Tig Notaro on Her HBO Special and Performing Topless

"Healthy, sick, boobs, no boobs...this is my body, relax," says comedian about her shirtless sets

Tig Notaro performing in her HBO special 'Boyish Girl Interrupted.' Credit: Scott McDermott

"People will come up and say 'Hi' to me as though we were just talking three minutes ago," Tig Notaro says. The comedian is in New York on a three-day press tour, a little over a week after the release of her Netflix documentary, Tig, and just ahead of the release of her first HBO special, Boyish Girl Interrupted, which airs Saturday, August 22nd. (It features much of the same material from her now-legendary New York Town Hall appearance last November, when Notaro performed part of her set topless.) "I'll walk into a place and they're like, 'Tig! Hey, are you eating here tonight?' I'll think, who is this person? And then they'll say, 'I'm sorry. I feel like I know you.'"

This familiarity she exudes is partially thanks to her warm demeanor, and partially the result of the acclaim she's received since announcing her breast cancer diagnosis during her now-famous stand-up set at Largo in 2012. (The album she recorded of that set, entitled Live, would earn her a Grammy nomination; it's been hailed as "masterful" and "genius" by no less than Louis C.K. and Bill Burr.) The sound of her voice, located somewhere between dry and monotone, has an oddly calming affect. And on Notaro's recently retired weekly podcast, Professor Blastoff — in which she and co-hosts Kyle Dunnigan and David Huntsberger would interview fans/experts on subjects ranging from absurd to dead-serious – listeners often felt like eavesdropping on your funniest friends hanging out and giggling over inside jokes.

That Largo set, however, offered more attention than she could have imagined — with the ensuing good press and praise happening while she was grieving over the loss of her mother and dealing with not one but two life-threatening illnesses. "I was at rock bottom when it was at the top," she says. "Most people who have the number one comedy album around the world are like, [loud clap] 'Yeah!' But I was like, 'Please don't make a big deal about me, I don't know what I'm doing,'" Much of this time is chronicled in Tig, as she approaches the anniversary of her famous Largo set, tries to get pregnant through a surrogate, and starts to get back on stage and a get a set together.

How have you been feeling since the release of the documentary?
It's good. It's been an interesting experience because my friend was one of the directors and it was her idea. She'd always wanted to make a documentary and I just said yes; I kind of just thought it would be a project among friends. It was interesting to see it get attention and get picked up, and then realizing my personal story would be so out there with everyone. But I also didn't want to eliminate all those private moments because I knew that would be the most compelling.

After coming off of such a dramatic year and then falling in love — it's amazing for you to have that all on film.
Yeah, Stephanie [Allynne, her fiancée] and I, we have a document of our entire...well, the beginning of our relationship. That's what's so crazy about making a documentary. You think that you're going in doing one thing, and then something else appears. It was about me rebuilding my life after everything and I certainly didn't think I would be beginning to date the person that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. That's insane.

It also captures you dealing with the loss of your mother.
Yeah, that scene with the voicemail...it's the last time I heard from my mother — her singing happy birthday to me. I'm happy to have it. And it is something that really affects people when they hear it, definitely. A lot of people were like, "I called my mother right after I watched the movie."

Since that Largo set and then putting out this very personal documentary, do you find that people are now more likely to share things with you?
Definitely. Definitely, and I try to have boundaries about it. I remind myself that I'm trying to be helpful in doing work for the greater good but I can't always do certain favors that come up. But I certainly have people coming up and telling me their stories, and usually it's people just sharing how helpful things have been.

"There is something silly to me about telling jokes with mastectomy scars on display. And not acknowledging them because that's all anyone is thinking about."

What were your feelings leading up to your HBO stand-up special?
I was touring like an insane person. I was doing minor markets, major markets, international markets, clubs, colleges, theaters, living rooms. Not only did I have to work out a new hour of material for this special, but also I was still getting my bearings as a comedian. I had taken so much time off — and because I lost so much confidence in myself, I needed to work double-time. And then it got going again and I just wanted to go nonstop until it felt right. When I showed up to my taping in Boston – it's my first HBO special – I honestly wasn't even nervous. I felt so confident and comfortable.

You mentioned you'd spoken with a friend about taking your shirt off for the Town Hall show last year, and that they were like, "You have to do it!" Was that something that you had planned to do for your special?
It was something where I thought it would be nice just to have. Since that's what was happening for me that year of touring and taking my shirt off. I don't think I'll do it again. I just thought that it might be a cool thing because people seemed to be really into it and how it affected in live performances. So I thought I would share it on a larger level.

What's incredible is how quickly, as a viewer, you stop paying attention to the fact that you have no shirt on. It happens so fast. You get right back into what you're saying because you seem very relaxed.
There is something silly to me about telling jokes with mastectomy scars on display. And not acknowledging them because that's all anyone is thinking about. I wanted to have borderline hacky airline material, that's what excited me. It gave me confidence to stand there, because I was so excited to deliver the material that comedians and some people would be like, "You can't talk about airplane material."

It's beyond being a woman, or cancer survivor, or someone with a double mastectomy, no nipples, whatever it is — it's just a human being and the human body. Healthy, sick, boobs, no boobs, cancer or no cancer. This is just life and this is my body, relax.

You're lucky and happy to be able to keep doing what you're doing, and that all comes through.
Good. I've had men, all the time — and when I say all the time, I mean in those three shows [where I took my shirt off] — come up to me and say, "I'm clearly not a woman, but I feel touched and inspired as a man. It put in touch with who I am and my body." It's nice that it goes across the board.

What other projects are coming up?
Well, I'm in pre-production for my Amazon pilot. It's not a for-sure pickup but we're also writing the rest of the season, so they're definitely letting us know that they are invested. It's inspired by a version of my life. Basically, it's going to be picking up the pieces after everything fell apart, and trying to redefine the concept of "family" in different ways. I have my comedy festival that I produce called the Bentzen Ball, which is coming up in October. I'm in final edits for my book. And Stephanie and I are getting married, we're neck-deep in planning that.

Is this a comedy book or will it be straight memoir?
It really jumps back to my childhood and me as a kid growing up. My album Live was such a skeleton of what I went through, and the documentary filled in the gaps more. But the book is going to be the very specific about the highs and lows.

You also filmed the second season of Transparent – how did that go?
I'm in half the season this year. As we bring up different projects and we throw new things onto the pile – it's really been busy.

I was so sad to hear that there isn't any more time for Professor Blastoff.
Yeah, I'm sorry. All three of us are touring and having TV shows and people don't realize it's not just our schedules. It's the guest schedules and the studio's schedule. Maybe if life settles down there will be a reunion.