When a Woman Without Breasts Tells Jokes, Optimism Ensues

Tig Notaro has gone from an American comedian with a devoted but limited fan base to one of the most recognizable comics in the country. Ask Louis C.K.

“Thank you, thanks, I have cancer. Thank you, I have cancer. Really, thank you.”

That astonishing opening monologue transformed Tig Notaro from an American comedian with a devoted but limited fan base to one of the most recognizable comics in the country. In 2012, Notaro, 41, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She decided to share her medical condition with the audience at Los Angeles’ Largo club. The comedian Louis C.K., who was in the audience, was stunned by the courage and naturalness with which Notaro talked about her condition. After the show he tweeted, “In 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful stand-up sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.”

With that generous support, Notaro joined the top ranks of the American comedy stand-up world. Last Thursday, she appeared before an audience of hundreds at the prestigious Town Hall, as part of the New York Comedy Festival. [The following day, Notaro was hospitalized when she collapsed with internal bleeding after a performance in Philadelphia, and had to cancel her next few gigs.] She began her act with comic anecdotes about Los Angeles and the loneliness of the wandering stand-up artist on the road. But it soon turned into something else entirely. Some 20 minutes into the set, following a joke about breast cancer, Notaro said that, “I made so many jokes over the years about how small my chest was, that I started to think that maybe my boobs overheard me and were just, like – You know what, we’re sick of this. Let’s kill her.”

Then, after a man in the audience shouted “Whooo!” and added, “You’re sexy,” Notaro said, “You know, it’s funny, I was going to do this show with my shirt off, anyway. I’m about one more ‘Whooo’ away from going topless.” Five “Whooos” later, the 43-year-old comic, who recently had a double mastectomy without reconstructive surgery, was standing on the stage wearing only jeans, her upper half recalling an adolescent boy: lean, white, no breasts.

Notaro’s courage was on view not only in her decision to expose her androgynous body, but also in the choice she made to stay that way for the rest of her act. The effect was no less than astounding. At first it was hard to take one’s eyes off her exposed body, but after she told jokes about Ringo Starr, Mississippi and amusing signs in public pools, most of the audience had forgotten that the person on the stage was a half-naked woman. Notaro didn’t put on her shirt until a bit before she hurtled into the audience and left the hall by the front door.

Instead of harping all evening on her visual and metaphorical scars, Notaro bombarded the crowd with witty jokes and was engaged in making people laugh – not in seeking empathy or pity. Her decision to expose her post-surgery body so unassumingly and to note drily that she didn’t want to have reconstructive surgery because “it wouldn’t make it any more beautiful,” was a human gesture of courage and optimism. “We’re alive, right? That’s all that matters,” she told the stunned audience a moment before taking off her shirt. And you had to believe her.