Tig Notaro in a black jacket on the red carpet

“I don’t care about if my material is relevant,” Tig Notaro says in 2021’s animated special Drawn. She proceeds to tell a 10-minute joke about the Kool-Aid man and the logistics of his bursting through fences every time someone happens to open a packet of the iconic drink mix. “He’s a pitcher. No real clear indication that he’s a man, but he has kind of a rounded bottom…I guess he’s aware when people buy Kool-Aid, kicks down walls…be careful, he’s out there.”

It might seem, at first, like standard observational humor. But rather than use pop culture fragments and personal anecdotes to bond with the audience, the stand-up comedian does something different. She lets you in on her own loneliness.

After the Kool-Aid joke, she shifts into a long story about the time she was dating someone who couldn’t be bothered to pick her up from the hospital after having four wisdom teeth removed. Notaro invites the audience to laugh at her plight, as she describes stumbling home with “four gaping holes” in her mouth, totally unconscious of the blood running down her shirt.

It’s a harrowing story that’s only funny because she’s allowed us to see it that way. Because Tig Notaro’s work isn’t just about cringe humor or humiliating herself for a laugh. She’s letting us know that sometimes, our saddest predicaments have a way turning into some of our most painfully hilarious moments. 

This is the energy Tig Notaro fans have come to expect from the veteran lesbian comic. Whether we met her as a stand-up comic at the Largo, an outspoken cancer survivor spilling her guts in the 2015 documentary Tig, or the star of her semi-autobiographical, sadly short-lived Amazon Prime show One Mississippi, we know that when Tig shows up, she’s going to force us to face up to some hard truths, and probably laugh at them. Because that’s what Tig Notaro’s comedy has always been about.

She jokes about colon cancer and fecal transplants with a perfect deadpan delivery. She talks about the most painful moments of her life—from romantic rejection to internal bleeding—without flinching. Whatever she’s talking about, from the Kool-Aid man to the one time she had her fiancée (now wife) Stephanie Allynne take pictures of her in a diaper, she’s going to give it to us straight. And that in itself, that commitment to honesty, no matter how bleak a picture it paints, is funny. More than that: it’s queer survival. 

That’s not to say Notaro hasn’t come up against some truly hard knocks. The Jackson, Mississippi native hated school, and left after 7th grade. When she found stand-up, something finally clicked. But it took a long time for her to get a footing in the industry. During her 20s, she did as much stand-up as she could, often camping in her car in between gigs, but she loved every minute. She started to get a foothold in the 2000s with recurring gigs on The Sarah Silverman Show and Comedy Central Presents. And then, in 2012, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She kept going, filming her comedy show Live as a sort of stand-up diary. 

“I came on stage not knowing whether I was going to live or die,” she tells us in Tig, the Netflix documentary about her diagnosis. Not only did she live, she prospered. She overcame cancer, made art about it, and managed to find her soulmate Stephanie Allynne in the process. Now, Notaro hosts two podcasts, Tig and Cheryl: True Story, where she and cohost Cheryl Hines discuss documentaries, and Don’t Ask Tig, an offbeat advice show that will return this year. 

That’s not all we can look forward to from Notaro this year: her newest standup special Am I OK? heads to HBO Max this summer, and a new season of Star Trek: Discovery in the fall will see Notaro reprising her role as the hilariously straightforward Starfleet officer Jett Reno. 

In a queer landscape where we’re often told to look on the bright side, a figure like Notaro stands out. She’s never felt the need to be a Pollyanna, even—especially—when life feels the cruelest. She’s always told it like it is, the plain, unfiltered truth and she’s always trusted us to be able to handle that truth.

As the right wing attack on LGBTQ+ rights keeps picking up speed, that’s the kind of grit we need from our queer heroes: the ability to look bad news straight in the eye, laugh at it, and somehow keep going. 

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