"Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you?"
[Applause and some weird laughing from the audience.]
"Hi. How are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer. How are you?"
"Ah, its a good time. Diagnosed with cancer."
[Awkward audience but still laughing.]
sigh "Feels good. Just diagnosed with cancer." sigh
Tig Notaro walked on stage in Largo, Los Angeles in 2013 and opened her stand-up routine with this deadpan greeting.
Over the next thirty minutes Tig externally processes her very recent (days, if not hours prior) diagnosis of cancer, her mother abruptly passing away, and a horrible breakup.
"Its okay. Its gonna be okay. It might NOT be okay. But I'm just saying. Its okay. You're gonna be okay. I don't know what's going on with me."
I'm not a comedy expert, but when this album came up on Spotify the other day it caught me totally off guard and transported me immediately to a very strange space. An oddly humorous and wonderfully honest and special space.
The Human Experience
Someone once told me that as catechists and evangelists, we should pay attention to and learn from comedians' ability to observe present human experiences and explain it so completely to an audience. They have a finger on the pulse of contemporary culture. Comedians can take an experience so banal and familiar to us, dissect it, and present it in such an insightful way that we all are left saying "Yes! Yes. There is no way to argue with you. That is absurd and hilarious and I do it every day."
A large portion of popular stand-up comedy right now is observational humor. The surprise of something familiar suddenly exposed as completely absurd is what makes it so funny. Its a tangible kind of funny.
"Its so hard because right now in my life when I have a show I don't feel like 'Oh I want to go talk about how funny it is that a bee was taking the 401 freeway.' Like all the jokes I've written I just am like, I can't even bring myself to talk about it. Because, and just, everybody relax: my mother just died."
The audience reacts in a sad manner, with some awww's and gasps, and a few shocked chuckles. You can feel the tension between tragedy and comedy. Like Bruce Willis as a crazy and nervous cop with wild eyes cracking a joke to himself as he rolls out of a moving car.
"Should I leave?"
And the audience bursts into laughter.
"I can't believe you're taking this so hard. You didn't even know her."
More laughter. It dies down and one solitary man is heard chuckling in that silence.
"Sir, this should not tickle you that much."
And everyone loses it.
A Strange Thing
Thomas Nagel, in an essay on The Absurd, tried to pin down why a situation, or life in general, could be considered absurd.
This pretty much sums up Tig's whole stand-up set on coming to grips with her mother suddenly passing away and her battle with cancer.
"After we buried her we drove back to Texas... And I was checking the mail, and the hospital had sent my mother a questionnaire, to see how her stay at the hospital went. Mmmmm...not great."
And the way she explains it, its hilarious.
Tig bounces back to the topic of cancer.
"I had to get a mammogram done so I had to stand there with my shirt off and the technician said, 'Oh my gosh you have such a flat stomach. What is your secret?' And I said: 'Oh, I'm dying.'"
Absurd. And again, hilarious.
People are laughing, and crying, and laughing while crying, and are awkward, and silent, and can't seem to get enough of it. She went through treatment for her cancer, got out and a week later her mother died, then to top it all off she went through a rough breakup. And she's explaining all of these experiences just as you can imagine yourself experiencing them - laughingly realizing how absurd everything becomes when you are constantly thinking about very near impending death.
And during her set, I think the magic of it all is that for thirty minutes, we all have cancer. We all are able to put on the cancer goggles and view the world for a bit with the veil of time and the lie of immortality torn back to reveal the weak, frail, shallow experiences that take up most of our day.
"What if I just transitioned right now into silly jokes?"
"No!" the crowd screams.
"This is f***ing amazing." one guy yells.
That is exactly how you feel once you've put on the cancer goggles, listening to this set. You don't want it to end.
Tig transported all of us to a space where the veil is suddenly torn back and life is seen for what it really is: a letdown that doesn't ever really live up to our aspirations for it, and foolishness when seen in light of the assurance of death. Our death.
At the end she tries to tell one of her jokes from the material she actually wrote for the night. Every word is seen through the lens of the assurance of death and the horribleness of cancer. Every word is seen for the absurdity that it is.
She successfully brought the entire audience to a place where everything about life seems absurd and small and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, especially with death looming over every daily boring situation.
"I was driving here. Ugh, lotta traffic."
The crowd is doing the crying/laughing thing.
"My car hadn't moved in several minutes."
I'm laughing at myself at this point. I think everyone is.
"And a bee, flew past me. Do you have any idea how frustrating it is when a bee passes you in 5 o'clock traffic?"
Cancer looms over every word. The more Tig feigns frustration with traffic after just processing her cancer diagnosis, the more absurd rush hour traffic seems, and the funnier it is.
Life is absurd if it lacks any way to make sense of death. I think this common human suspicion that all of life is a little absurd is one of the most powerful starting points for the conversation with modern man about God.
There is a reason the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins with man's desire for God before getting into the Creed. To talk to modern man about his need for God requires and implies that we start with common human experience - man's own language. This is God's method of revealing Himself. This was Pope St. John Paul II's method in his writings (I'm thinking right now most especially of Love and Responsibility).
This is what every good spouse knows, especially when you hear "You're not understanding what I'm saying! You're not listening to me!" If you want to have a better marriage, be sure your spouse feels like you understand their perspective completely before trying to explain your side of the story.
When you're in this space and can feel the absurdity of life, you can strip away things like school and careers and sports and "I'm too busy" and whatever is right in front of your eyes that stops you from considering the idea of God or purpose or meaning. You're forced to be honest about the insignificance of all of life's bells and whistles.
And in that space, there is room to talk candidly about the meaning of it all. And that is a special space to be able to bring people into that is not easy to accomplish.
We ought to think hard about ways we can be more honest and create spaces where people can see life for what it really is.
We should also work a lot harder at explaining the human condition to modern man better than he can explain it himself (like Jesus did) using our own words.
Tig did it by sharing her cancer with us.
And she invited us to realize for thirty minutes that, in a way, we all have cancer.
**Side note: You can listen to the whole 30 minutes here on iTunes or find it on Spotify but just be warned that the cover of this album is Tig shirtless holding her hands on her (double mastectomy-ed) chest . Its not extremely inappropriate but isn't the most modest cover either. Just wanted to give you fair warning so you don't write me email about modesty and the evils of "the culture" and etc.
**Also: Tig is brilliant and I never thought someone could make me and an entire audience laugh by pushing a stool around a stage for four minutes straight.
**And: Here's a great NPR's Fresh Air interview of Tig about this performance.