Tig Notaro’s sometimes terse delivery can create the illusion of reserve. But it is an illusion. The affectation of remove makes her diversions into silliness even more disarming. Distance is a tool, and Notaro wields it with precise skill.
Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted doesn’t delve into the dark, even brutal ordeals of Live or the documentary history of Tig. Instead, it paints a lighter, frivolous picture of its star, using that history as a backdrop for the peak of her stage show.
Notaro’s persona is a constant play of distance and intimacy, and here intimacy wins out. Despite her reputation for deadpan delivery, she’s downright goofy in Boyish Girl Interrupted. In the first 15 minutes of her act, Notaro descends from the stage into the audience, shares what design covers her pajamas (flying pigs!), giddily mimes the licking of an ice cream cone, disguises herself with a finger mustache, plays a game of peek-a-boo, and tells a story about chasing down Santa Claus, wide-eyed with hope.
Informing her audience that she’s always—“every single time!”—received standing ovations, she repeats her supposedly habitual demurral, reassuring both the audience present in Boston’s Wilbur Theatre and imagined audiences throughout her career, “I’m just a person!” Boyish Girl Interrupted reconfigures the image of “Tig Notaro, brave cancer survivor,” into “Tig Notaro, just a person.” It succeeds remarkably well through the counterintuitive tactic of simply presenting a well-structured, well-delivered comedy special without hiding the results of the breast cancer diagnosis and double mastectomy that capped a year of hardships—but without dwelling on them much, either. Instead, she talks about bombing 14 Las Vegas shows in a row, the gratifying sounds of audience members’ laughter, and the humiliations of being handled at a distance by venue owners and of introducing her fiancée to her Mississippi family. Not for the stereotypical reasons, but also, yes, for some of the stereotypical reasons.
It’s funny—the kind of funny that sparks both big, boisterous laughs and uncomfortable titters—and it’s also the kind of small storytelling that evokes quiet attention. Notaro’s pace is deliberate, and it never stumbles, no matter how vulnerable she makes herself to her audience. Describing a TSA agent’s confusion upon patting her down, Notaro dispenses quickly with the question of how her illness and surgery altered her body and how strangers respond to those changes, and moves on to a crisp stand-up routine on the inconveniences, indignities, and absurdities of modern travel. It sounds like boilerplate, and it could be, but as she observes, “I have a weird delivery. I’ve had it my whole life, my whole career.” That delivery, along with the daring and openness that drive it, elevate what could be ordinary into a consummate performance.
Notaro plays with the space between distance and candor—between a veneer of severity and a puckish sense of fun—and makes it look effortless. Even when the tension of her performance rises to a high pitch, her insouciance keeps attention fixed on the act, not on any distractions—even those she creates herself. She weaves the audience’s discomfort into her performance, letting it add to it rather than detract. When some audience members laugh at a sudden transition, she says skeptically, “I’ve never detected a punchline there,” and circles back to the subject of laughter before picking up her story again.
It’s an engaging, conventional routine presented with stunning self-possession and artful timing, and built on contradiction. Over and over, Notaro describes the small embarrassments of life while her physical presence radiates supreme confidence. It’s a master class on how to deploy contrast, with her actions and aplomb powerfully countering her words.
And it’s a potent reminder that Notaro, whose recent forays into searingly honest, traumatic comedy catapulted her into legend, is also just a person, leading her life and doing her life’s work. Cancer and its accompanying trials are both a part of life and an interruption in it. Boyish Girl Interrupted demonstrates how thoroughly Notaro defies expectations, even as she surpasses them, and defies convention, even as she deftly employs it.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, elements of the special we can’t reveal in this review, visit Boyish Girl Interrupted’s Spoiler Space.