Last night I saw Tig Notaro perform at Town Hall (courtesy of my lovely girlfriend and Town Hall usher Leigh Schanfein). I had first become aware of Notaro, like (I assume) many others, after she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, and gave a performance that has been described as “legendary” by fellow comedians and critics alike. It takes a lot of guts, after all, to open a comedy set by waving to the crowd and bluntly stating “I have cancer!” over and over again. Audio clips of that performance have been circulating in various circles and I encourage everybody to go check it out. Not only is it bold, but it’s hilarious.
Last night at Town Hall, Notaro gave another powerhouse performance. Her storytelling chops and precise, deadpan timing were on full display, as well as her ability to control the ebb and flow of audience reaction (an off-the cuff interaction between a crowd member who also hailed from Mississippi was especially enjoyable). The “brave” aspect of Notaro’s performane should not undercut the overall elite level of comedy that was happening in Town Hall that night, but it’s hard not to focus on such a unique and uncompromising moment from a master of the craft. As Notaro wrapped up a bit about being mistaken for a man at an airport after deciding not to have reconstructive surgery following her double mastectomy, she removed her blazer, and a man in the back of the theater hollered out a (hopefully) good-natured wolf-whistle. Notaro was genuinely delighted, letting fly with a guffaw and then saying something akin to “did you not just hear the story? There’s nothing to see here” (I’m doing some very sketchy paraphrasing). She followed up with a playful warning to the audience that she had considered doing the whole show topless, and she was only a few “woos” away from doing so. There followed (of course) an immediate smattering of woos, and Notaro proved she wasn’t bluffing. She put down her microphone, unbuttoned her shirt, and stripped it from her waist, to a surge of cheers and applause.
She riffed on the new situation for a few minutes (how could she not?), and then continued her set, shirtless, with her flat chest on full display, surgery scars and all. She did not replace the shirt until the audience was wrapping up their standing ovation at the end of her set. As the jokes continued, the titters at Notaro’s naked torso gradually died down, and then stopped altogether.
I am, in point of fact, not a woman, and it’s very unlikely that I will ever get breast cancer, so I want to go on the record as saying I can’t be sure of Notaro’s intentions. However, I think a comedian of her caliber understands the inherent value of making statements with jokes, and vice versa, and she also (clearly) understands the enhanced power of those statements that are made without being didactic, condescending, or even with opening one’s mouth. What exactly was Notaro doing by stripping her shirt off? Getting a crowd riled up and engaged, to be sure, but she was also sending a clear message that this was who she was: someone who was not afraid to lay herself, her cancer, and her gender (complete with her new yet unaltered body) bare. To me, she was saying: I don’t care that society has ideas about what makes a woman a woman, and I don’t care that people might think that a woman with no breasts is gross or weird or something to be hidden away and not commented on. She was saying: I’m here, and nobody is going to tell me otherwise. One of the last comments Notaro made concerning her bare chest was (again, I’m paraphrasing) “We’re alive. We might as well have fun!”
Hats off, and shirts off, to Tig Notaro.