The Gift of Laughter

14 Aug
Photo via Flickr user CleftClips

Photo via Flickr user CleftClips

I watched Tig over the weekend, a documentary about stand-up comedian and radio contributor Tig Notaro. I pressed play because my baby fell asleep at a decent hour, my mom had suggested the film, my brother respects Tig a ton as a fellow stand-up comedian, and I am very interested in contemporary female comedians as writers and speakers of truth. I didn’t expect to be thinking about the film days later, but here I am.

Tig’s career was going well until, while working in a film, she collapsed. In the hospital, she found out she had C-DIFF, a possibly fatal infection of the intestine. Then her mom died. Then she went through a breakup. Then she got diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. With the cancer diagnosis, because of the sheer ridiculous nature of her Job-like situation, everything seemed funny to her. She started writing. Less than a week after finding out she had cancer, she stepped on stage at the Largo and said, “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?”

She proceeded to do a set– a long set– making jokes about the laundry list of challenges God had handed her. Listening to the audio, you can hear the mix of human reactions in the crowd, and she played off of that. Some people laughed so hard you could feel the relief in their guts, finally being able to laugh about something so sad that they were also going through. Others cried and moaned. They begged her to keep going. And this is the moment I can’t get out of my head. Tig suggests changing the subject at one point and you can hear a man in the audience say, “No, keep going. This is amazing.” And it was. It was raw, true, and really funny. The interaction between her and the audience was charged with humanness, surging with emotion. People were aware that they were experiencing something special, something more than live comedy at its best.

As Tig said, the idea of the show went viral. She woke up the next morning more well known than she had ever been. Louis C.K. convinced her to sell audio of the show, which launched her into the national spotlight. The show hit a nerve, struck a chord, rung true. Not only was it healing for her, but it offered healing to others, as well. People couldn’t get enough of her, making jokes about her cancer. They loved her truth, admired her skills of wit, writing and timing, found relief in being able to laugh about something as ugly and scary as cancer, and were comforted by her brash courage in the face of adversity.

I will be thinking about the audio that captured the alive, human, sacred interaction between Tig and her audience at the Largo for a long time. It supports my hunch that comedians have potential to be modern-day prophets. It reminds me how much we need space to talk about what we are afraid of and what we are grieving. It acknowledges that there are days when we have cried so hard that we desperately want an excuse to laugh, not because sickness is funny, but because it is real.

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