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Tig Notaro’s pain, for our amusement


Tig Notaro is clearly a very smart person. So, how does a very smart person fail three grades? How is she a high-school dropout?

“I’ve always struggled, and not been a fan of school,” Notaro admitted as she acknowledged the sometimes painful reality of coming-of-age amongst peers.

But Notaro doesn’t fall back on the cliché of a loner, of being a social outsider. She can’t claim she wasn’t well liked by her classmates. Because, yes, she was funny and popular.

“But I did have an underlying discomfort of, ‘I don’t feel like I fit in,'" she said. “I felt for sure like something was off or missing or whatever.”

The “whatever” has filled in nicely. Born in Mississippi, growing up in Texas, and on to a career in Denver as a manager of rock bands, by the late '90s Notaro’s evolution led her to Los Angeles. Her dry sense of humor, always present, thrived in that land of stand-up comedy opportunity. Albums, television appearances, cable stand-up comedy specials. Her quick wit is well suited for the handful of podcasts of which she is the host, including "Don’t Ask Tig," in which listeners can ask Tig and that week’s celebrity guest anything and they will do their best to respond.

“It, of course, goes off the rails a bit,” Notaro said. “But we try our best.”

Off the rails. That’s comedy at its best.

Notaro's show, "Hello Again," is the comedy headliner at this year’s Rochester Fringe Festival, with an 8 p.m. Saturday show at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Her friend Joe Wilson opens the evening.

Notaro’s free-range appetite takes her to many worlds, and not all seem to be in the same orbit. There, she casts a slight shadow of … nerd. As kids, Notaro and her brother had Star Trek action figures—a foreshadowing of things to come. In 2019, she appeared in the second season of "Star Trek: Discovery" as Chief Engineer Jett Reno. (If you’re keeping a scorecard, that was the seventh Star Trek series.)

“I thought I was gonna be on an episode or two,” Notaro said. The show’s creators had other ideas. By the fourth season, Notaro had been promoted to the main cast. She liked the cast and crew, who she described as kind, and funny.

“I always find, in acting, my favorite part is connecting with the people between scenes,” Notaro said. As Jett Reno, the extent of her scenes was, “pop in, be sarcastic and cool.”

A skill set that serves Notaro well as a podcaster, which calls on a different set of skills than stand-up comedy. In fact, she seems to prefer her handful of podcasts – including Don’t Ask Tig, Handsome, and Professor Blastoff – to her comedy.

“I just find podcasting so fun, just having that freedom to go anywhere, which you can onstage, with standup," she said. "(But) it becomes rehearsed. And you tour that same show around for a couple of years. And then maybe record an album or stand-up special. Whereas podcasting, you are just chatting with a friend around a theme.”

That’s an unexpectedly harsh take on comedy, for a comedian. Because Notaro is very good with jokes.

Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted was a 2015 HBO special, earning an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special. A year later, Notaro released it as an album, earning a Grammy Award nomination for Best Comedy Album.

“I like to start with a nugget of truth, and I certainly allow for exaggeration and, you know, kind of cartoonish descriptions and whatever,” she said. “But yeah, I do, I do start with the truth.”

The nuggets of truth behind comedy can be tough on the comedian.

“I felt like it was the perfect title for that time period, feeling my life had been very interrupted, by a lot of heavy stuff,” Notaro said of "Boyish Girl Interrupted." “With my mother dying and being diagnosed with cancer.”

All of that, and a breakup with her then-girlfriend.

“I was trying to make light of the aftermath of what had gone down in my life," she said. "The title just seemed to fit.”

And the cancer? A double mastectomy in 2012. It’s a discussion that is often a part of Notaro’s comedy, if we can call it that. She performed topless during a part of a 2014 show The Town Hall in New York City.

Her pain, for our amusement.

“But I for sure feel that comedy and writing, all of that, is so helpful in the processing of trauma,” Notaro said, adding she's been processing since her teen years. “I was very different and probably (didn't know) that I was gay.

Then, she got out of school and into her real life.

"I figured out who I was. And that was the point I was able to really apply myself and focus on my interests, and have success," she said. "Because I really, finally, understood who I was.”

Who is she now? A self-described tomboy, and one with worldly concerns like climate change. She is vegan; her wife and their twin children observe a plant-based diet, both for their own health and the health of the planet. Notaro speaks out against animal cruelty and for animal rights. One belief, she said, “feeds into the next.”

“That was from all of the health struggles I went through,” Notaro said. “I decided to change how I ate, and I feel exponentially better.”

Similarly, she said her comedy has expanded exponentially over the years.

“The earlier days of getting onstage with an open mic is what helped me understand myself, and feel comfortable with myself,” she said. “I started out kind of doing just one-liner type jokes. And then I started telling even longer stories that became 15 minutes. I started sharing personal things about myself. I allowed myself to do (what) I would consider prop comedy, because I would use a stool onstage and push that around to make weird noises and make the audience laugh. I’ve just allowed myself to constantly evolve.”

With each joke, with each high school revelation, with each discussion of her cancer, Notaro’s audience is witnessing an experiment.

“I don’t necessarily feel comfortable out of the gate,” she said. “But I feel comfortable enough to bring it to the stage. I’m curious to see how it will go.”

Jeff Spevak is senior arts writer for WXXI/CITY. He can be reached at 258-0343 or [email protected].

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