NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 05: Comedian Tig Notaro performs during New York Comedy Festival at Carnegie Hall on November 5, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/Getty Images)
Photo: Jim Spellman/Getty Images
After Tig Notaro told what I thought was her final joke, in which she reenacted the day Ringo Starr sang “Yellow Submarine” for his wife, the crowd at her sold-out New York Comedy Festival show at Carnegie Hall sang along with her. I was satisfied with the show up until that point; Notaro is a modern master, and that was on full display as she wrung the most out of a premise with a deliberate and precise balance of deadpan, silliness, anti-comedy, acting, and heartfelt storytelling. I couldn’t have expected what would come next, but what did was one of the most hilarious, disorienting, and incomparable bits I’ve ever seen.
“Because you guys have been so tremendous, I feel like I want to give you a present,” Notaro said, after complimenting our singing. The audience responded with a cheer, partially just contented with the fact that she said we were a good audience, like a dog who likes the attention almost as much as the treat. She checked backstage for a second and came back to the center. “Okay, I think we are set,” she said seriously. Some people giggled in anticipation, causing Notaro to respond, “Laugh all you want.” Her voice raised in volume and excitement: “But, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage THE INDIGO GIRLS!” The audience stood up and roared in excitement.
The cheers slowly died down, and eventually there was silence, as the folk duo was nowhere to be seen. “That was awkward,” Notaro joked, as the audience legitimately was unsure if that was just a bit. Before that could be determined, Notaro checked backstage again, saying, “Okay, sorry about that.” One more check. “Okay, cool, please welcome the Indigo Girls,” she said plainly. The cheers were more measured and ended more quickly this time when it was clear that, again, they weren’t coming out.
“Okay, I know what this must look like. It probably appears that the Indigo Girls aren’t here,” Notaro deadpanned to a befuddled audience. She proceeded to ask who thought they were going to come out and then who didn’t think so. When more people applauded to the latter, she responded, “You’re about to look very dumb, please welcome the Indigo Girls.”
By now you are probably catching on, as did we. Especially since this would continue in different forms and phrasings for over ten minutes. Just this. Just her apologizing and introducing the Indigo Girls. Sometimes her tone her shifted, like when she said, “Of course they’re not here,” while knocking down her mic stand. Sometimes she’d zigzag, committing and bailing on the bit in the same sentence, saying things like, “This is ridiculous. I have to write a better ending to the show, instead of like pushing off on these women, who don’t even know me. That’s not true — I’m friends with them. Please welcome!” and, “Yeah, like they’re going to fly in and do a show after I already did a show. You dum-dums. Yes, they are! Ladies and gentlemen … ” But this was essentially it, with “Please welcome the Indigo Girls” becoming an improbable punch line.
After ten minutes, Notaro slipped into a solemn tone and said if the Indigo Girls came out, our heads would explode, as it “would be the most ridiculous thing in the world.” “Of course that’s not going to happen,” she continued. “The comedy show actually ended ten minutes ago.” Notaro would tell us that she just liked the audience to come down after the set and have a time of “No more smiles. No more clapping. No more laughing.” She then instructed us to all clap in unison, so we did. Once for ourselves. Once for the phantom Indigo Girls. And one last time as she said, “Thank you and good night.” The lights went out onstage as she walked off.
Now, that’s a fucking closer.
Notaro has a history of making big live moments — consider her now-legendary “I have cancer” set and her topless set — so it made sense she’d bring the Indigo Girls out when she played Carnegie Hall. But here’s the crazy thing: This wasn’t the first time she did this bit. She’s been doing it on the road for six months — each time, nary an Indigo Girl. As she’d tell me over email the next day, the idea evolved after she was having a bad set one night. “I decided to just tell the audience I had a surprise for them and randomly picked the Indigo Girls,” Notaro said. She’s not exactly sure why the Indigo Girls popped into her head, other than because she had seen them live recently. And the idea worked: “After teasing the bit for so long, the audience was back on my side.” And, as I can attest, it really works when the audience is already on her side.
Notaro is known to use repetition in her act, and that’s what she was clearly doing here. It’s hard not to think of Steve Martin in how she plays with showbiz conventions and, through uncertainty, causes the audience to not know when to laugh. Thankfully, though, the bit was hilariously funny throughout. As I wrote when talking about Kristen Schaal’s stand-up special three and a half years ago, Notaro might use tricks in the Andy Kaufman playbook, but unlike the anti-comedy genius, she doesn’t have a confrontational relationship with the audience — she wants them to have fun along the way. And we did. It was a push-and-pull, but we were happy to be pushed and pulled, just as we were happy to sing “Yellow Submarine.”
What Notaro brings to her stand-up is an uncommon generosity. She might kill in terms of laugh volume and frequency, but the audience is not her enemy. This bit wasn’t a move to mess or fuck with the audience, but, as she put it onstage that night, “a great, fun, funny way to play with you.” This ability to break down the wall that separates the audience and the performer makes Notaro an undeniably contemporary comedian. And her skill at it makes her, in my estimation, the best comedian currently working in America.
And you want proof of her generosity? Right as the standing ovation was losing steam and she disappeared backstage, from my seat I could hear what sounded like acoustic-guitar strums. And like a parabola, from the dip in applause rose a clapping phoenix as each member of the audience saw …
THE INDIGO GIRLS.
“It was always going to be a fake-out,” Notaro told me. “When I was booked at Carnegie Hall, I thought that would be a great way to lure them and to end such a monumental night.” The duo would go on to play a 15-minute, five-song set curated by Notaro. After the second song, she spoke to us again: “The show is over. This is just something that’s happening after the comedy show. My treat. My treat.” She then sat down and watched. She was one of us. She always was.