How to Be Fearless with Tig Notaro | Crooked Media
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April 16, 2021
With Friends Like These
How to Be Fearless with Tig Notaro

In This Episode

Stand-up Tig Notaro comes by to talk about being free and fearless, and how that makes you a better person and funnier comedian.



Ana Marie Cox: Hi, I’m Ana Marie Cox. Welcome to With Friends Like These.  Tig Notaro is a comedian who’s done standup specials for HBO, Netflix and Showtime. She’s been the subject of a documentary, the star of a series, she has a role on Star Trek Discovery, she’s producing and directing, and she’s a veteran of multiple podcasts, most recently Don’t Ask Tig, an advice show with—as she notes and our interview—an easy out if she feels she can’t actually be of much help. She is also—as I learned in our conversation—one of the most well-balanced and resilient people I’ve ever talked to. She didn’t give me a lot of advice directly, but I really hope I absorbed some of her ability to shrug off self-doubt and worry, and focus on experiencing life to the fullest degree possible. Though I’m not sure I could keep up with her. Tig Notaro coming right up.


Ana Marie Cox: Tig, welcome to the show.


Tig Notaro: Thank you. Thank you for having me.


Ana Marie Cox: There are a lot of ways I could describe you. You have two current podcasts, you’re a standup comedian, you act, you write, you direct, produce—I saw at one point you had a philosophy podcast? Is that correct?


Tig Notaro: Oh, I mean, I guess if you want to call it that. It wasn’t really. It was just me and a couple of friends talking about things we didn’t understand.


Ana Marie Cox: OK. All right. And I also see that you will be starring in a zombie heist movie as a sexy helicopter pilot.


Tig Notaro: Maybe sexy to some, likely not sexy to most. But yeah, I’ll be in it


Ana Marie Cox: Both your podcasts started during the pandemic, right?


Tig Notaro: They did. The podcast “Tig and Cheryl: True Story” which is a documentary podcast, I had just met with my friend Cheryl Hines, who is my co-host, right before the pandemic, to start that podcast. And then the pandemic happened and we thought: well, isn’t this perfect?


Ana Marie Cox: But I do notice, like when you refer to yourself, you do usually describe yourself as a stand-up comedian. Is that right?


Tig Notaro: One million percent. I do a lot of things, but I would say the the one thing that I feel comfortable calling myself is a stand-up comedian. What, I know that I’ve been on interviews, on TV and they’ll put actor, writer, director or something under my name and I always kind of—[laughs] it rattles me a little bit because I really don’t identify as any of that stuff.


Ana Marie Cox: A lot of the stuff you do seems really fun, like it’s stuff that I would think that I would want to do for fun. Are you having fun on all the stuff? Like you said, to some of it, you have to step into? Is there any of this stuff that you’re just doing for money?


Tig Notaro: I would say I’m absolutely having fun. There’s roads that I’ve gone down, where I’ve stopped and thought: well, I’m certainly glad I have this experience, I don’t think it’s going to happen again, because I don’t think that it’s really my thing, and—or maybe I’ll revisit it in a different, in a different light or with different people or something, and maybe it’ll look different or more appealing. Or less appealing. But I always go back to stand up. Podcasting, I feel like that feels good to me, similarly to stand-up. But I would never introduce myself as an actor.


Ana Marie Cox: I’ve only recently gotten around to saying that I’m a podcaster. It feels like a punch line more than a job. I don’t know why, but—


Tig Notaro: Well everybody has one, right?


Ana Marie Cox: Yes! That’s right. Because, you know what always comes into my head is the joke like, what do you call like, a group of three white guys: a podcast.


Tig Notaro: Mm hmm. Yeah.


Ana Marie Cox: And I just, I keep coming back to that and I don’t know.


Tig Notaro: It’s expanding a bit from there, but yeah.


Ana Marie Cox: Oh, definitely.  Definitely.


Tig Notaro: Your’ basically just three white guys.


Ana Marie Cox: It sounds to me like some of what you’re doing maybe is being guided by curiosity more than just pure fun. How, but how do you pick what you want to do? Like the world is your oyster, apparently, like you’ve got a lot of options here that you could be doing.


Tig Notaro: Well, I really try to choose things that really do not only appeal to me, but that are potentially positive to other people in the world, even if it comes down to something as basic as just being humorous. Yeah, so there are, there are many things I’ve passed on and not done


Ana Marie Cox: Because you didn’t think it would be helpful to the world


Tig Notaro: Or myself. Or my family. I think that’s what the pandemic has been helpful in doing is, is trying to help me sift through what I do with my time.


Ana Marie Cox: A lot of people have had trouble being productive and there’s been, I think, an interesting conversation around productivity, you know, during the pandemic. Like do you consider what you’ve been doing is being productive, or do you think of it as, like you were saying, like putting good out into the world? Which is a shift of perspective that might be helpful to a lot of people.


Tig Notaro: Well, I think it’s all of it. And I do feel like I’ve been productive, but also in ways of just finally, having the time to really go through my entire house and garage and it’s really something I’ve wanted to do for years, and I did that during the pandemic. And I have wanted to get a certification in plant-based nutrition. And I did that. And I wanted to spend time with my family, concentrated time. And I did that. And I wasn’t seeking jobs actively, because I really did feel like being locked down at home until there was a better understanding of the virus, was best. But once I started to understand it better, and how I could keep myself safe, then I was more open to taking up job offers that appealed to me.


Ana Marie Cox: But, there hasn’t been a lot of stand-up comedy during the pandemic. How has the pandemic affected that, which is your number one, you know, identification?


Tig Notaro: Well, it was interesting because for about the first year of the pandemic, I kept saying that my career is over. And Stephanie would laugh at me and I would say: but it is. I mean, it could come back, it could change, but why do you think I’m home all the time? So it was, and it has been, it continues to be an interesting time. I still have no plans to do stand-up until things are much more, till things are safer for me and everybody else. And so I’m not one of the people that are chomping at the bit to just get out the door as soon as it’s possible, because I still feel like live performance is, there’s just a trickier element to it. So I’m willing and able to wait until possibly next year to do it.


Ana Marie Cox: Do you think that’s going to affect your performance?


Tig Notaro: It might. But I’m also willing to let that affect my performance over letting it affect my health or other people’s health, and that’s just how I feel. But I also, I feel like podcasting has been helpful for me to just, I’m still writing and writing thoughts down, and my wife and I are very creative together, and I think it’s just really keeping that, that mindset going of welcoming the creation of, and expression of, comedy, to continue.


Ana Marie Cox: I was going to ask if there’s something about the actual performance of stand-up that is a muscle that needs to be exercised, like if there’s a “King of Comedy” situation that has to happen in people’s basements where they’re performing for a bunch of cutouts. I take it that that’s not, not your theory?


Tig Notaro: I don’t know. I mean, I feel like over the years my comedy has evolved and shifted to a little more conversational and so I really just whenever I get on stage, take that with me in trying to remember that I’m having a conversation with this room of people. It’s a one-sided conversation, but it’s very conversational. So, and I don’t I don’t really do—just my delivery and my comedy style—and I don’t really do much more than talk to people. So I just have to have faith that I’ll be able to return and sharpen my skills quickly, I hope. And if not, then I had a great run.


Ana Marie Cox: God, you have such an amazing attitude. I, I would like to sample it, and see if I can grow it in a lab.


Tig Notaro: You know, I genuinely, really want to go back to stand-up. But I also genuinely feel like if I get back out on stage and I’m terrible at it, I had a stellar run. But I also secretly think I’ll be able to bounce back so I’m not too worried about it.


Ana Marie Cox: I presume you’ll be able to too, because I wanted to get to talking about your podcast, “Don’t Ask TIG”—it’s an advice podcast, and I have been listening to it, and it turns out you’re really good interviewer. Like I don’t and it’s I, I’ve made the connection in my head—it’s because you’re your comedy is conversational, probably. But like I listen to the Andrew Yang episode and you manage to get something out of Andrew Yang that I hadn’t heard before, which is a testament to your skill. I don’t know if you, if I can even give you an idea of how impressive it is as a political journalist who has to listen to all these people being interviewed over and over and over and over? Like, I thought I’d gotten his shtick down pretty well. But you kind of took him to some interesting places.


Tig Notaro: What did, what exactly did I get out of him?


Ana Marie Cox: I thought the conversation you had about autism and introversion was pretty intimate. You know, I hadn’t heard him talk about that before.


[clip of Andrew Yang] So what happened with me was that my extraversion circuits would completely blown out in any given day or week, and then I would come home and I’d be a zombie. And so my wife, being a rock star and supportive, actually understood that, OK, like, I wasn’t going to be in position to entertain, to socialize, to be someone who is going to hold up my end of a fairly normal standard conversation. [laughs] You know? [laughs]


Ana Marie Cox: Not necessarily the whole thing, like some of it he was sharing about, like the book he read, which, you know, it’s a book I’ve heard of before. But it was more the vulnerability of, maybe it’s a vulnerability that comes when you are giving others, someone else advice. There’s a certain kind of opening that you have to do. Because it was in the context of offering some advice to someone who is autistic and felt overwhelmed.


Tig Notaro: Well, I feel like Andrew has pretty much presented himself as a very open person, and I feel like that, hand- in-hand with, I also have had people in my life that are autistic and just knowing that it’s not taboo to talk about, and it should be talked about. And yeah, I kind of didn’t really think twice about the conversation or the way we went about it, so I’m glad it resonated.


Ana Marie Cox: I think that there is a little bit of a—you know, if I can spot three, it’s a trend. I think comedians, I, there’s a fair number of comedians who are good at interviewing people. You know. Conan O’Brien, David Letterman, you. I was wondering if you have a thought about why that might be, like what the skill set of stand-up comedy or comedy in general and interviewing people—like, what those might have in common?


Tig Notaro: I think there’s not too much that comedians haven’t discussed with, it’s a world that you’re living in and working in and everything is on the table for discussion and for potential humor in comedy. And so there’s just a fearlessness, even if you, whether you present a fearlessness onstage or not that’s clear to people, there’s still a fearlessness of taking your thoughts on to that stage, that platform and sharing it. And I think that there’s a certain filter that goes away where you just, you want to get into it. You want to discuss things. You want to talk about it. You want to share what you think. You want to know what they think. And a lot of times it’s without any offense. And that’s a real—I’m so thankful for that element of comedy, because I see people around me so scared to talk about things, or—one of the things that amuses me over and over is when somebody will come up and apologize after for something they said or did and I don’t even remember or know what they’re talking about. It’s because it’s something they’re holding on to so deeply and tightly that it took them so much to say to me or to maybe, attack me in some way, and it didn’t even affect me because I didn’t even—I’m hanging out with comedians! [laughter] And you know what I mean. Like what? I’m sorry, you said what to me? No, I didn’t even, that wouldn’t even bother me.


Ana Marie Cox: And also, we’re all the heroes of our own story. Right? So, like, it’s a little bit: no one spends as much time thinking about you as you do. You know? So that’s something I try to keep in mind. But I confess, like I’m much more like those people that sit around and ruminate on something I might have said or done wrong.


Tig Notaro: Mm hmm. I have moments like that where I think: oh, gosh, did I overstep, or did I do something or? But it has to be on a level that really rattles me, because in general—not that I am not thinking about people or considering feelings, but it’s just a different world after you’ve spent almost 25 years like I have, in the comedy world, and where anything goes, good or bad, and so, I don’t know.


Ana Marie Cox: Jumping in to jump out with some ads.


[ad break]


Ana Marie Cox: So the other thought I had about your fearlessness and the idea of comedians being able to embark on these interviews, in part because the fearlessness you develop over the years of doing stand-up— it made me wonder about the metaphor of like, thin skin. Like and thick skin. Is is that the way that one could think of this, that you’ve developed a thick skin?


Tig Notaro: Yeah, I mean, I think that my skin has gotten thicker and thicker every time I got on stage. I mean, the first time I bombed on stage, I truly ran off of the stage, I didn’t even finish my set. And then a year later from the time that I ran off the stage, I was so much more comfortable that when I bombed on stage, I, oddly, was able to sit in the moment and enjoy how funny it was that I was bombing. And it just is, it’s a thickness of skin, but it’s also a better understanding of, it’s kind of: who cares? I, of course, care. I want to do well, but sometimes you don’t. And it’s just part of it, and just letting go of the heaviness and the fear and paranoia. I remember bombing one time in Ireland and being so scared that word would travel to the states and that they would find out that I bombed so horrifically that my career would be over by the time my plane landed. And now, I remember bombing in Florida when I was getting ready for one of my specials, and I just got off stage and went and sat at a table with a couple, in the middle of my set, with my microphone and just said: what do you think is happening, why do you think I’m not connecting with everybody? And it was it was a fun moment because I won the audience back because we were all discussing why my show is going so terribly.


Ana Marie Cox: The best piece of advice I ever got about interviewing was along those lines. It was if there’s an obvious thing that’s not being said, say it. Like, that’s the only way to proceed through an awkward silence or I guess an awkward situation.


Tig Notaro: Yeah, always.


Ana Marie Cox: Your reference to the things you’ve been through, is that a reference to the cancer that put you actually into a lot of people’s spotlight?


Tig Notaro: Yeah, it was, I mean, it was cancer and my mother died unexpectedly, and I also had just been hospitalized for a few other illnesses like pneumonia and this intestinal disease that was potentially deadly. And then I went also through a breakup in the middle of it all. And that was in a four-month period of time. And it made me, I feel like I had been pushed to the edge of the world and then yanked back into the world. And so I think that the perspective that I got, that I also continue to lose, is a perspective that I feel, a bittersweet luck to have when I can get back in touch with it. Because you would think that going through certain things, you would never lose the perspective, and I thought that always and I’m always surprised when I sit in a moment of disbelief that: oh, my gosh, I, I somehow lost that perspective, and it’s astounding.


Ana Marie Cox: So about the advice show, why an advice show? Why did you want to do an advice show?


Tig Notaro: Well, like I was saying earlier, I do try and like to put things out that are hopefully positive. And I don’t feel like I have all of the answers and when I don’t have—because I do genuinely try and answer people’s questions and help people out—but if I find that I’m spinning my wheels, I just let it go to a nonsensical place or point back to the title, which is Don’t Ask Tig, and that is my get out of jail free card. But I like trying to problem solve. [laughter] And then bringing in comedian friends or people that I admire, or am interested in, fascinated by—why not get some help on the journey?


Ana Marie Cox: I have to say, of all the things I thought you might say “I like to problem solve” for some reason was not on the list. It’s just like a very straight forward—and I don’t know why not, because it’s a very straightforward answer: someone has a problem? I like to help fix it. OK? [laughs]


Tig Notaro: I do. I my wife calls me Idea Head. I call her Question Head. She does. She has a million questions all the time and I, I, obviously I have questions and she has ideas, but we really fall into those categories together where I have ideas. And she has questions,


Ana Marie Cox: So you must have felt pretty confident going into it that you would be giving good advice.


Tig Notaro: No, no, not necessarily.


Ana Marie Cox: Alright.


Tig Notaro: No. The title’s Don’t Ask Tig.


Ana Marie Cox: Right. That’s your, that’s your, that’s your out. That’s your get-out-of-jail-free card. What surprised you about doing this show, about actually now being in the semi-somewhat-ironic profession of giving advice?


Tig Notaro: I guess I’ve just been surprised that it seems to actually help some people. Yeah, and I guess it surprises me that guests continue to agree to be on the show.


Ana Marie Cox: Last ad break. Enjoy.


[ad break]


Ana Marie Cox:  I was thinking about it and I think everyone or I think a large majority of people think they give good advice. Like there are very few people that are like: oh, I’m terrible at advice. Right? So I’m not actually that surprised that someone would be willing to go on this show, because I think everyone thinks there’s at least one area where they’re like: no, I can, I can weigh in on this.


Tig Notaro: There’s so many people that show up to the show that are like: oh my God, I’m terrible at this.


Ana Marie Cox: Really?


Tig Notaro: Yeah. And there are some people that come on a show where I’m just like, it’s embarrassing that I’m even having a slightly ironic advice show, because they’re so good at giving advice.


Ana Marie Cox: Like Glennan Doyle, I know you had on this show.


Tig Notaro: Yeah, and Aisha Tyler? I don’t know if you heard her episode? Man, Aisha Tyler. I felt like just unplugging my mike and just—Stephen Colbert.


Ana Marie Cox: Oh, he’s, like he’s actually like Saint Stephen, I think. Yeah. He’s a good person, a good person in the world. Also hysterically funny.


[clip of Stephen Colbert] Right on all counts. I associate myself with the comments from the gentle lady from Mississippi. My first instinct there is just don’t pull it off, but just say let’s zoom-in for the dessert course or something like that. You know what I mean. Let’s, like let’s, maybe we like zoom-in for cocktails at the beginning, or whatever you do beforehand. Like the cooking, and what are you having? And: oh, that pie looks fantastic! And you have the best gravy and I wish I could be—00


[clip of Tig Notaro] I can almost smell it!


[clip of Stephen Colbert] Exactly.


[clip of Tig Notaro] How about that? Say that kind of thing, Stephen?


Ana Marie Cox: You were talking with someone about how great your life is these days—I think it was a pre-pandemic interview, so maybe caveat that—that you were living a life beyond your wildest dreams, right? Like this is not what you thought would happen, it’s better. I guess you’ve already kind of shown me the answer to this question, but I was wondering how that’s affected your work? Like there is, I think, some people might think that comedy comes from pain, right? Clearly, I don’t think I don’t think that’s necessarily true but I wonder what your experience has been as a comedian living an amazing life.


Tig Notaro: Well, I don’t. I know, I mean, comedy can come from anywhere. I think that it can come from pain. It can come from utter—I was going to say slipping on a banana, but that’s ultimately painful. But, yeah, I, it’s not like I am so happy or successful that all of the joy is out of my life, or the comedy is out of my life. It’s I feel like I’m a better comedian. I feel like I’m a better observer, observer of life and hopefully a participant, and all of that. And I think that is key is being a participant in life, more so than being miserable. I think that participating is what creates comedy, and that’s why having a job and a relationship and having kids, all of those sorts of participations create experiences to draw from, whether it’s comedy or storytelling. And so as long as I’m participating in life, I feel like I have something to say. I don’t need to be, you know, strung-out or drunk or miserable or anything like that, fighting, whatever darkness feeds people or that people think comedy is born from—I just don’t, I don’t connect to it. I never felt like when I was coming up as a comedian that I needed to force myself to struggle or pay dues in a way that would make any sort of success make sense. I always want to be comfortable and happy, and I’ve always kind of been on that path of trying to—even down to I always say, walking into a room—and it probably has to do with having a bad back—but walking into any room, I’m always looking for the most comfortable place to sit. That’s the first thing that I look for. I scope out where can I go, sit down comfortably, before I look at anything else. And then the next in line is: do they have snacks?


Ana Marie Cox: You know what? That seems like good life advice, actually.


Tig Notaro: Yeah, get a comfortable seat, check to see if they have snacks, and then chat, then observe, but I need to make sure those two things are—in fact my character on Star Trek, they’ve very—it just, it really amuses me—but they incorporate a lot of snacks into my character. I eat chips and salsa, and I eat licorice. And so I really enjoy that they’ve incorporated that into my character.


Ana Marie Cox: I was delighted to see you pop up on that show when I first started watching it. That was, it was fun. It was like: oh, there she! Um, and that actually brings me to the question I wanted to ask: what more do you want to do?


Tig Notaro: What I always tell people is: I really want to maintain what I have. I’m not a comedian that is—I mean, I sold out Carnegie Hall and I’ve traveled the world—but I’m not thinking: now I have to sell out a baseball stadium. Or: now I need to have an Oscar. Or, I really don’t feel like that. I feel genuinely like I want to, as I was saying, participate in a way that will create new material and be able to express it. I do like to have the success that I have, and I want to maintain that, and I want to maintain the success that I’ve had in my personal life. That’s really a number one for me. And I want to maintain my health. I want to maintain my career, my friends, family, all of that. If my life continued the way it’s going, and didn’t even raise a hair in success or income, I’m fine. I am perfectly happy. I want to, I want to maintain it.


Ana Marie Cox: We’ve come up—there’s like so many good places where we can wrap this. Like a couple of places that have happened. As a comedian, you end things really neatly. I appreciate that. But I actually just couldn’t let this interview end without asking you: if you have any advice for me?


Tig Notaro: Do I have advice for you? I mean, I obviously don’t know you very well, except for right now. But this is my favorite advice to give to anyone and everyone, and something that I read once that I tweaked slightly so that it kind of applies to everyone always. And it’s to . . . God, now I’m forgetting.


Ana Marie Cox: You can Google it if you want. We’re going to edit this, so like it’s not—


Tig Notaro: Yeah, it is—oh, my gosh, I can’t believe it, I tell people this all the time. Because people ask all the time about advice, and it is to . . .


Ana Marie Cox: I’ve stumped you. No. It’s um . . .


Tig Notaro: Basically the idea is to, if you’re living your freest life and doing exactly what you want to do, then you’re freeing everybody around you. Nobody will worry about you. Nobody will be concerned and trapped in their life worried about your mental or physical state or your financial state or any, your heart, your soul. If you are taking care of yourself and living the best life you can live, then everybody around you is free.


Ana Marie Cox: Tig, thank you so much for coming on my show.


Tig Notaro: Thank you so much for having me.


Ana Marie Cox: And I really don’t think I can put it any better.


Ana Marie Cox: The show is a production of Crooked Media. It is produced by Allison Herrera with assistance from Izzie Margulies. This episode was engineered by Louis Leano. I owe Whitney Pastorek some Wally Bucks. Take care of yourselves.