Tig Notaro spills her secrets on wisdom teeth, Kool-Aid man and finding humor in tragedy

Tig Notaro. Via Shutterstock.

2021 may well go down in history as the year of Tig Notaro.

The wry, dry stand-up comedienne has already earned raves for her hilarious work in the romantic comedy Together Together (as a psychotherapist) and the horror-actioner Army of the Dead (as a zombie ass-kicking helicopter pilot). Season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery, in which Notaro has a recurring role as a sarcastic engineer, also debuts later this year. She also hosts the podcasts Don’t Ask Tig and Tig & Cheryl: True Story. Now Notaro gets sketchy, debuting a new all-animated comedy special for HBO Max. Tig Notaro: Drawn arrives July 24.

At 50, Notaro hasn’t exactly walked an easy road. As an out lesbian, she first began working in show business as a music manager in the 1990s. She first tried stand-up comedy in the late 90s, which lead her down an entirely new career path. Having landed spots in several Comedy Central specials, her career seemed on the rise. In 2012, however, she learned she had breast cancer. After undergoing a double mastectomy, she returned to the comedy stage, delivering an incendiary set making fun of her struggle with the disease. A recording of the stand-up set earned her a Grammy Nomination, and galvanized her career in a whole new way.

Now healthy, happily married to actress Stephanie Allynne and a mother of two, Notaro has become living proof in the healing power of laughter. We scored a few minutes with her to chat about her new comedy special and the secret to finding laughter in tragedy. Tig Notaro: Drawn arrives on HBO Max July 24.

Why the decision to do the show animated? Is that due to COVID?

Well, the material is from about four years ago, except for the Dolly Parton bit. [Director Greg Franklin] combed through 48 hours’ worth of shows. I had told him in passing about the Dolly Parton thing which is a new bit. When he heard that, he was like I’d love to animate this. Which feels so perfect to me. I always felt like it needed to be an animated short film or something. I always thought it was so twistedly funny. So that was added in.


The other stuff is about four years ago. I felt attached to the material and thought I’d release it as an album, rather than a stand-up special. I have newer material I want to tape in a live recording. So I thought my stand-up—different jokes have been animated for different websites and shows, so why not do one start to finish? Greg was going to animate some of my material more than a decade ago, so it felt right to reconnect with him.

Fantastic. And the series uses different styles of animation for different stories. How much input did you give Greg, your director in terms of a feel for the piece?

We talked to different studios and networks, and always in discussion it came up we have to do a bunch of different styles. So it just seemed like part of the conversation, and something everybody wanted to see. My feeling was that I wanted to go back and connect everything with the start and finish on stage. And I wanted that to be consistent—I wanted my on-stage Tig to be the most consistent and kind of the most real-looking version. And I wanted the connection with the audience to make it always feel like a live performance.

The other pressing question I have—and forgive me, because this is ridiculous.

I love ridiculous.

Ok. I have to say, I loved the wisdom teeth story, gory and awful as it is. It’s hysterical. Did the blond who seemed to ignore the fact that you were bleeding ever apologize?

The woman that was sunbathing in the yard was a newer neighbor. And I had just moved to Los Angeles before that happened. That’s an old story I dug up a few years ago and wondered if it would translate on stage. People seem to really enjoy it, so I’m glad I dug it up.

It’s an excruciating story. But anyone who has had their wisdom teeth removed can identify.

I’m glad. And it helped me get an HBO special.

You walk a very fine line in your work—I’m thinking of the Aunt Myrtle story—between cynicism and sarcasm. When do you feel like a joke goes too far? How do you know when it’s too cutting?

Well, I mean, I feel like I’m not a mean person. I think there was no part of me when that was happening that was laughing. I wasn’t laughing at a lonely old woman.

I’m relieved.

It was more that when my friend and I went through that, we got in the car exhausted without sleep, and we had to drive from West Texas to California—we had a moment of did that really happen? And we both burst into hysterical laughter. We couldn’t believe that series of events happened. I feel like, with anything, it’s what your intentions are. We weren’t showing up rude or mean. We were just there in our own Hell. It was a natural moment where humor helps usher you through a moment in life. An audience also lets me know when I’m getting too sensitive sharing something. But I don’t think my intentions are terrible.

I trust that. But your comedy has such a dark element to it—these stories you tell are hysterical, but if you had to live them, they would be terrible. How do you make tragedy into comedy?

I’m not looking for it. It’s just an extra sense I have as a comedian, or someone with a sense of humor. You don’t have to be a comedian to have a sense of humor about things. I think, like the Jenny Slate bit, in the moment I wasn’t laughing. I love Jenny, but I kept thinking oh my God, she’s going to think I’m trying my best to get out of tea with her. These are outrageous excuses. It was the same thing as the old bat—did that really happen? Did I just have a four-month text exchange with Jenny Slate? I couldn’t believe that really happened.

I still can’t, it’s insane.

Same thing with just dating Stephanie. Thank God she was with me in Philadelphia. But it’s funny to be in the early stages of a relationship, gasping for air, in so much pain, vulnerable and in a diaper…nothing could be funnier than to propose to her in that moment. Even though I didn’t propose, it did cross my mind because it was so outrageous. And I knew she loved me because she was laughing and taking pictures with me. If she didn’t love me, she’d steer clear. And laughing with someone is very intimate.

You’ve been through a lot over the past 10 years, though your career is hotter than ever between your stand-up and Star Trek. You were also in Together, Together, one of my favorite movies this year.

You how could you forget Army of the Dead?

Yes, and you’re in Army of the Dead, singled out as the best part of the movie. And you had to step in at the last minute. Does going through tragedy, tough times, enhance your drive?

Well, it’s…

[Long pause]

It’ll be nine years since all this started. I’ve had different setbacks and complications in life. But I feel very driven to maintain joy and health. I know what it’s like to feel happy. I know what it’s like to be healthy and well. I just feel so grateful for what I have. Honestly, things like the surprise of doing an action film at 50 has given me an awareness that I can do more than I think I can. I didn’t think I’d be in an action film at 50, or even alive. I just feel so lucky to have Stephanie and our kids and the ability to do what I love doing. I just want to maintain that. I want to see what’s next. My life has proven over and over there’s so much to stick around for, stuff I don’t even know is coming.

Tig Notaro: Drawn arrives on HBO Max July 24.