If you’ve followed Tig Notaro at all in the past couple of years, you know the general outline of her new Amazon show One Mississippi. You know the comedian had myriad health problems including breast cancer. You know her mom died. Her experience has been chronicled in a documentary called Tig, in a memoir, and in stand-up. She’s bared her scars literally and figuratively to the world, and the series tackles those now-familiar topics once again, which isn’t to say they’ve lost any of their awful qualities. But this time she’s dramatizing the material. Names have been changed, details have been altered. It’s still about a woman named Tig whose mom dies after a freak fall, and who returns home while suffering from a C. difficile bacterial infection, but the story is not exactly Notaro’s. It still is, however, a poignant exploration of unbearable loss, and how a very unemotional family deals with that. The A.V. Club spoke with Notaro at a recent press event in New York.
The A.V. Club: You have approached the personal elements of this story in many different formats now. What was it like taking it and fictionalizing elements? How did you approach that?
Tig Notaro: I’ve been so used to writing my memoir, doing a documentary, or sharing it in my stand-up and in my storytelling. It was a process, because I had to really let go. It’s hard when you know these people and situations, and then you have, which I did, a writers’ room, and people are bringing their personal stories and characters and elements. Toward the beginning of writing the show with the group, I was like, “I don’t know,” and then I got to another place of like, “Yeah, sure, that’d be great.”
AVC: Was that weird for them at all? They are tackling a story that’s so personal to you.
TN: I don’t know, maybe it was weird. But we had a really positive experience working together. It wasn’t that big of a room. There were only five writers hired. There were people in there that I didn’t know previously, and after meeting them and working with them, they’ve become my very close friends. That’s because I trusted their sensibility, and we really got each other. Everything made sense, and was reasonable. It’s not like there was somebody off the rails, suggesting something where you’re like, “Uh, that’s a different show.”
AVC: You co-created the show with Diablo Cody, and you two wrote the pilot together. She’s a writer who has such a distinctive voice as well. What was your relationship like with her?
TN: I gave her my book before it came out. She read that, and I told her about the parts and moments that were worth pulling and she pulled what she thought. We only met maybe four times in person, and then we just sent the script back and forth and made changes. But I was really into her movie she did with Jason Reitman, Young Adult. I just thought it was so tremendous. I loved that tone. That was what I went to her with. She had no intention of running the show beyond writing the pilot with me. So after we wrote the pilot, we brought Kate Robin on, who was a writer and producer from Six Feet Under. I just love her. She’s so great.
AVC: What do you hope the dramatization of this story brings to it that people couldn’t get from reading the memoir or watching the documentary?
TN: Well, I think that when I got this deal to do the show, it was on the heels of everything else, and it was at a point in time when that’s what everyone was interested in, and that’s what I wanted to talk about, and that’s what I was going through. It’s taken a while for these different projects to come out. The show has taken longer to come out, and now that it is, I can step away from the 100-percent reality of it, and be able to just make a TV show that probably isn’t exactly what I would have made four years ago, you know?
AVC: How so?
TN: I really don’t know. Because four years ago I might not have gotten Kate Robin. I might not have gotten Cara DiPaolo. I wasn’t with Stephanie Allynne, who is a writer on the show. I don’t know what the show would have been. But what it is now I am so proud of, it’s exactly what I wanted to make. I can’t believe the talent that I’m surrounded by. Every actor on that show nails it. When we finished filming the show, my babies were born a week later. [Notaro and her wife, Stephanie Allynne, welcomed twin boys in June.—ed.] They came early. The editing process began, and I couldn’t be that hands-on. And it was a really amazing moment to go, “You know what? Everybody that I hired is tremendous, and I know we got what we wanted on set, and I know everyone is so talented that if I can’t be there day in and day out in editing, I trust everybody.” I had to step away, because I had to take care of preemie twins. Of course I had my hand in it, but not 100 percent in the post-production.
AVC: What was it like for you to explore the impact of grief on your stepfather and brother, played by John Rothman and Noah Harpster in the show?
TN: It felt really good and enlightening, because I’m not the only person that lived through that time period, and I’m not the only person in my family. To consider their perspectives, and whether they’re real or fictional, it’s still putting on them how I think they would react in those situations. It’s like those moments in life when you look at your mother and go, “Oh my gosh, she’s not just my mother—she’s somebody’s wife, and she’s somebody’s sister, and daughter.” You go, “Yeah, you were here, too.”
AVC: There are a lot of fantasy sequences. Some of them are nightmarish. Some of them are joyful “What if?” scenarios. What was the thinking behind adding them?
TN: They’re usually based on moments that are hard for me to process, and my brain splitting off into “What if?” moments or just an inability to face or deal with what’s in front of me. I love drama—I would say more than I even love comedy—but I like in the show that I can go from a very moving moment to a Willy Wonka tube up my ass. I like the silliness as much as I like drama.
AVC: Sort of speaking to that moment, we talked about the writing of the show, but let’s talk about the performing. You’re acting out these difficult scenarios. What was that like?
TN: I never expected that we would find somebody that was basically an exact replication of my mother. Her beauty and style and passion and powerful way. I was just like, “There’s no way.” I almost settled on an actor that I knew wasn’t right because somebody else wanted them. I’m so glad I kept searching. When I was in scenes with [Rya Kihlstedt], it was very overwhelming, because I felt like I was having moments with my mother again. So that was something. It was never like, “God, that was great, she really did a good job acting like my mother.” It was like, “Hmm, that was my mother.”
AVC: Were you looking for other people who were uncanny in that way?
TN: Well, they accidentally were. I really was on a search for a long time for [someone to play my mother]. When I saw [John and Noah’s] tapes, they were the first or second tapes that I saw, and I was like, “Must we continue? We found them.” And I was right. As I continued, just to be thorough, I was like, “These are the characters.” Of course, they’re not exact. I would say my mother is exact, though. Casey [Wilson], the way she plays my girlfriend, I wanted that element of she’s likable but you’d believe it’s maybe not a perfect fit. And to have that alarming personality in the middle of [this situation], you know, like, “Can you not read the room?” She is so good. Casey makes me laugh so hard.