Sundance: Tig Notaro on Her Sundance Doc, Finding Love, and Trying to Have a Baby

Photo: Sonia Recchia/Getty Images

In an ironic twist of fate, comedian Tig Notaro’s life started looking up from the moment she got onstage at the Largo comedy club in Los Angeles in October 2012 and announced, "Good evening, I have cancer.” Before that funny-poignant set — highly praised by Louis C.K. and other comics — Notaro, 43, had endured a life-threatening infection, the sudden death of her mother, a breakup, and a diagnosis of bilateral breast cancer, requiring a double mastectomy. Filmmakers Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York talked Notaro into letting them follow her around for a year as she got back on her feet and prepared for an anniversary stand-up show at the Largo in October 2014. Along the way, Notaro tried to have a baby on her own, found love, and perfected a joke about her breasts getting so sick of her referring to her flat-chestedness that they tried to kill her. (The film, Tig, premiered at Sundance and is currently in the process of finding a distributor.) Notaro sat down with Vulture to talk about how she proposed to actress Stephanie Allynne, who appears in the documentary, their subsequent wedding plans, trying to have a kid after cancer, and whether she misses her breasts.

You got a standing ovation at the premiere. Had you seen the movie before?
Yeah, I’ve seen numerous cuts of it. I was just so proud of it that I was excited for people to see it. I had some nerves as it was starting, but it wasn’t horrifying. I felt confident that the filmmakers had made a great film. 

It must be kind of surreal for you given that you've gotten so much attention since 2012. You had a horrible year, and then out of that you became revered and famous. Does the documentary feel like part of that?
Yeah, I guess all of it is adding onto it, you know? But I agreed to do it a couple years ago, and I’m thrilled that I’m finished with it. I’m very happy with how it turned out.

How was the actual shooting of it? Did you want to stop?
Oh, yeah. Saying yes to the film, I wasn’t sure if it was actually going to happen. A good friend of mine had reached out wanting to direct the documentary, and I knew she had always wanted to make a documentary, so I wanted to do it for myself, but I also wanted to do it for her. She wanted a subject, so I was willing. I just assumed that I was through the worst of things, and she’d probably be catching me in an on-my-way-up, things-are-good kind of ... But then life gets going, and good happens and bad happens. So, during the greatest moments and the most upsetting moments, I wished the camera wasn’t there, but I also wanted to make a great movie, so I didn’t want to do it halfheartedly.

You said you did it for your friend in a lot of ways, but was there part of you that wanted to do it for yourself?
I felt like when my album came out two years ago, it was such a shell of what had happened, and I thought that this could be a very full picture that could be painted. I thought, if people were touched by that, there are so many little details, and that was just a half hour of jokes. It felt like there was a whole story that could be told.

When you started this, where were you within the recovery process? You’d already had the mastectomy.
I was still trying to pull my life together, but I was technically in remission. I was starting to want to get onstage again. I was on the ground floor. I was not in a relationship. I was trying to rebuild everything. But it was probably four months after the double mastectomy.

You said in the documentary that before you got cancer, you were about to try having a kid. Was there not a chance to do egg extraction before you went into treatment?
It didn’t even dawn on me to do that. I just thought I was going to carry the child. So that was what my plan was, and what I was moving towards, and then I had to scramble to figure out how to do this. It didn’t dawn on me ever that I wouldn’t be able to carry a child.

A lot of scenes take place at your ob-gyn. Did you have to work hard to find a doctor who would go on-camera?
No, he was my first one I went to, and he came highly recommended by my oncologist. I needed people to be able to work together if I was gonna do this.

I loved the joke you made about how you know you’re single when you’re giving yourself a hormone injection in a hotel room in St. Paul. I’m 36, and all my friends are doing egg freezing, and it’s this thing that you do because you’re single and you don’t see any partner coming into your life.
They’re intense.

The thought of sticking yourself with a needle for two weeks makes me cringe.
But even just the emotional part of it. I’m a pretty even-keeled person, and I’m not depressed or anything, but I truly wanted to kill myself. I had no hope. It was really this bizarre place. I mean, even though I’m making light of it, it’s very true.

You wanted to kill yourself because you were alone in a hotel room doing that?
The hormones affected me severely. There was one night where I just saw no hope, and it made me really understand people that are needing to medicate. I couldn’t believe that there was anything to live for.

Wow, that’s a dark place to be.
Yeah, and so that’s what I was talking about as, like, Here I am wanting to build a family, and then in the process, I kill myself …? You know? It just seems so twisted that that’s where I was headed. I mean, I wasn’t taking steps to kill myself, but I really had to get on the phone with a friend to talk me through it. And it was right before I was going onstage in St. Paul.

I think we’re all glad you didn’t kill yourself. I really loved being able to watch you and Stephanie [Allynne] fall in love in the movie. You met on the set of Lake Bell’s In a World, right?
We met, we connected, but I had a girlfriend and she was seeing other people. We really enjoyed each other on-set, and then after I left shooting, that is when my life fell apart. In January of 2013, I started this documentary and just resurfaced in general, and I ran into her in L.A. and we exchanged numbers, and that’s when we started texting. So the first six months, it was very slow-moving because we weren’t sure how we felt. And then I realized I was into her, and she hadn’t dated a woman, so she wasn’t sure … So it was six months of that.

I mean, it worked. Nice move.
It did [laughs]. She’s come to this realization about sexuality, about how she just thinks its ridiculous for there to be labels — in anything. If you want to do something, or you feel something, you shouldn’t have to check back to, “But wait …“

“But I thought I was straight.”
Yeah. But the joy — she’s never been in love, she’s never even connected with a man the way she’s connected with me, so now she’s like, “Was I ever straight? I’ve never experienced this feeling.” There’s so much joy that we both feel.

Did you propose?
Mmm-hmm. On New Year’s Day.

How did you do it?
Well, we have this box where we made a list of things that we wanted to do in our lives, and we didn’t tell each other what was on the list. And we cut the things out and didn’t share it and just put it in the box, and while we were doing that I thought, How hilarious to write down, “Will you marry me?” But I didn’t put it in the box.

That’s a great idea, though.
Yeah. And so I told my friend Kate Micucci, I was like, “I have this idea. I want to marry Stephanie, but I don’t want to do some crazy, over-the-top proposal, but I want it to be special. And I have this idea.” And I said, “But if I put it in the box, she might not pick it for eight years.” And she was like, “Take everything out of the box and fill it with, ‘Will you marry me?’”

You said that you’re thinking about getting married in the fall?

Sorry to pry, but I’m just so curious about following up on the story that I saw unfolding in the movie. So what are you going to do? Do you know?
We don’t. Her mother and sister are both very excited to help organize it and plan it, and my stepfather offered to pay for it, and my cousin in Mississippi is a Catholic deacon, so he wants to come out and officiate. So we’re kind of at that step where everyone’s excited and wants to be a part of it. At first when we would talk about getting married, Stephanie was just like, “I just want it to be me and you in an intimate, beautiful setting, and then we can have a party some other time.” And I was like, “Yeah, whatever!” And then we went to a few friends’ weddings over the past year and a half, and she was like, “I think I want a full-blown wedding.” And I feel that way too, actually, so we just want to go all-out.

In the doc you talk about how you guys want to have lots of kids. Will it be mostly adoption, or will Stephanie will carry them?
Stephanie wants … blood children … I don’t even know what to call it. But yeah, it’ll probably be a hodgepodge of little people.

It also looks like everything is on the upswing professionally. You have the HBO special. Are you ready for it?
Yeah, I feel ready. I’ve been touring all over the world for the past few months and doing the hour every night, so I’m very excited.

You did a topless set showing your mastectomy scars in New York this November. Why did you want to do that?
Well, I felt compelled after my surgery. It amused me to think of going onstage topless and not really acknowledging it. And just kind of in the same awkward way that it is to say, “Good evening, I have cancer, how’s it going tonight? Are you guys having fun?” Delivering it like, “Any birthdays?” And then I kind of put it out of my mind. But then when I started touring again a couple years later, I felt compelled, and I told a few friends that I was thinking about it, and they were all so excited. And then one person said that they were scared I couldn’t get the audience back if I did that, and then another person said they were scared it would be a stunt, and I feel very much like it is a stunt. [Laughs.] But it’s my skin, it’s my body, it healed, and it shouldn’t be taboo. It’s not a big deal. Cancer is a big deal, but my body — the aftermath — is not a big deal. I really did get a lot of feedback that people were stunned when I took my shirt off, and then 30 seconds later they didn’t even notice. I’m in a unique position after that album that I put out two years ago, and this would be the time for me to make that kind of statement and do that sort of action.

Do you miss your breasts?
No. I mean, when I was first being wheeled down the hall in the gurney into surgery, it was the first moment that I realized, Oh, I actually really like my body, and I didn’t want it to change. It was that moment of realizing that you have to surrender to a very uncomfortable moment and there’s no turning back. I always describe it as like when the seat locks in on a horrible roller-coaster, and it’s starting to go. You’re going into surgery and they’re cutting into you. So for several weeks I couldn’t even look at my body. It took me a while to come to terms with things. And I was scared it would hinder my dating life, or that I would always be like, “So … this is my body …” But everybody that I’ve been with thinks that my body is so hot, you know? Like Stephanie thinks my scars are cool. And I don’t have nipples, I don’t have … anything. Just scars. And it’s like, I’m fine with myself. It’s nice that she is, too.

Besides the HBO special, aren’t you doing something with J.K. Simmons?
Yeah. Sarah Silverman, J.K. Simmons, Stephanie as well — we play a couple in the movie. It’s called Still Punching the Clown. It’s the sequel to Punching the Clown, which my good friend Henry Phillips wrote. The Punching the Clown movie was a cult favorite among comedians, and then J.K. Simmons got a hold of it through Mike Judge — Mike Judge is in the movie as well — and they just became such fans that they agreed to come in on Still Punching the Clown.

What is it about? What do you do?
I play Henry’s old friend from years ago, and I resurface in his life and Stephanie is my girlfriend. I don’t want to spoil too much, but Punching the Clown — people have to see that movie. It’s so funny. It’s about the life of a comedian on the road, and I just thought it was so phenomenal.

What happened to your role in Transparent? You’re credited to a lot of episodes but you’re not really in it so much?
I’m in two episodes, but it’s like I’m an extra. Jill Soloway is an old friend of mine, and she just put me in. They say I have an arc next season. Who knows? The show [Transparent] is tremendous.  

And you’re also writing your memoir, right?
It will be out in 2016. It’s even more in depth about my life and what I went through, and my childhood, who my mother was.

That must be hard to write.
It’s been therapeutic. I have a bad memory, so it’s great that I’ve been writing this for the past two years because there have been so many little details that I would have forgotten. Even when I go back and read parts of it I’m like, Wow, I forgot that already. It’s a lot about the very messy details that the documentary couldn’t … It’s all of it. But I feel lucky that I got a chance to write it. There were moments when I’m alone writing, sifting through the little tiny moment-to-moment … it was very devastating. And there’s humor to it, but it’s very, very real.