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The comedian Tig Notaro did something truly revolutionary in August 2012.
She'd just been diagnosed with cancer in both breasts, and she stepped onto a stage in Los Angeles where she'd originally planned to tell jokes. The jokes didn't come, though.
Instead, Notaro talked about her cancer and the string of tragedies she'd experienced in the span of just four months. This is not the typical formula for an evening comedy show.
"With humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy," Notaro said that night. "I am just at tragedy right now."
Notaro — an androgynous 41-year-old with deadpan humor — continued to go over the truly crappy things that were still troubling her during a set that has since become legendary. The cancer diagnosis. The sudden death of her mother. A breakup. To top it all off, Notaro got a life-threatening intestinal disease that left her frighteningly thin.
"The condition I had in the hospital is called C diff. And so I just refer to it as the C diff diet. You just sit there and watch the pounds melt away. Don't like exercising? Who does, girlfriend? This diet does all the work for you. Just clear all the bacteria from your intestines and let the C diff whittle way at your waistline," she said that night.
A week after she got out of the hospital, her mother died.
"I know, it's hilarious. Then I went through a break up, right in the middle of it all. It's tough times. You can't stick around for that. Got to get out before the cancer comes," she added.
The audience was rapt. People looked on sympathetically, but they also laughed. At one point, she suggested telling goofy jokes instead of talking about her cancer, to which one man shouted, "This is f---ing amazing."
Notaro's dry take on her cancer that night was indeed funny. It was also incredibly raw and one of the most emotionally honest performances in recent memory. (You can listen to the entire thing here.)
"It's OK. It's going to be OK. It might not be OK. But I'm just saying, it's OK. You're going to be OK. I don't know what's going on with me," she said.
She didn't plan on going on stage to talk about her tragedy. The first part of her performance — "Good evening. Hello. I have cancer." — popped into her head in the shower an hour and a half before the performance, Notaro told Business Insider.
Once she got on stage, she says, she was consumed with thoughts of dying.
"I was just so scared that my life was about to slip away. When I went on stage I didn't have all the information yet," she told us. "It [The cancer] was bilateral. It was invasive. I just didn't know a lot. It was standup but it was also just me being on my knees in a way."
It turns out Notaro will probably be fine. She had a double mastectomy, and there's only a 7% chance that her cancer will come back.
But her few moments on her knees before a live audience have touched a lot of people. She gets letters every single day from people with cancer, and from people who are dying of other diseases. People tell her she's helped them get through their own impossibly rough times.
"This one guy he was in his early 30s and he had pancreatic cancer he said he felt like it [her set] gave him courage, like he could do this," Notaro said. "And it was terminal cancer."
If it's difficult to imagine how somebody who's dying can get courage from a comedy set, consider these observations on Notaro's set from the comic Louis C.K.
"Tig took us to a scary place and made us laugh there," he writes. "She proved that everything is funny. And has to be."
By taking everybody to that scary place, Notaro showed us that we can stare tragedy in the face and laugh despite our terror. Notaro admits the cancer has changed her. She's more honest than ever, and she doesn't stay angry at people. But one thing won't change.
"I love silliness," she says. "That will never go away."
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