Tig Notaro onstage in 2010. Photo by Shawn Robbins.
Tig Notaro gave a now-legendary comedic performance in August 2012 at Largo in Los Angeles. She stepped onstage and for 30 minutes shared the story of her very bad, no good year where she battled a severe case of pneumonia then a life-threatening bacteria. Then she got dumped. Then she lost her mother tragically. Afterwards, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in both breasts. Believe it or not, cancer and tragedy has never been so funny.
It’s hard to imagine that Notaro would be able to top this seminal moment in comedic history, but this month at Town Hall during the New York Comedy festival, it happened.
At around the 20-minute mark of her set on the night of November 6, Tig Notaro went topless. Post-double mastectomy. And she stayed topless. It was the bravest moment onstage I have ever witnessed. Just a few days after the performance, Notaro has had to suddenly cancel shows due to a medical emergency. As we all hope she gets well soon, let's reflect on how she pulled off one of the most brilliant comedy sets ever.
It started with a story about how a TSA agent didn’t know how to frisk Notaro post-mastectomy. After finishing the story and transitioning to the next, Notaro started to slowly unbuttoned her sports jacket. I assumed she was just taking off her jacket because of the hot spotlights. As she started pulling off the jacket, someone from the audience whistled sexually. In a “yes, and…” moment, Notaro coquettishly took off the jacket. More whistling and cheers ensued. Then she went for her blouse.
With keen attention on New York City’s catcalling and women’s safety on US college campuses, this moment could easily be misconstrued. I totally understand that even well-intentioned catcalling still counts as harassment. As an audience member, I will attest that the whistle came off as supportive towards Notaro’s new profile and that what was unfolding was a consensual interaction. It’s also important to note that in other performances, Notaro has not been afraid to put the kibosh on unwanted attention by saying "no-moleste."
Notaro had full authority and control over the situation, not the whistler. It was her decision to take off the jacket and continue with her blouse. When she got completely topless, the crowd erupted into supportive cheers and applause. What started as a seemingly improvised flash of playfulness, turned into a powerful moment about body empowerment.
Like I said, it was one of the bravest moments I have ever witnessed.
Notaro continued her set topless, for what I estimate was another 40 minutes. She went on to talk about how people with diarrhea shouldn’t swim in public pools and persuaded the audience to monotonously sing Yellow Submarine. She even explained how she expected and deserved a standing ovation at the end—not because she was boldy going topless, but because she’s Tig Notaro and that’s the status quo, so we shouldn’t ruin her streak now by remaining seated! She played the whole thing very straight, impressively managing to never once mention her lack of shirt. By avoiding the elephant in the room, she showed powerful comedic control. Many comedians would have been tempted to passively ask the audience if they, too, felt a draft in the room? Not Notaro. She is no stranger as to when and when it is not okay to bring up breasts, even itty-bitty titties as her 2008 set at The Onion Room in San Francisco demonstrated.
As Notaro chose not bringing attention to her half-nakedness and to exhibit her own comfort with her body, the audience accepted her physicality. Being completely naked from the pants up allowed her to challenge the stigma of mastectomies, as other artists have done in other visual mediums. She showed the audience that life-saving surgery is important and it’s the person that matters more than the “tatas.”
In retrospect, it’s possible that the whole thing was planned. The cover to her comedy album, LIVE is a picture of her topless with her hands coyly covering up her breasts as a centerfold’s magazine cover photo might. She even bragged about her innate ability to do physical comedy, though slyly never included her half-birthday suit as part of it. Honestly, whether how the gig unfolded was part of the master plan or not—it doesn’t matter; the significance of the performance is what mattered and what made it epic.
As a thirty-something year old, I'm of an age where the greatest comedic moments come to me as only hearsays, reruns, and Netflix queue specials. I even missed the greatness of today’s stars when they were on SNL because I was doing teenage things like homework and Saturdays in college were for drinking. (I did somehow manage to watch Roseanne say “vagina” on TV and see primetime’s first lesbian kiss—perhaps that explains why I cover women’s issues today.) On her Largo performance, Louis C.K. said, "In 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo." I am positive that Tig Notaro’s Thursday night performance at New York Comedy Festival will go down in comedic and women’s history too. I am just happy I can finally say, “I was there. And yes, it was great.”
Related Reading: The Radical Working-Class Roots of Improv Comedy.
Katrina Majkut (My’ kit) is the founder of TheFeministBride.com, which uncovers hidden women’s issues in weddings and traditions because the perfect wedding includes perfect equality. You can follow The Feminist Bride on Twitter and Facebook.