Tig Notaro Is Happy to Be Happy

In her new special, ‘Hello Again,’ the veteran stand-up chronicles a life full of struggles but also one surrounded by love. She talks to Cracked about navigating her ongoing medical emergencies, speaking up for Monica Lewinsky, and getting comfortable with contentment
Tig Notaro Is Happy to Be Happy

One of the hardest things for creative people to do is confront happiness. Never mind all the dumb assumptions about how “real” art requires suffering and despair — there’s an undeniable tendency for audiences to gravitate toward stories of hardship and uncertainty. The reason why movies have happy endings is that they’re the reward for the hero going through hell — if Rocky spent the whole film with everything being peachy-keen, who would care when he finally beats Apollo Creed? We like happy love songs, but too many of them in a row are nauseating in their sweetness. People adore drama — we’re suckers for stakes — so what do you do if you’re trying to make new work when you’re abundantly content? What do you have to talk about then?

Over the course of her last few specials, Tig Notaro has pulled off two difficult things simultaneously: She is as funny as she’s ever been, and she has done it while navigating what is (from the outside, anyway) one of the happiest periods of her life. Which is not to say that everything has been perfect: As she explains in her new hour, Hello Again (available on Prime Video starting Tuesday), the health issues that have plagued her for years — most memorably when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, leading to her revelatory set Live — continue. (Indeed, one of the new special’s biggest laughs comes from her sardonically underplaying just how often medical episodes have dotted her life.) 

But as she did with 2018’s Happy to Be Here and 2021’s Drawn (which turned her stand-up into delightful animation), Hello Again is a testament to finding humor in pain — and mining comedy from personal embarrassment and the myriad ways our bodies betray us as we get older. What has made these specials especially enjoyable is that there’s such clear joy emanating from Notaro as she performs. Having turned 53 this past Sunday, she will have been married to frequent creative partner Stephanie Allynne for nine years this October. (Allynne directed Hello Again, appearing in the end credits giving her wife a sweet kiss.) Their twin boys Max and Finn turn eight in July. No life is devoid of struggles, but on stage, Notaro has figured out how to make domestic bliss funny — and not in some cloying, cutesy, self-satisfied way. With her patented dry, low-key manner, she resists sentimentality, looking at motherhood and marriage with a sharp sarcasm. But anybody who’s been following her career won’t be fooled: Tig Notaro is in a great place, and she knows it.

Stand-up is only part of her repertoire, of course, as she also keeps busy with her podcast Handsome, alongside Fortune Feimster and Mae Martin. Then there’s her acting: She’s appeared in everything from the romantic comedy Your Place or Mine to the Zack Snyder zombie thriller Army of the Dead. (Trekkers, meanwhile, know her from the acclaimed series Star Trek: Discovery.) She made her directorial debut with Allynne on the melancholy 2022 Sundance comedy Am I OK?, and she received a SAG nomination as part of the ensemble of The Morning Show. And that’s to say nothing of her frequent, welcome appearances on talk shows, where she entertains audiences with her stories of not recognizing movie stars or saying something dumb in big Hollywood meetings. She’s the goddamn best.

In preparation for the release of Hello Again, I spoke to Notaro over Zoom earlier this month, discussing her new special and her endless love of music, which often informs her comedy. But we also looked back on different moments in her career — including the night in 2018 that she was a guest on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert the same evening as Bill Clinton, which prompted her to speak up for Monica Lewinsky. She discusses what prompted her to end her podcast Tig & Cheryl: True Story, which she co-hosted with her longtime friend Cheryl Hines, who’s now married to presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Mostly, though, we talked about being happy — and how it’s not mutually exclusive with being hilarious. 

You’ve filmed specials, like Boyish Girl Interrupted, in large venues. But 2018’s Happy to Be Here was in a much more intimate space. With Hello Again, you’re back in a bigger space — the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn. Does the material dictate where you want to film?

I felt like this special called for a bigger theater. And it was also a theater that I had directed four different specials in that weren’t mine. I just always noted, “Oh, I think at some point I’d like to come back and do one of my own specials here,” just because that theater is exquisite.

You’ve played in a lot of rooms. Are you superstitious: “I feel like I do good shows in this room”? Is that part of the consideration?

There has been some speculation that having a low ceiling is nice — it brings in everything all close together. But then I did Carnegie Hall once, and it felt like laughter raining down — and that is, of course, not a low ceiling. And then I’ve heard, “Oh, the winter time is great. Everybody’s all snuggled in together, trying to keep warm.” But I don’t know, I feel like it’s so all over the place. 

I just finished my tour in Waterville, Maine. It’s this small town, and it was by far the best show I had on my entire tour, if not in my whole career. It was so fun, and I don’t know if it’ll happen when I go back. I’ve had great shows in some places, and then returned and (it) was a nightmare. I can’t find any rhyme or reason — people get down on Florida, and yet, Fort Lauderdale, god, that show was off-the-charts fun.

At this stage of your career, I have to assume people are coming because they like your comedy and know your style. I can’t imagine folks show up and think, “Wait, where are the punchlines? Why is her delivery so dry?”

Trust me, I feel that way when I am having a not-so-great night. I’m like, “Come on…” So, yeah, people definitely know me but, also, I could be off that night for whatever reason. I might be exhausted. Sometimes you’re dealing with personal stuff or you’re sick — or, you just, for no apparent reason, are like, “Oh, gosh, I’m not really looking forward to tonight.” But I try to not go on stage in that headspace. 

I try really hard to keep the audience in mind, learning over the years that people do sometimes fly in from another state or drive in from another town. They don’t have a lot of money, but this is the big night of the year they were going to go out — or it’s a special occasion and they got a babysitter and they went out to dinner. So I don’t take it casually — whatever’s going on in my life, I am for sure doing the best I can. But you can still have that off night.

In Hello Again, you talk about more medical emergencies and procedures you’ve had to deal with. It’s now been 12 years since you released Live, which was about you grappling with your cancer diagnosis. You’ve done such a great job throughout your stand-up of mining comedy from your health issues, but do you ever feel like, “Am I cursed?” You must be getting tired of coming up with jokes about these issues.

I’m tired of having the medical issues in my life. What’s so crazy about it is I famously came through all of that stuff in 2012, when I had cancer and the intestinal disease and pneumonia and everything simultaneously — “Yeah, she beat it.” But the reality is, and this is what I’m getting more comfortable sharing — it took me a beat — but there’s still things going on. 

I’m fine, my health is good, but it’s like Jenga. I have medical issues and they were serious — and it doesn’t just go away when you leave the hospital. It’s almost a full-time job going to doctor’s appointments and getting everything in order. And sometimes, it just all kind of falls apart, and then I feel very, very frustrated. I was talking to my therapist about it where I’m like, “What in the hell?” I start to think that I’ve made this up, but I haven’t made it up — I really did go through this. I have medical records — I’m not somebody you’re going to find out, down the road, that I created all of this for attention.

I felt cursed in 2012 when all of that (happened) — (plus) my mother died, and my girlfriend and I split up. I’m not superstitious, but it was so insane that I couldn’t help but think, “Well, am I cursed?” But, now, understanding as much as I can understand the medical terminology and the science, I understand how and why my body is having issues. It’s a lot to manage, but it’s manageable — but things happen, and things have gotten scary, and my life has been on the line.

Your stand-up rarely goes for grand, philosophical observations — you focus on the specifics of the story and make that funny. But in real life, how long does it take you to get to that point where you can actually figure out what is funny about your latest medical crisis?

I have a very high threshold for pain. I think it’s also what sometimes gets me in trouble — I think, “Oh, I don’t know if this is really bad pain,” because my gauge is so off at this point. And so, when I’m in a crisis medical situation, I’m typically in so much pain — and I’m talking horrendous pain. There is no part of me that’s thinking, “Oh, my god, this is going to be a funny (bit)” — I am in it, I am in the pain, I’m in the serious moment. When I come off of whatever, Dilaudid, that’s what they call hospital heroin — it’s like the most massive painkiller that I’ve lived on and off of over the years — thankfully, there’s never been a moment I’ve ever been even slightly addicted to or interested in any of the medication. But once I’m clear-minded, I’m reflecting on, “Wait, what happened? Oh, my god!” 

I remember this was a year ago, I was rushed to the hospital and Cedars was full, so they had to send the ambulance to another hospital, and it was a hospital that was in a sketchy part of town. It was not Cedars-Sinai. I remember I had a mask on, and the guy pushing my gurney, I’m always amazed people even recognize me — even without a mask, I always feel like I look like the most generic lesbian — and this guy goes, “What are you doing here?” He even knew he worked in a terrible hospital — that’s not a great sign. I remember lying in bed at the hospital, and I also was sharing a room with people, and I was thinking, “Okay, yes, I’m used to Cedars-Sinai, I’m a regular customer there, but I’m just a person like everybody else. I’m lucky to have medical help. I’m lucky to have shelter…” 

That’s just where my head is at that moment. But, yeah, once I come through it, I start reflecting and things just naturally come together. But I’m not going into it — or necessarily coming out of it — thinking, “Is there a joke in there or a story I can tell?” It’s more like I’ll think, “I cannot believe that just happened.”

Outside of Live, your specials have never really had an overarching theme. I’ve always wondered if you’ve experimented with something that’s more narratively tied together but decided, “I don’t really want to do ‘What does it all mean?’ observations. That’s not the style of comedy that I’m interested in as a performer.”

I’ve been doing stand-up for almost 28 years now. I’ve been toying with the idea of just a more structured one-person show. I’m not sure exactly what I want to examine, but it’s definitely kicking around in my head. 

I spoke with my agent about future work, and he suggested that I take two or three years off from the road and just work on new material and not push myself to get back on the road quickly — and that really appeals to me. It really appeals to me to just be home and work on things at my own pace, which I have always done, but I think really settle in and just be home and see what I really want to do and write about and is there a larger theme. Do I want to do a different kind of show? All of that has been popping up for me. I don’t know what that is yet.

In the special, you mention that your sons are now seven-and-a-half. Is it them getting older that also makes you want to be home more?

I mean, I’ve always wanted to be with them — and I have been — but not only are they getting older, I’m getting older. Like we mentioned with these different situations with my body, I don’t want to put myself in unsafe situations. I don’t want to be out on the road not feeling great or have something happen — whereas I feel like, even five years ago, 10 years ago, I would’ve been like, “Oh, I’ll be all right, I’m just going to go do three weeks and then I’ll be home.” And now I’m a little like, “Yeah, or I might not be okay, and is it worth it? Maybe I should stay home and take care of myself and put a little more energy there.” Because I do want to not just be around for my kids, but be around and able to interact with them and interact in life and with my wife. I’ve never wanted to be the one on top ruling Hollywood, but I’ve had a really nice, steady level of success. It’s just that getting older and priority shifting.

Getting older also means accepting limitations — things we used to do easily aren’t as easy now. Is it hard to adjust to the reality of “I have to start thinking about whether going out on the road for three weeks is wise”?

It doesn’t bother me. I was telling my wife Stephanie, “Oh, I want to learn how to garden, and I want to spend time learning how to make all the different food that I have had on the road.” And then I said the other day, “I’m kind of interested in learning how to golf.” She was like, “It sounds like you want to retire. Everything that you’re mentioning, you want to garden, you want to golf…” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m not opposed.”

Not that I’m retiring, but when I was younger, I would think, “God, what a weird headspace to be shutting down life and being like, ‘Okay, I’m finishing my job.’” And you see people say, “Yeah, we’re downsizing — we’re moving into a smaller house,” and it was always like, ugh. But it doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all to think, “Oh, I need to take it a little slower.” I want to still keep moving — I want to still be working and travel and do whatever. 

It’s not fun getting older or struggling more with body or health issues, but there’s also something nice about even doing stand-up for almost 30 years and seeing new people come up and just celebrating them and being like, “Oh, my time isn’t over.” But I’m further along — I’ve been around longer and I learn about new (comics) and I’m like, “Yeah, these people are so funny. They’re so interesting.” I don’t know, it’s that circle of life that’s very nice.

Do you remember a moment when you realized, “Oh, there’s now all these younger comics coming up, and they see me as successful and established”? 

As I’ve heard from many people about life, you wake up one day and you’re on the other side of the fence — and you’re like, “How did I get over here?” Please know I’m not calling myself this, but when people would say, “She is a legend” and that kind of thing when they’re bringing me up on stage, I’m like, “What? No. What are you talking about?”

But it felt like I woke up one morning and I was like, “Oh, I’m the older comic. When did that happen? That’s crazy.” But there’s also still a part of me that… it’s not that I can’t comprehend that people know who I am or that they followed my career or that I influenced them at all, but for some reason, that is something that I’m like, “Really?” It almost feels like, what I’m doing, I’m isolated in my own world — and then I’m like, “What? You know about that?” I don’t know where that comes from.

Is that why Hello Again opens the way that it does, with all of these glowing blurbs about you splashed across the screen — and then you’re just sitting in the green room before the show, eating a carrot?

My wife directed the special, and that was her (idea). She created that opening because I was in this zombie movie where I was trending online for being “sexy” — she teases me relentlessly because her reality with me (is) I’m shuffling around the house in slippers and we’re listening to Dan Fogelberg on the radio. When people are like, “Oh, yeah, she’s a badass!” or “She’s hot!” or “She kicked cancer’s ass, and she drove the getaway helicopter in the action film!,” Stephanie is like, “Oh, my god, that is not who I’m living with.” 

I’m not handy. I’m not out playing basketball. Our handyman comes over and directs energy toward me about different sports games — “Hey, did you see the Eagles?” — and I’m like, “Oh, hold on, let me go get my wife — that’s not me, you got the wrong one.”

All relationships are complicated, but the way you describe yours with Stephanie in your act, it sounds incredibly loving. Because you work together, how is that negotiated with her? Does she say, “These are the things about our life that are okay to talk about on stage. These other things are just for us.”

I remember her saying one time, “Hey, I don’t feel like that’s for everyone.” Or when we had kids, she stopped me a couple of times: “I just don’t think that’s okay.” And I totally got it — actually, I liked being edited like that. There was something that felt good, like, “Yeah, that’s too much” — I was okay with that shift. 

Now if there’s anything (in my act) about Stephanie or Max and Finn, I usually run it by her: “Well, what do you think?” It’s a funny story or a funny joke, but if there’s a long-term effect or maybe somebody won’t appreciate it down the road, I’ll get rid of it — I just have to trust that I’ll write something else. If I was desperate for material, I might be fighting back, but everything just keeps coming tenfold all the time with Stephanie. I always say, I live with my writers.

One of my favorite bits you did earlier in your career was mocking new parents who keep saying, “Can you believe it?” about every little thing regarding their kids. (“Kaitlyn is starting kindergarten this year. Can you believe it?!?”) Now that you’re a parent, what do you think of that bit?

I absolutely look at it differently. I think about it all the time, because I’m the single most annoying person. I can’t believe it — I can’t believe how sweet and smart and funny and talented and how much they’ve grown, and I can’t believe it. And I can’t believe it when somebody else can’t believe it! That was definitely me talking from no knowledge whatsoever.

With both Happy to Be Here and Hello Again, I was struck by the feeling of “This sounds like a person who has a very happy life.” Do you perceive these specials as being “about” that?

I would say for sure I’m a happy person. I am for sure happily married. But all the challenges that I’ve had that we spoke about, (on stage) I’m giving the aftermath and the highlights and the funny parts. It’s so frustrating, because you get to a point where you think you’re okay, and then (the doctors are) like, “Oh, no, we’re monitoring this” or “We have to remove this” — and that is something that I’m not bringing people along for in real time. 

But I feel very lucky that I’m very much somebody that I don’t really have bad days, and that’s not because bad things aren’t happening or that my life is so perfect. I think that’s where Stephanie and I are similar — we both wake up, we’re not grumpy. There’s bad things that happen in my days and frustrating (things), but I would say, in general, I’m a happy person — even though people tease me that I’m not the most smiley person. But I am happy. I am a content person. I have things I still want to do — things I want to work on, things I want to try.

My life is so incredible. I always fear I’m running the risk of bragging about how good things are, but I also fear I run the risk of complaining too much or sharing too much: “Oh, gosh, this happened… I was in the hospital or in this pain.” But it’s a mix of all of those things — I’m happy, I’m happily married and I also have real struggles.

It’s such a cliché, but I do think happiness is something people choose. 

Having to deal with a lot of adversity and physical pain, it makes me face things like, “I think I can put this into perspective pretty quickly.” I’m not somebody that flies off the handle easily — I can take a beat and consider what happened — and it’s nice that, 11 years later, Stephanie tells me that she loves that about me. Even though I do get ruffled sometimes, she’s like, “I love how calm you are. I love how you handle things.” It just makes me feel really good.

I saw some of your shows at Largo pre-pandemic, when you were still trying out material. One bit of yours that killed involved your complicated response to Britney Spears’ banger “Work Bitch.” It didn’t end up making Hello Again — so what happens to a bit like that? Do you get tired of it? Do you decide it’s not good enough or that you like your Adele bit about her hit “Hello” — which serves as the finale of the new special — better?

I love music so much and so many different kinds of music. But as much as I love music, I find music so funny. I think I started to feel like I was adding way too much music material, and I was also thinking from a realistic standpoint of getting rights to music if I was going to tape a special. (At Largo) I was doing a bit about Gladys Knight & the Pips — I used to do this thing about “Yellow Submarine.” I was like, “Okay, I got to calm down.” (Laughs) I could do a lifetime of material about music and songs and musicians, and it’s solely through my love of music.

Music has always been a big part of your life — you started playing guitar when you were a kid. It’s so often noted, but the similarities between music and comedy: That’s a real thing, huh?

I always hear every comedian wants to be a musician — every musician wants to be a comedian. If I could be in a full-blown band, I don’t know if I’d ever look back. I’m just kind of good at drums and kind of good at guitar, and I can’t sing, so there’s no real hope — except for my podcast, Handsome. Mae plays guitar, Fortune sings, I play a little drums, and our producer plays piano, and so we’ve talked about putting a Handsome band together. 

But I do feel like there is such a connection (between music and comedy). There’s the timing, there’s the writing, there’s the performance element — there’s that understandable crossover.

What kind of singer-songwriter would you be? What would your songs sound like? You love the Beatles. You love Dan Fogelberg…

I also love Van Halen. I love Willie Nelson. I love Gladys Knight. I love Ray Charles. I would be somewhere between Willie Nelson and the Pretenders. It sounds so appealing to sing the saddest country song — I mean, the most devastating country song, I would love to perform that. But I would also love to just be in your face, like Chrissie Hynde, giving you the finger through every song. Then, I would love to blow your mind with my lyrics, like the Indigo Girls or Bob Dylan or Simon & Garfunkel, just harmonizing. Then I would love to just do a pop song — it might just be Weezer or something. I’m all over the place.

It’s funny: I don’t think of your comedy as very in-your-face. 

I think that in-your-face is more… One of the things that really influenced me from being a fan of Chrissie Hynde was, even though she’s very different from my mother, they have a similar “Go to hell” vibe. That’s so instilled in me — my mother taught me to tell people to go to hell if they had a problem with me. Even though I’m not in your face, there’s something quietly in me that’s like, “You can go to hell.”

Years ago, you were on Colbert the same night as Bill Clinton. He went on first, and then you came on after he left — and you just said something simple about Monica Lewinsky being really impressive and that she must be an amazing person to have gotten that job in the White House. You’re not a very political comedian, but you decided you wanted to say something at that moment. 

I was very torn about being on the show with (Clinton), because I only know what I know or what I think I know. But it just bothered me because I met Monica — even before I met her, I just thought about how it’s probably no mistake that she ended up in that job, and she probably is a smart, capable person that had bigger hopes and dreams. You can say, “Oh, she was an adult and she shouldn’t have done that,” and it’s like, “Okay, okay” — but she was also a very young adult, and that was the President of the United States. 

I was at some event and she was there, and she came up to me and started talking to me about how she had to pull her car over once because she heard my story about Taylor Dayne, and she thought she was going to drive off the road she was laughing so hard. (I’m) processing a lot of stuff in one second: “This is Monica Lewinsky, she even knows who I am, and she thinks my Taylor Dayne story is funny.” I walked away from that moment going, “Man” — not just because she liked my story, but it was so clear that she’s so smart, she’s so cool. 

So when I was on that show, I just felt like I had a responsibility to acknowledge her. I appreciate you noticing that — only a few people have ever really said anything. It’s been you and Monica Lewinsky. I remember my friend and maybe a couple other people that were like, “Wow, thanks for doing that.” I just felt like I had to do that.

How did it feel once you did it?

Amazing. I feel like, when somebody acts a certain way to people, you’ve done it to everybody — it happened to everybody. And to me it was like, “You can’t do it, I’ve got your number.”

I wasn’t doing it to get some big recognition for what I did. It was more I had met Monica Lewinsky and had such a nice time and had kept in touch with her — and then here I was faced with being on a show with somebody that had caused her a lot of pain. I just felt a bit of a fraud if I was just going to go on the show and be like, “Yeah, so my new TV show is…” — and then I’m on the same show as the President of the United States. It felt incongruent in my head if I were to just do that.

Yeah, but a lot of people wouldn’t have bothered. They would have just promoted the thing they were there to plug.  

I think that might be my mother and the Chrissie Hynde part. I can’t play certain games.

You and Cheryl Hines have been friends for a long time, way before you did the podcast together where you’d discuss documentaries you’d watched. It was a fun podcast, but then it went away. Because Hines is married to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and he’s running for president — and is an anti-vaxxer — I wondered if that had any bearing on why you two don’t do the podcast anymore.

I was a fan of the podcast. That show brought me so much ridiculous joy. Cheryl brings me so much ridiculous joy, and that’s why I wanted to do that. Even before the podcast — our relationship predates her marriage — anytime we were together, I was always like, “Oh, my god, this is the dumbest relationship that I have with this person.” Then she and Bobby got married, I used to do and oftentimes headline his Waterkeeper Alliance charity, which was always fun. I can’t express enough how much I love and care about Cheryl. And I love Bobby — I care about Bobby. 

I’m not interested in being in a political situation. And Cheryl, I mean, her life has changed so much — being married to someone running for president, her life is so different now, it’s crazy. But there’s no part of me that doesn’t absolutely love and adore that woman. I think she is one of the funniest people alive — so ridiculous. And that’s kind of what I’m in the mood for — and only in the mood for right now — is nonsense. I know there’s important and heavy things going on, and there’s a place for that, but there’s also a place for just nonsense. I stopped that podcast, I stopped Don’t Ask Tig, and I put everything into Handsome, and it’s paying off tenfold — it feels so good.

Speaking of Cheryl, the other day I walked out of my house, and there’d been a lot of rain in L.A. There was just this soaking wet, torn-up flier for a Bobby Kennedy comedy event hosted by Cheryl Hines. It was just like somebody had stepped on it while it was wet and it was torn up. I was like, “How on earth is this on the sidewalk in front of my house?” I took a picture of it, and I sent it to Cheryl: “Is this a roundabout way of inviting me to this comedy event?” And she just wrote back, “Yeah, I put it there, I didn’t want you to forget about me.” We’re certainly friendly, but things change and podcasts end. I’m on my fourth podcast right now — I’ve been podcasting, I think, since 2005. But yeah, I love her, and that won’t ever change.

I also loved Under a Rock. I keep hoping for another season. I mean, it’s not like there isn’t still an abundance of celebrities you don’t recognize…

There’s so many! So, I was just at a party, maybe three months ago, talking to this group of people, and this woman introduced herself to me. She goes, “Oh, I know you.” And I said, “I’m Tig. What is your name?” I thought she said, “Lena” — I said, “Lena?” And she said, “No, Selena.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” Then this person standing next to me was like, “That’s Selena Gomez…” 

It’s funny every single time you talk about these gaffes you make. But at some point, doesn’t Stephanie sit you down and say, “Listen, this is bad for us professionally that you keep screwing up around famous people”?

It’s a daily conversation. When she and I are on a walk together and she sees that I didn’t see someone (famous) or somebody I didn’t recognize, she is always laughing, because I take walks by myself most days. She said, “This happens every time I’m with you — it makes me shudder thinking about every day you’re out here by yourself.” It makes her cringe because she’s always caught in the middle of it when she is with me. She’s like, “You’re just like Mr. Magoo, just walking through the world, and you don’t remember you’ve met that person five times. You don’t know that’s Selena Gomez.” 

I’m like, “Well, what do I do? I have to take a walk.” I could get a gym membership and get on a treadmill or something. But then I’d probably be at a gym with somebody (famous). I don’t know what to do — I guess a home gym. 

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