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Tig Notaro on Her New Amazon Show One Mississippi, Representational Politics, and Poop Jokes

While she might be reluctant to use the word, Tig Notaro is the happiest she’s ever been. At 45, she has a flourishing career, a marriage to “the love of [her] life” Stephanie Allynne, twin babies, and her health. “I’m just in awe every day,” Notaro told me at the Crosby Hotel during a press junket, looking cool and comfortable in shorts and a madras button-down. “I hate to be braggadocious, but it’s really even better than anyone could imagine.” She laughs a little, as though she can hardly believe it herself.

Notaro’s difficult years have been well documented: She lost her mother in a freak accident, underwent a double mastectomy fighting breast cancer, and suffered from a crippling intestinal disease called C. diff. She metabolized all of that trauma into her stand-up, a now-legendary set at Largo, a tour, and a memoir. It’s the foundation for her upcoming show, One Mississippi, which premieres today on Amazon. Notaro spoke about the difficulties of adapting her life for television, the pressures to represent as a female/lesbian/cancer survivor comedian, and poop jokes.

How is it being away from the family?
This is the first time I’ve been without the babies, and [Stephanie] is on her own. But we also have a commune, so we’re in better shape than most people, because her mother and sister live in the house directly across the street from us. And then her brother and his girlfriend live in our guesthouse in the backyard. So we have a little tribe.

I feel like that’s the dream. 
I think it is. Sometimes people are like, “Oh my God. What is that like having your mother-in-law across the street?” And we’re like, “Great.” You know, Stephanie goes over and has coffee with her mother every morning, and her mother comes over from like six to ten to spend time with the babies. I guess if people were annoying it would be a nightmare, but that’s not the case.

A lot of people are familiar with your stand-up, and One Mississippi revisits some of that material. How was it working with Diablo Cody to adapt that material for TV?
I gave her my memoir before it came out, and I told her bits and pieces that I wanted to pull from the book and my reality, and then we worked together bridging the fictional gaps between it all. So we met, I would say, maybe three or four times in person. And then we just sent the script back and forth. She never wanted to continue running the show or anything, so she just wrote the pilot with our producer. And then Kate Robbin, who was a writer-producer on Six Feet Under for the whole run, is the showrunner. Kate is just brilliant. Stephanie is also. We’ve had a nice writers’ room.

How did you know you wanted to do a TV show? 
Well, it always seems to be the thing comedians are meeting about, are approached about. There was never, Oh, I have to tell this story, and I certainly never thought that this hell in my life would be the grounds for a half-hour comedy. But luckily the world of TV has opened up so much that I could do a show like this. I really don’t know what other show I would do. I’ve done sitcoms, but passionately, what show would I do? I don’t know.

How was it giving notes to people who are playing real people who have meant a lot in your life? Did you want them to approximate reality?
For the most part it’s nice to let people do what they do. Every now and then there would be some note, but it seemed like the actors ate it up. They wanted to know, they wanted to hit it. And with John Rothman playing my stepfather, it was hard for me to understand that he wasn’t that character in real life because he plays it so well. Sometimes when he would loosen up a little too much I would be like, “John, stiff.” But he would be very thankful for that. There’s a lot of stuff I let go of with the show, because it’s not a documentary, and there are a lot of fictional elements. And that was a nice freedom to the show.

How do you approach playing a character that is a version of yourself?
I don’t even know. I wish I had more acting training. I would be like, “This is what I was doing.” For the most part I was just happy I remembered my lines. But when I think, Am I a version of myself? I don’t know, because everyone around me is a version of themselves or they’re a created fictional character. I think I may just be myself in a somewhat-fictional world. Because my reactions aren’t that much different, and my personality’s not either, so I think it might just be me.

Was it difficult to reenact the death scene with your mother?
For sure. That scene was so long, and it’s like half the pilot, where I’m next to a dying person. But there’s a moment in that that I think might surprise people that was very emotional for me, which is when the nurse comes in and it breaks reality, and we have a crazy laugh together. But that moment, as silly and weird as it might be, it comes from a very emotional place of, you don’t know how to lose your mother, you don’t know what to do, and you don’t know how to walk away from her body. That was really emotional. And Nicole Holofcener [the director of the episode and an executive producer on the show] and I both — she needed a moment after that. I remember I turned to her and said, “How did that go?” And she was like, “I need a minute.” And she was really having a cry. It’s funny, when people are like, “Man, that part when the nurse comes in, it’s so crazy and so funny,” and I’m like, “Yeah … ” And then other people will be like, “That was really a complicated, heavy moment.”

It seemed important to create different spaces for how you experience loss. 
It’s one of my favorite moments in the pilot. And going forward in the show we break reality a lot, and it makes room for dealing with hard times and where your brain goes and also lets me play into more silly moments. Which is the fun part of the show, to mix the dramatic element with ridiculousness.

How did the scene imagining the fecal transplant come about?
I just remember when I was sick and people were talking about the fecal transplant to me, I was like [laughs], “Wait, I don’t even understand … ? What goes in my ass … ? I don’t even … ” And people respond the same way when I tell them about it. They’re like, “Wait, you eat … or it goes in where … ?” And so I just wanted a Willy Wonka aspect to that moment.

Also, I feel like a poop joke will always land.
You know, having babies, Stephanie’s mother has really come around on poop humor. She used to be so uptight in that area. And now we bombard her. Poop humor is the way to go in our house. And it’s ridiculous with this show, there are so many little moments of poop and poop humor and references. But that’s a reality part.

My family talks about poop all the time. 
Well, there you go. Tell them about One Mississippi. Maybe we should’ve called it Number Two Mississippi. I’m sorry.

How does comedy helps you process traumatic events?
Well, I think it’s just a release. I always use the example of when I got the survey from the hospital when my mother died, asking how her stay went. I was infuriated, and I was in so much physical and emotional pain. It was days after she died, and to get this survey, I felt like I wanted to rip somebody’s head off. I was so hurt and angry. And then that pain kept replaying. And reliving it. I wanted to talk to somebody. And then a couple of months later, it was so ridiculous when I really thought about it. And then when I could come at it from that angle, it really released so much in me. And that it’s such a positive and lucky thing, that you can go in that direction. Because when you go in the other direction it’s just more pain and resentment and anger. When you can take the correct turn in it all, I feel so grateful. When people are uptight and they’re like, “Too soon, that’s not okay. This is disrespectful.” It’s like, “Okay, what? You’re going to walk around furious?” Not that you should be walking along like a lunatic, laughing at every tragedy that happens all the time. That would be an issue in itself. But I think when you find the right angle you can release a lot of pain and anger in any situation. People get so upset because they have it in their mind of the angle you’re going to come from. Don’t even do that, that whole thing.

I feel like what your comedy is very good at is realizing that a lot of trauma is actually very everyday, and yet there’s this language around not talking about it or not being able to find it funny.
Yeah. And I guess there’s a point in my lowest point in time when I was really thinking, Okay, I probably have a month or two to live. And I had just buried my mother. Not that this is a tremendously comedic point that I’m making, but like you’re saying about it being everyday, I had to realize that about myself and my mother dying. We’re not special. When I kept thinking, This isn’t my life. How do I bury my mother and then die a month later? This isn’t how it’s supposed to go? I had to really accept, Yeah, it could be. This could happen. We’re not special. We are people. And the randomness of life can take you at any moment. Just like something phenomenal could be around the corner. And that’s what I’m really aware of. I don’t sit comfortably in my happiness or my pain, but I also don’t live in fear of what’s around the corner. I just know something’s around the corner and that life will go on. Even if it’s not my life. Life itself will go on. And I think I really get that.

In the show you make jokes about molestation. Is that something you hope to explore more in the show?
You know it comes up here and there.

Is it particularly difficult to write comedy around that?
We came at it from a couple of different angles. We found a few that didn’t work, where we were like, Oh, this is just heavy and creepy. And then we found ways to make it just a part of the story, so it didn’t stop a moment, you didn’t trip over it. That’s a part of the story we’re telling.

Were you worried when crafting the show that there were too many balls in the air?
I don’t know. I’ve had a trillion balls in the air at one time. And that can be as real as not even having a ball in the air. I remember at one point it seemed like maybe I was not focused enough on one person romantically — are there too many? And it’s like, I’ve dated five people at once. I think there’s room for it all, and it can all tie in and make sense. Who knows? Maybe people disagree.

Has your family watched it? Were you worried about how they’d react? 
They’ve seen the pilot. I guess there’s always concern of, will people like this? What will they think? Will they understand that things are fictionalized? That of course this isn’t real and this is? But then my brother and my stepfather are very supportive, and I think they really enjoyed it. We’ve been through way more. And, actually, all of the hell that we’ve been through has only brought us closer together. So I can’t imagine a TV show is going to tear us apart. If it does, then good riddance. [Laughs.]

The relationship between you and your stepfather is really beautifully rendered in the show. 
I love it. I really do. I had done a story on The Moth a few years ago about my relationship with my stepfather. And when I talked about him it really opened me up to him in a way in our relationship where I hadn’t paid enough attention. And it seemed to resonate with people a lot as well. And I think that was this pivotal moment where I thought, There’s really something there. Especially when it’s your one parent left. I mean, my father died several months ago as well. So my one parent is my stepfather, who is so robotic and distant. It’s a challenge.

Is he funny?
He is. And he’s warmer and funnier than John plays it. But when he’s not, he’s what John is. And he’s also come a long way. So what I described to Stephanie in reality, she’s like, “He is not that person anymore.” And I’m like, “I realize that. But he was growing up. And he was until my mother died.” That really shook him loose a bit. When you lose everything you really can’t hold too tight to anything.

Do you envision a second season?
Yeah, I can see the show. I think what could give it longevity is the fictional parts added to the reality. Because there are core elements and themes and story lines that I could see five, six seasons. And fictionalizing those, I think, could push it along for a while. But if people say we’ve had enough, that’s all we need to see, that’s fine, too.

Do you feel pressure from people in the media or queer groups to represent in a particular way?
I don’t feel pressure. It’s like when I go to dinner parties. I guess I can feel the pressure, but if I’m not in the mood, you don’t get anything. I don’t play into it very well. And it’s the pressure about a gay coming out or story lines or representing yourself in ways. I didn’t come out until 2012. I’ve been out in my personal life, in my family, in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas. It’s just that I held things more closely and privately between personal life and professional life, and I didn’t really talk about my family or my sexuality too much. I did it when I wanted to and how I wanted to. I can’t imagine I’ll be a flawless representation of women or gay people or cancer survivors or anything. It’s like going onstage after my album came out and people who had maybe never heard of me had finally heard of me. And I remember standing backstage in Iowa at this sold-out theater. I had a bigger following than ever and I had this moment of, Oh my God, they probably just want me to talk about how life is hell. And then I just thought, My life isn’t hell. If I lose them here that’s fine. And they came along for the ride. And it was a fun show. But it was a reminder that I can’t concern myself with that. Am I the cancer comedian, gay comedian, female comedian? Call me whatever you want, it has nothing to do with me. Call the show whatever you want. That’s not my thing.

Is it a way to just let the text be read for what it is and people can interpret it?
Absolutely. I feel like I would become a miserable person if I was trying to be what people wanted me to be or tell a story that they wanted to hear. I try not to think about that at all. In my new stand-up set that I’m working on, I have this 20-minute bit that is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done onstage. I have so much fun. If you’re looking for tragedy, you’re not going to find it. I feel like in whatever I’m doing, I want to do what I’m doing because it feels right. I don’t want to be like, Oh, I’m known as intense or dark or tragic. If that really is coming up for me, that’s what I’m going to do. If I want to do this 20-minute bit that is the silliest thing I’ve ever done onstage, that I close my show with now, I can’t tell you the joy it brings me. And the traumatic stuff brings me joy, when it’s real. The most miserable I’ve ever been is when I was lost after my album came out and I was being perceived as this dark person, and I was like, Is that who I am? I was confused. I didn’t know who I was. But now I realize I’m whatever I am in each moment. Even writing my book I thought, Should I go through and punch this up? And it was like, No. I don’t want this to feel forced to make things funny if that’s not what I want to do.

Or to react to other people’s perception of those expectations.
Or what female comedian books are supposed to do: It’s supposed to be this. That’s not what I want to do.

There’s a certain culture now, in somewhat of a marketplace-driven way, of wanting to identify things. I don’t think your comedy is really interested in that, and yet it feels like people are trying to force labels onto it. But do you feel like you need to address it in your comedy?
Even in my Netflix special documentary people were like, “God, it’s so weird, you don’t ever say that you’re gay in it.” It’s not a coming out. You see me with somebody and you know we’re together, but I don’t have an “I’m gay” moment. [Laughs.] And that’s come up a lot. But I think it’s cool that I don’t come out. And in the TV show I think it’s cool that it’s a nonissue when I bring my girlfriend home. This is the Deep South. I got married on the beach in my hometown, in a tiny town, and the local police shut down the streets and helped us cross over to the beach and back over to the reception, and all the neighbors came running over to cheer us on as we walked down the street. That’s the Mississippi I know, and that’s my family. It’s a nonissue. What’s cool about the show is, I’m not trying to make it a nonissue. It’s just, that’s my perspective.

People have brought that up. “When you bring your girlfriend home, I was expecting that to be a moment,” and it’s not. It’s conflict where John, my stepfather, Bill, doesn’t know how to embrace another person — not because they’re gay. There is that reality with other people, and we might go into that, but only in a way that I know of. I haven’t actually run into any conflict in my hometown or family. Not once. And that I know is unusual, but it’s something I am very proud of. And there are gay people who have experienced that as well. Not everything is a conflict. And not everything is unusual.

Tig Notaro on One Mississippi, Life Philosophy