As Me with Sinéad — 2: Tig Notaro
[00:30] Sinéad Burke: Welcome to As Me with Sinéad. I’m Sinéad Burke. On this week of As Me with Sinéad, you’ll get a chance to hear a really gorgeous conversation with the one and only Tig Notaro in a small, lovely studio in West Hollywood in Los Angeles. I’ve long admired Tig for her courage, which sounds so trite and perhaps predictable, but she’s courageous because she permits herself to be publicly vulnerable so that other people can feel better and have a sense of hope. We had a chance to talk about so many things on this episode, including her new identity as both a wife and a mother.
[01:14] Tig Notaro: Marrying Stephanie made me freer and more excited about my life because I now had this freedom that — it’s just — it’s deeper and richer and more exciting to me.
[01:28] Sinéad Burke: And on my mind this week is leading with empathy. And that’s explicitly because I spend 26 hours in New Zealand. No, really. I traveled to the country to spend an hour with New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinta Argent, who I am so personally and professionally inspired and moved by. How she makes complex, challenging, traumatic moments human and takes herself out of it for the betterment of others, but always leading with a sense of dignity, respect, humanity and empathy. It was a joy to be in her company. I asked her many, many questions, and I think she agreed to be my friend and mentor. I’m saying this publicly to make it true. Are you ready? Let’s go!
[02:22] Sinéad Burke: Welcome to As Me with Sinéad. Today, I have the great privilege to welcome Tig Notaro to the show. I’m Irish and my first exposure to Tig was through extraordinary, vulnerable storytelling and is genuinely such a privilege to welcome you here today, Tig. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I really appreciate it.
[02:48] Tig Notaro: Of course.
[02:49] Sinéad Burke: My first question is how do you describe yourself, personally and professionally?
[02:55] Tig Notaro: Hmm. How do I describe myself? I don’t know that I’ve been asked how I describe myself. I feel like people always ask, ‘how do people describe you?’ I describe myself — professionally, I would say I’m only looking to do projects and work where I know I’m gonna be happy and have a good time. And I mean that because I’ve experienced the extreme opposite. So I’m also showing up to have a good time. And I would say that I give my all with what I commit to. And I do describe myself as very no-nonsense, but one hundred percent nonsense. That probably describes me professionally and personally. I somehow walk that line of very no-nonsense, but I love, love, love, silliness and nonsense.
[04:10] Sinéad Burke: How have you brought the harmony of those two things together?
[04:13] Tig Notaro: Maybe some people think I haven’t.
[04:17] Sinéad Burke: That’s why we’re not asking them to describe you.
[04:19] Tig Notaro: They can keep out of it. It’s none of their business. I don’t know, I think it compliments itself in the way that I know what I want. I think it reminds me of, like, when you, in writing, or with any sort of structure, you have freedom. And I think that that’s the marriage and combo of the two is in writing a script, you’re not confined by an outline — or writing a book, you’re not confined by an outline. The outline is what gives you the freedom. So I think that the more I know what I’m doing — what the parameters are of anything, you know — even getting married. I’ve talked to people — and I was one of those people before I met my wife — I had a lot of questions, like, ‘how do you — so you’re just you’re just with this person only and forever? And how does –’
[05:17] Sinéad Burke: Why?
[05:18] Tig Notaro: Yeah, I wanted it for myself, but I didn’t ever experience anything that would make me —
[05:26] Sinéad Burke: Almost kind of convinced of it?
[05:27] Tig Notaro: No. Anytime I met people that had been together for a long time, I had a million questions for them. And then when I fell in love and got married, I had the same experience of marrying Stephanie made me freer and more excited about my life. Because I now had this structure and this plan of we’re together, and we’re moving forward in life forever together — that’s the idea — and so now I have somebody to plan vacations and holidays and everything with. And so now I have this freedom that’s deeper and richer and more exciting to me.
[06:13] Sinéad Burke: And the freedom and also the space to be creative within that, as you were saying.
[06:17] Tig Notaro: Yeah.
[06:18] Sinéad Burke: And I notice you seem very driven and focused in kind of both paradigms — personally and professionally. You said earlier that, you know, knowing what makes you happy in work. Have you always known what that is? Has it been like a guttural instinct in terms of projects that you want to do, or has it changed?
[06:36] Tig Notaro: Well, it’s changed because I didn’t always have the pick and the choice of projects. And I knew what I wanted to do was stand-up and comedy, and so that’s been my focus and drive. That’s the core of everything. And through stand-up, I’ve been offered roles and writing jobs — things that I never set out to do. I didn’t get into stand-up in order to write, and I didn’t get into stand-up in order to act. But those things have come about. And I’ve gotten involved in these other aspects of entertainment and through these different jobs and projects, I have found difficulties and unhappiness. And I’ve had to step back and say, wait a minute, this wasn’t even my dream. I wasn’t even looking to do this. And I need to really figure out what makes me happy. And that’s where it’s project-to-project that I decide — but then also my wife and I have started a production company where we write and produce and create our projects together.
[07:52] Tig Notaro: And so, so far, that is what makes me happy. And it’s not just doing anything and everything. I had a TV show that was canceled. I’ve also been approached, you know, about doing another show for myself. But it’s actually, I’m finding, not what I want to do. I mean, I’m guest starring on Star Trek, and that’s really fun. It may be down the road, I’ll think, oh, I do want my own show again. Or maybe the option will never come up again. But right now, I know that’s not what I want to do. But I do love creating TV and film with my wife for other people.
[08:33] Sinéad Burke: Having a sense of agency with it. And you’re not adhering to somebody else’s narrative, but you get to shape it yourself. You said there that you know the projects you’re doing now wasn’t the dream. What was?
[08:45] Tig Notaro: Stand-up. You know, I started out doing open mics, and then got into clubs and as an opening act, and then as a middle act and then eventually a headliner. And at one point in my life that was a dream of mine — was not just — my dream was to just even try stand-up. And then it was just to to do open mics. And then it was to get into clubs and then it was the headline clubs. And then my craziest, wildest dream was to do theaters. And now that’s what I do. So that it truly was always on that road of comedy.
[09:24] Sinéad Burke: Can you remember when you were first introduced to humor or comedy?
[09:29] Tig Notaro: There was never a moment that it popped up. My mother was hilarious. My mother was into comedy. She loved Lucille Ball and Gilda Radner and Joan Rivers. And those were huge influences on me as well. And then on my own, I got into Paula Poundstone and Ellen DeGeneres and Richard Pryor and Steve Martin — who my mother also loved — and Redd Fox.
[09:54] Sinéad Burke: When did you realize you were funny — like coming from a humorous or hilarious household, is it just accepted that that’s part of your skill set? Or was it in, like, the school playground or when?
[10:04] Tig Notaro: Yeah, I think it was a school. I was definitely the class clown. I was very mischievous and made everybody laugh and pulled some pranks.
[10:14] Sinéad Burke: What pranks did you pull?
[10:15] Tig Notaro: Always something. I remember in an art class of mine, there was a round table — or all the tables in our class were around. And it was very chaotic. I don’t know if in your art classes — for some reason art classes were always chaotic. And I went under the table with some yarn and tied everybody’s shoelaces together with yarn.
[10:40] Sinéad Burke: And was it for the attention, was it part of like a —
[10:44] Tig Notaro: A payoff. Like, I like to sit and wait for something. I like —
[10:49] Sinéad Burke: The quiet beforehand, and to revel in it.
[10:50] Tig Notaro: Yeah.
[10:51] Sinéad Burke: My background is in teaching, so I’m an elementary school teacher. So I’ve been on the other side of this where the jokesters and the pranksters are in the class. And it’s my job to somehow continue with the curriculum whilst also appreciating the humor, but pretending not to.
[11:06] Tig Notaro: Yeah.
[11:07] Sinéad Burke: And it’s so fascinating the classroom where the different personalities come about. And you have to question, you know, are they being humorous to distract from their inability to do the work? Or is it just part of their personality?
[11:20] Tig Notaro: Mine was probably both.
[11:21] Sinéad Burke: How was that managed in school? Were you just allowed to revel in it?
[11:26] Tig Notaro: I had a very interesting relationship with teachers in that I think it was very frustrating for them, but they also liked me. I mean, I probably got away with a lot, but I also got caught with a lot, you know? I remember even being sent out in the hall out of my science class in seventh grade and there was a bathroom nearby where I was sitting in the hall. I mean, that’s what — it’s so crazy to think my punishment was to go sit alone in a hall.
[11:58] Sinéad Burke: And not have to participate in the class!
[11:59] Tig Notaro: Yeah. I was like, this is amazing. And then I went to the bathroom and I got a bunch of toilet paper and —
[12:07] Sinéad Burke: Decorated?
[12:08] Tig Notaro: Decorated the trees and bushes outside. So I don’t know. I failed three grades and ended up dropping out of high school, also. But to me, that time period in my life was me — that was my education for comedy.
[12:24] Sinéad Burke: Yeah, and figuring it out. And have you wielded the kind of the proverbial sword of comedy differently since — like there, it was like a disrupter, distractor, but also a place to find your own within like a school structure that’s very uniform.
[12:38] Tig Notaro: Mm hmm.
[12:39] Sinéad Burke: Did it evolve? Is it different now?
[12:42] Tig Notaro: I mean, I think it’s always evolving. But I’m realizing as I look at myself personally and as a comedian throughout my whole life, I’ve taken really massive risks. And I feel like my comedy has evolved, but I also feel like the thread and the similarity through my beginnings, personally and as a comedian to now, is that I’ve always taken very big risks.
[13:16] Sinéad Burke: We’ll be back just after this break.
[15:12] Sinéad Burke: I’m not a comedian by any stretch of the imagination, but similar to yourself, I grew up — my dad is very funny as an individual, but also a little person like me. And I tried to use humor as a way to bring people together. And the first time that a person meets me, they can be really uncomfortable because — do they stay standing to greet me? Did they bend down? What did they call me? Am I a little person, am I a dwarf? And it inhibits conversation and also connection. So if I can do something with some element of humor in it, people feel relaxed. But I struggle sometimes with making a joke and being the joke at the expense of making somebody else comfortable.
[15:54] Tig Notaro: Yeah.
[15:56] Sinéad Burke: And I still haven’t figured it out yet.
[15:59] Tig Notaro: Yeah, I mean, it’s something I guess I relate to when I had cancer and tried to make light of it so that the tension would be kind of —
[16:13] Sinéad Burke: Was it that cognizant? Like, before walking out on stage that night and making that kind of first initial announcement, like what was the thought process? Was there one?
[16:25] Tig Notaro: You know, I think it’s been several different things. When I was writing my book, it made me really reflect and think about what was going on there. And I know a part of me — I had just lost my mother and I had this intestinal disease that was killing me. And then I had gotten the diagnosis of invasive cancer. And so I was very aware of how quickly and easily life goes away. And so I think that that show that I did was my fear of not doing stand-up again. That I was gonna go away after my diagnosis and potentially not be OK. I just didn’t know what was coming. And so there was that, of my love for stand-up, my fear of not doing it again. And then there was also the — I realized in time that there was a part of me that was also asking for help. I guess probably because I was so comfortable with being on stage that a packed, dark room is comforting to me. And I think that there wasn’t a totally cognizant decision or thought of, ‘oh, this is why I’m doing it.’ But I — like I said, I think it was a several reasons why I was doing it.
[17:47] Sinéad Burke: I’ve listened to the audio of that talk. And for me, it’s really interesting because I can visualize you standing up there on stage. You’ve just made this very personal announcement, but you can hear the confusion, the hesitancy of the audience. And their engagement becomes much more vocal and emotional, enthusiastic as you go through the routine. But how did it feel in those initial moments where, you know, you’re literally exposing your soul in front of this darkened room? And for the first few moments you weren’t, at least from my perspective, it seems, not getting a whole lot back.
[18:29] Tig Notaro: Mm hmm. I didn’t know what to expect. And I think I thrive a lot in the unknown. And so I was really, really on a wire and it just kind of went back and forth — I went back and forth in my head of like, ‘oh my gosh, this is a huge mistake,’ to ‘oh, they seem to be getting it.’ And then also a wave of this is obviously not a typical standup show. So it’s not going to be — I can’t base the reaction I’m getting right now on previous shows I’ve had. So it was all just kind of hitting me.
[19:12] Sinéad Burke: How did you feel when you came offstage?
[19:14] Tig Notaro: I came offstage feeling like that went way better than I thought. I still didn’t think the people in the audience and the other comedians were gonna be as moved and active to promote or talk about what had happened. That was what surprised me. But I was also so removed from social media at that point in my life that I didn’t understand that that’s something that people would go and blog or tweet about, you know?
[19:48] Sinéad Burke: Why do you think it resonated with people?
[19:50] Tig Notaro: I think it was just I had experienced a lot of things at once that most people in the audience had experienced — from loss of love, loss of a parent, loss of a loved one, health issues, cancer. So many people are affected by cancer. And then also watching it unfold so it was so fresh. And it kind of has that voyeuristic element that is kind of exciting. That even if it might be scary or sad, it’s like, oh my God, you know.
[20:31] Sinéad Burke: Watching it in real time.
[20:32] Tig Notaro: Yeah.
[20:32] Sinéad Burke: How did you manage? Obviously, after that moment had happened. And as you said, like there’s this enormous conversation being instigated on the Internet. And then it seems from an external perspective to transform everything that you do from here on in. But how did you manage to mind yourself within the chaos? You still have to exist as a person, as a stand-up comedian before and after, but now you’re under so much observation?
[21:00] Tig Notaro: Mm-hmm. Well, I had a lot to deal with the second I came off stage. I immediately had so many doctors appointments. And I had surgery and recuperation. And still emotional healing from losing my mother unexpectedly. And freshly out of a relationship — I was — my head was spinning. And so I had to first and foremost take care of myself emotionally and physically, and just kind of put my head down for a while and resurface when it made sense and felt right. And then when I did resurface, I was really kind of shocked that people were still talking about it, or wanting to know more about it. And it was hard in a different way because creatively I was so unsure of myself, and I felt like I was going to let everybody down because I didn’t know what to talk about or who I was anymore. Because I didn’t have my mother anymore. My body was different. My emotion, my — everything was different. Everything looked different.
[22:15] Tig Notaro: My comedy career, I was more well-known than I’d ever been. And yet I had no material. And so I was just like, uhh, I don’t know what to do. And so I just kind of took the pressure off myself and decided to pop up at open mics and just do comedy-adjacent things. I kept thinking that the interest in me or my story was going to go away very quickly. And the feedback I kept getting was that people were very touched and inspired. And so I wanted to share more of my story, especially since all anyone had heard was the stand-up version of it. I was actually less protective of myself. I went from being very protective of myself before all that happened. And then when it happened, I became more open and vulnerable because I felt like I had nothing to lose. And then after I had been so open and vulnerable, I’ve kind of gone through another phase where — now that I’m married with children and I’ve shared my story through a book and a documentary and a TV series and all these things — I feel like it’s time for me to kind of pull back a little, and remind myself that I’ve given my time, my energy, my money, my art, everything for myself and for others. And that it’s okay to not always be completely on display or raw and vulnerable for the masses.
[24:01] Sinéad Burke: More after the break.
[26:08] Sinéad Burke: So many people, I think, now see that telling a personal narrative is a way to not just shape culture, but to shape society and the world in the power of the personal story. Having been somebody who has executed that in such an extraordinary way, is there any advice he would give to those who perhaps thinks that they have something that they need or want to say that’s important?
[26:32] Tig Notaro: I would say I think like with anything to not push anything. For me, the right time in the right way was pretty immediate and on stage. And if that makes sense for others, great. And if it makes more sense to take a beat or — to just really listen to yourself, because I feel like — and it’s not that anybody’s wrong in doing this or it’s not the right way to do it, but I was, you know, inundated by comedians that are like, ‘oh, I want to –’
[27:09] Sinéad Burke: Make a difference.
[27:10] Tig Notaro: Yeah. Talk about this. I want to — I don’t know if it was that it was on the heels of when I did that show or if it was just that the show —
[27:19] Sinéad Burke: It created a space.
[27:20] Tig Notaro: Yeah. For people to want to do that or talk to me about doing it. And my feeling is really listen to yourself. Because when I ran it by a few friends of, you know, I’m thinking of doing this, they actually encouraged me — and they are comedians that I respect and they’re very good friends of mine — but they encouraged me not to do it. Because they felt like I’d been through so much that going on stage, I was kind of setting myself up for potential disaster and it wasn’t worth that. I listened to ‘em and I heard ‘em out, but I was like, I feel like I need to do this. And that’s kind of all I mean is really listen to yourself — when the right time really could be or the right way really could be rather than, ‘oh, I want to do that, too,’ or ‘maybe I could, you know’ — and it’s helpful to run it by people. And not in the way that they’re going to tell you the right thing to do. But their response is gonna make you —
[28:26] Sinéad Burke: Shape it differently.
[28:27] Tig Notaro: Well, yeah, I mean, hearing no from two people that I really, really think the world of and for me in my gut to be like, I need to do this. I need to do this.
[28:37] Sinéad Burke: Power in that.
[28:38] Tig Notaro: Yeah.
[28:39] Sinéad Burke: Of all the things that you’ve done, what’s the quality that you employ or practice or have that you are most proud of?
[28:49] Tig Notaro: I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but in really bad situations I feel like I can keep my cool and make my way through what’s needed. And that applies in life, but it’s also it’s so similar to stand-up, you know.
[29:04] Sinéad Burke: And is that quite solitary? Or do you find it best surrounded by people or in partnership?
[29:10] Tig Notaro: I think it’s both. I feel like I’m truly a survivor. And if the plane crashed, I feel like I’ll live. And I feel like I can help everybody, you know? When the plane crashes and if the plane crashes, we’ll see if I’m any help.
[29:29] Sinéad Burke: Well, this is good to know. Because I’m too short to sit in the emergency row. So we need to go on flights right there.
[29:34] Tig Notaro: And meanwhile, I’m scared to fly. But I just am like, nothing is gonna take me down. No. And that doesn’t mean that I don’t get hurt or struggle, but I keep my eye on the prize. I keep moving. And that was, you know, a huge part of what got me through. And it’s so simple — that time period — was to keep moving. And not in a denial press through. But I was going to take an elevator once, only up to the next floor, and I was at my friend’s apartment building and his neighbor, who is eighty-five, said, ‘move it or lose it.’ And walked up the flight of stairs. And I was like, what am I do — taking an elevator. I’m so able to go upstairs. And so that moment changed my life. And anytime there’s stairs, I take ‘em and I apply that lesson in ‘move it or lose it,’ meaning use your relationship or you’re going to lose it. Use your friendships, you’re going to lose it. Use your talents, you’re gonna lose it. Use everything or you’re going to lose it. And I think that even just getting out of bed and taking tiny steps to move when I was really down and out was a major help for me.
[31:08] Sinéad Burke: But also being open to that fact that, you know, that man could have said that to you. You could have laughed. And but being conscious of being open to being challenged and seeing things through a new way.
[31:17] Tig Notaro: Yeah.
[31:18] Sinéad Burke: My final question for you. Why is comedy still important?
[31:23] Tig Notaro: Because people are still and will always be in pain and uncomfortable and unable to address what’s right in front of them. What’s coming? What’s invisible to them? I feel so, so lucky that I have it in my world and it’s in my blood, in my family. It’s just the direct line to truth and reality. And I like to live in reality.
[31:56] Sinéad Burke: Well, we’re so glad that you do. Tig, thank you so much for coming on As Me today. This has been such a treat.
[32:00] Tig Notaro: Thank you. Yeah.
[32:05] Sinéad Burke: I mean, that was a great conversation. I still have chills. And what Tig said is still making me think. You can find Tig online. And she’ll also be at the Bentzen Ball Festival in D.C. on October 26. Season two of her talk show, Under a Rock, premieres on Funny or Die on November 5. You should also check on it.
[32:31] Sinéad Burke: This week’s person you should know is Jeremy. O. Harris. He is a playwright and a self-described black artist and maker. I had the great privilege of having dinner with Jeremy in Milan right before the Gucci show, because, I mean, that’s just how we do, or something like that. Over that conversation, we solved the world’s problems. But Jeremy’s new play, Slave Play, opened up just a couple of weeks ago on Broadway. And the feedback has just been phenomenal. The show is changing how people view and see the world, and changing their hearts and minds, too. He is an extraordinary person who, if you don’t know, now you know. Follow him on Instagram @JeremyOHarris.
[33:18] Sinéad Burke: As Me with Sinéad is a Lemonada Media original, and is executive produced by Jessica Cordova Kramer and edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Jerome Rankin. Our sales and distribution partner is Westwood One. We’ll be releasing one new episode every Thursday this fall and in the new year. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard, don’t be shy. Tell your friends to listen and subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you like to listen. Please do rate and review us, as well. To continue the conversation, find me on Instagram and Twitter, @thesineadburke, and find Lemonada Media on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @lemonadamedia. Episode 3 next week is As Riz Ahmed. I can’t wait for you to hear it.