In July of 2012, after a series of personal tragedies, comedian Tig Notaro was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts.
She responded to that life-changing event with another one: she told her story on stage at Largo, a venue in L.A., and the resulting performance became legendary, practically overnight.
That brutally honest set catapulted her career, as fellow comedians like Louis CK — who distributed a recording of that show — spread the word via social media.
"Tig," a new Netflix documentary about the comedian that premieres on July 17, chronicles her life and career following her breakout moment.
When we spoke with Notaro in January at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, we asked about her iconic Largo performance, the importance of the audience at that show and how she feels about her legacy — whatever that might be.
On the events that led to her performance at Largo:
There was a four-month period of time where I had pneumonia and I contracted this potentially deadly bacteria called C. Diff. I got out of the hospital and my mother tripped and hit her head and died, and then I went through a breakup, and then I was diagnosed with cancer.
So I didn't go to the doctor until the day before that Largo show, and when I called to cancel it, the owner of the venue said, "Let's not cancel it, we'll just move it to the next week in case you feel like performing." And I said, "Did you not hear me? I have cancer." But he said, "I know. Let's just move it, and if you want to back out the second before you walk onstage, that's fine."
I went and got my prognosis and spoke with the doctors, and I walked out devastated, crying on the sidewalk. I got a text asking if we were doing the show [the next night], and I just wrote, Yes. I wanted to do standup one more time, and he was right to keep the date.
On the importance of the audience at Largo that night, particularly one audience member who, mid-performance, yells, "This is f**king amazing":
I say it all the time, that those were the exact, perfect people in that show. It's so hard to picture how things would have gone otherwise, but that was a moment that really launched me into [feeling], Wow, they really are with me. Because the show was very up and down, and it was awkward — there were belly laughs, there were people crying.
I almost started crying several times in the show myself, When I walked out and said, "Hello, I have cancer," my voice was shaky and I almost cried. I almost cried when he yelled that out in the middle of the show, and then I almost cried when I got a standing ovation.
On listening back to the Largo show:
I don't listen to it. [laughs] I'm not a fan. I don't like listening to myself, so I listened to it one time through before it was released. When I've done interviews and stuff, people will grab little moments from it and there are moments in the movie, but I cannot imagine sitting down and listening to it.
On a scene in "Tig" in which her doctor tells her, "Sometimes in life we don't always get what we want," after Tig had been contemplating hormone treatments for pregnancy:
It was [a confrontational thing to say], but I really like my doctor and I appreciated, actually, that she was confrontational. I needed to know that it was serious and that it was a true risk, but I also wanted to weigh that against what I felt inside.
Hearing that, it was very devastating and scary, because it really raised the bar to high alert. It's definitely true that we don't always get what we want, and it's frustrating, to put it mildly, especially since I was wanting to have a child. But I appreciated that she was that blunt about the level of concern there, because my cancer is fed by hormones. So getting pregnant or doing the IVF treatment increases my hormones.
I had been on such a route in life — I wanted kids, I wanted to have kids. I was just a kind of stunned...I just always assumed I would have my own children. I'm interested in adoption as well, but I just knew I was going to have my own kids. So I was stunned. That was my reaction.
On whether or not she's concerned about being known as "that cancer comedian":
I really don't care what I'm known for — people can call me the worst comedian in the world. Call me whatever you want. I truly don't feel like a female comedian, I don't feel like a cancer comedian, I don't feel like any of that. I just feel like a comedian, so call me whatever you want.
"Tig" premieres on Netflix on July 17.