Last fall at Carnegie Hall, I saw Tig Notaro pull off the greatest closer I’ve ever seen, which compelled me to tweet that she is the best stand-up working. It’s still true. Right now, there is no other comic displaying both a greater mastery of the form and willingness to push it forward. That closer, which involved Notaro inviting the Indigo Girls onstage for more than ten minutes and then saying she was joking and that they are not coming out (they eventually came out), was another in a long line of Notaro’s recent history of big moments — for example, when she performed the back half of her special topless and the legendary “I have cancer” set.
Before all of those, though, there was one joke that Notaro says freed her up to be a comedian who can do these gutsy moves and still be funny in her specific way: her Taylor Dayne story. It was 14 minutes long at a time when much of her act was one-liners and short, silly bits, and pulling it off proved to Notaro it’s not just okay to take risks, but potentially revelatory. That joke is the subject of this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about comedy and the people who create it. In the interview, Notaro talks about carving the true story down from 30 minutes, how it changed everything for her, and the time she completely forgot the joke while it was being filmed.
I’ve heard you tell the Taylor Dayne story a few times, and it’s pretty consistent each time — except when you did it on Conan’s stand-up web series, when you couldn’t remember it. Do you recall why that happened?
I do. That Conan appearance was right in the middle of … I was days away from finding out I had cancer. I was newly out of the hospital, newly burying my mother, and that day my girlfriend and I broke up. I was still very ill. I went onstage to tell this story that I had told a million times and that was completely factual, and my brain just went away onstage because I had so much on my mind. It was really a leaving-my-body moment. Onstage I was thinking, These people think this is part of the bit, and I really didn’t know what I was going to do.
I lost the audience for a bit, but then, the more I made fun of myself for forgetting it, they came back. When I got offstage, the producer came up, I said, “I’m so sorry. I’m like really in a weird space and I forgot the story.” He was like, “No problem. We can just edit all of that out.” I was like, “You know what” — and it was partly because I felt, like, “Nothing matters,” in an inspiring, exciting way because I had lost everything, and also in this rock-bottom way of like, “You have come face-to-face with somebody that does not care” — and, I said, “Don’t edit it. Please leave it in.” Because I also knew for myself, it would excite me to see another comedian struggle like that.
Especially, for so long. It’s like two minutes.
No, I know. And, it was longer. They did edit some of that out. I remember just being like, Come on, brain. What happens next? And I couldn’t.
I’ve seen a lot of comedy, and I’ve never seen anything like that.
Yeah, I really was at a loss. I remember just sitting there in my green room after, thinking, “Please put that out there. Please. Put that out there. Because I want people to see me gasping for air.”