In her own words: Tig Notaro on the decision to reveal her scars most truthfully and literally onstage

Tig Notaro has the first and more dramatic documentaries about her recent life debuting this month at the Sundance Film Festival. Tig will screen five times this week at Sundance. It covers a trying period in Notaro’s life in 2012, when, as the film’s description notes: “Having just recovered from a life-threatening infection and still in mourning over her mother’s sudden passing, Notaro’s subsequent discovery of bilateral breast cancer left her no choice but to turn profound pain into an ongoing punch line, both on and off the stage.”

Fast-forward two years and Notaro not only has recovered from the breast cancer, but also has seen her professional career soar both critically and commercially — from the release of her LIVE Largo performance to a writing gig on Inside Amy Schumer to specials on Showtime (documentary) and HBO (stand-up) scheduled for 2015.

This past November, however, Notaro made even more waves by deciding in Los Angeles, and then in a high-profile headlining show at the New York Comedy Festival, to rip off her shirt and reveal her double mastectomy scars mid-performance. (Read: Reviews of Notaro’s performance from The New Yorker and The New York Times)

Why’d she do it?

Notaro explained this weekend during a TimesTalk at Sundance, sitting next to her longtime friend Sarah Silverman (whom also stars in a Sundance film this year, I Smile Back, and had cast Notaro in her Comedy Central series).

“I thought about it right after my surgery. When I got home from the hospital, I had — it kind of came over me in the same way — I was maniacally laughing to myself when I thought about saying ‘Hello, I have cancer.’ I was just HAHAHA, I can’t do that. And then I was like, if I’m laughing this hard, I have to open my show with that. And I also had that feeling of — it took a while for me to understand and come to terms with my, you know, I didn’t have reconstructive surgery. I just have scars. I don’t have nipples. And it just took me weeks before I looked down at my body, because I was so uncomfortable and really upset. When they were pushing me on the gurney in the hospital to have the surgery, it was the moment I realized that, for the first time, I was like, oh, I actually like my body. But I had to have the surgery. And it was a whole process of thinking very simply that, OK, I had a deadly disease. And they performed surgery. And now my skin healed. That’s all it is. And it’s so taboo to take your shirt off and reveal scars, and it’s just: My skin healed. That’s it. And I thought about that same feeling of ‘Hello, I have cancer.’ It gave me that same rush of doing stand-up with my shirt off and not acknowledging it. You know? And I had run it by several people and the majority of them were like, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing. You have to do it.’ And one person said, ‘I’m scared you wouldn’t be able to get the audience back.’ And I was like, ‘I feel like I could!’ And then somebody else said, ‘My concern would be that this is a stunt.’ And I was like: ‘It is.'”

Audience and Silverman laugh.

“Make no mistake. This is a stunt. I want people to talk about my comedy, about cancer, about body issues. If I had a scar on my face, nobody would make me put a bag over my head. You know. Hopefully. Just thinking about, what’s really happening, and, is it a big deal?”

Silverman: “Who are we protecting by covering it up?”

“Yeah. And when I took my shirt off, I mean, the crowd went nuts! And afterwards, what I heard from people. They were like, my head exploded when you took your shirt off, and then 30 seconds later, I didn’t even notice it. And that was the whole point of doing it. It’s really. It’s something. But it’s nothing. You know. It’s something in that I had cancer. But it’s nothing. My skin healed. Relax. You know. And so, it was very empowering. And even men being, going, ‘This is beyond cancer! And like women’s issues! It’s the human body! What are we doing! What is our problem! What are we?’ You know. Just to see men responding like that. And it just meant so much to me.”

Watch the entire TimesTalk below with Times reporter Cara Buckley, which includes discussions about both Notaro’s and Silverman’s movies at Sundance, as well as their friendship and approaches to comedy.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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