wreaked havoc on her G.I. tract. Hospitalization was required; shortly after that, her mother unexpectedly passed away and a long-term relationship disintegrated. Then, several months later, she found herself diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, which meant a double masectomy and a period of long chemo treatments loomed on the horizon. By the time Notaro took the stage at Largo, L.A.'s alt-comic Mecca, that October, she'd reached the end of her rope. Normally, her routines involved dry observational humor and absurdist tangents like the brilliant stool-pushing bit she'd performed on Conan. Instead, she opened her now legendary set with a blunt greeting: "Hello. Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you?"

The confessional half-hour that followed suddenly turned Notaro from a comedy-nerd idol into a bona fide star — an aspect that the 45-year-old comic still finds somewhat odd, arching her eyebrows as she sits in a boutique hotel in Chelsea. "It was what people wanted to hear about, what they wanted to buy, and what I wanted to talk about," she says. "It’s taken awhile for everything to reach the surface ... and the TV show is the final thing to come out from that time." One Mississppi, Notaro's new six-episode series on Amazon that premieres en toto today, revisits the period right after all of her life-changing bad luck went down, opening with a fictionalized version of Notaro returning to her Southern hometown during her mom's final days. The chronology of the events are mixed up a bit, but the rest of this "traumedy," as Notaro referred to it at this year's TCA gathering, is "85% real."

"Actually, that applies more to the pilot than the series," she says. "There are a lot of real elements — I mean, the character is called Tig, and really, how many of us are there? But this isn’t all my story as it happened. It’s still a TV show." Still, Notaro realizes that when viewing this semiautobiographical tale of an Angeleno transplant who hailed from Mississippi — she was born in Jackson and raised in Pass Christian — and was a successful comedian, a cancer survivor, in a same-sex relationship and dealing with the passing of her mother, people would focus more on the "autobiographical" aspect than the "semi" part.

And once Notaro started sketching out the pilot, she admits, the intention was always that "the lines are blurred" regarding her actual experience. When Amazon had approached her about developing a series, she'd already had a book (I'm Just a Person) and a documentary (Tig) out about her year in hell; since an uncut version of the truth was in circulation, she wanted to draw on things rather than adhering to a just-the-facts fidelity. Louis C.K., who had released a recording of the Largo set on his Website, quickly came on as an executive producer. To help her work on the pilot, Notaro reached out to Diablo Cody, as she was a huge fan of the screenwriter's work ("My wife and I have seen Young Adult about a dozen times" she says). In that first half hour, we meet the Fake Tig, her partner (played by SNL vet Casey Wilson), her immature brother (Noah Harpster), her anal-retentve and socially awkward stepdad (John Rothman) and via flashbacks, her free-spirited mother (Rya Kihlstedt). It stood head and shoulders above the rest of the streaming service's 2015 fall pilots.



Once the show was picked up, they needed to find a showrunner — enter Kate Robin, a writer/producer who'd done time on the similarly seriocomic Six Feet Under and who'd heard about the pilot from an article her husband had read to her. "Tig and Diablo are writing it, Louis is producing, [indie filmmaker] Nicole Holofcener is directing it — these are my people," she says. "I basically called my agent, whose response was: 'Down, girl! This is just a pilot!'" Still, when Robin was developing several things with Amazon and One Mississippi was casually mentioned in a conversation, she immediately started "asking them, so, ah, how's that going regarding the series, by the way? I soon find myself meeting up with Tig at her house, where we're sitting across the room from each other with all this furniture between us, shouting about the ideal tone for the show as we try to get to know each other. It was so ridiculous and awkward ... and really funny. That's when I thought, ok, I think this can work."

Once Robin was on board, the two of them started to figure out how to build off the pilot and, by extension, Notaro's own story. The comedian says she'd bring in certain real-life situations and stories to the writer's room, "where I'd often tell them, 'Just for context, this is what happened … but I don't want to put that in. That’s not for public consumption.' I'm not making a show to reveal everybody’s secret. There were times where it was, well, it would just be brutal for that person if I  add this thing in. I'm not here to be like" — she adopts a mock-righteous tone — "'Well THAT happened, and I’m here to tell the TRUTH, and you’re going to have pick up the PIECES, and …' No worries there, folks." 

Still, Notaro admits there were things she definitely wanted to include. She was determined to show a different side of the South, wasn't that wasn't a Hee Haw version of hicks with hayseeds ("That's Season Two," she deadpans) or redneck racists ("You can find a stars-and-bars flag in upstate New York as well as the South, I guarantee it"). Both the character's biological father and stepfather on the show hew closely to their real-life counterparts. "My real father, who died right as we were wrapping the pilot, claims to have been part of the Mississippi Mafia," she says. "People think it’s a cartoon element, but he had a knife and a gun in his cowboy boots at all times. That's one of those things where I’ll admit, yeah, that’s not exactly fictional. And for anyone who knows my stepdad ... when he saw it, his response was, 'You did a very good job, Tig. [Pause] It is fictional right?' Right. Totally fictional." She rolls her eyes and quietly chuckles to herself.

And most of all, Notaro says she wanted to honor the concept of experiencing the death of a loved one firsthand in as realistic a way as possible — notably captured in a sequence in which, after hearing her mom take her last breath, the protagonist suddenly realizes she has no idea what to do next. "Yeah, that's my favorite scene," she admits. "You just leave the body. Someone is at their literal worst, and you leave them! When my mother died, people asked, 'Oh, could you feel her in the room?' No, she seemed braindead. I don’t know if she heard a word I said. But it still felt good to tell her." Notaro stops for a second. "People have also asked me if it was cathartic to deal with this in the show ... and it was. But there were times when I'd see the actress playing my mother, and it would destroy me. Grief doesn't work in a logical way. It's never really over."

"But the great thing," Notaro adds, "is that, selling the show, writing the pilot, waiting for a pick-up, getting a pick-up, writing the show … time passed and it got to turn into something else. People might have thought, oh yeah, I know your story; I know where this is going. They won’t. I didn’t know where it was going. And I lived through this."

Comedian and actress Tig Notaro discusses her upcoming Amazon series, 'One Mississippi'. Watch here.