Skip to main content

Tig Notaro On Going 'Live' About Her Life

Tig Notaro walked onstage hours after finding out she was diagnosed with cancer, and talked about it in a standup comedy set that Louis C.K. described in a tweet as masterful. Notaro talks with Fresh Air's Terry Gross about the set, titled Tig Notaro: Live.


Other segments from the episode on October 8, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 8, 2012: Interview with Tig Notaro; Interview with Louis C.K.


October 8, 2012

Guests: Tig Notaro – Louis C.K.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You're about to hear an excerpt of a remarkable comedy set by my guest Tig Notaro, and we have an interview with her. But let me back up a little bit. I didn't know who Tig Notaro was until last May, when she was a guest on the edition of "This American Life" that was shown live in movie theaters.

I saw the show with several of our producers, and we all thought we should invite her on. We decided to wait until she had a new album or was in a new movie or TV show. The event that brought her back to our attention was really bad news. In August, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, both breasts. That's enough to put everything in your life on hold, but right after the diagnosis she decided to show up for her regular comedy night at the Club Largo in L.A.

She threw out her old material and kept things in the moment. Louis C.K., who also performed there that night, tweeted that her set was masterful. Articles were written about it. I wished I could have heard it. And now I have, because it turns out it was a recorded, and Louis C.K. has just made it available for purchase on his website.

Later, he'll tell us what this set means to him as a comic. So before we hear my interview with Tig Notaro, here's the opening of her set. Imagine her walking out right after her diagnosis, facing an audience who didn't know about the cancer.



TIG NOTARO: Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you? Hi, how are you? Is everyone having a good time. I have cancer. How are you? It's a good time, diagnosed with cancer. Feels good. Just diagnosed with cancer. Oh my God, it's weird because with humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy. I am just at tragedy right now. That's just where I am in the equation.

Oh, it's fine. I'll - here's what happened. I went - I'm gonna get - it's very personal. I found a lump. Guys, relax, everything's fine. I have cancer.

GROSS: Tig Notaro, welcome to FRESH AIR. And first, how are you?

NOTARO: I'm doing great, almost better than ever.

GROSS: What's your prognosis now?

NOTARO: My prognosis is great. They - I had a double mastectomy. They got all the cancer, and it did not spread like they had feared, and I spoke with my doctor, who told me the testing came back, and I have a 7 percent recurrence rate. So that's beyond amazing.

GROSS: That's wonderful, so I'm really happy for you.


NOTARO: Thank you, I am, too. I'm thrilled.

GROSS: So I'm so sorry that this has been such a rough patch of your life, but I'm so grateful that you've managed to make something so remarkable from all the horrors that you were going through. So let's start by talking about this set. If I were in the audience, when you walked out and did this whole hello, good evening, I have cancer, I don't know that I would have had any idea how to interpret that, whether I would've thought you were serious, or whether I would've thought, like, this is some really weird, like, performance art piece.

And I keep thinking, like, who are those people who were laughing?


GROSS: Because you're saying I have cancer. So how did you get the idea of starting that way?

NOTARO: Well, I originally was picturing myself going out, and I never sit on a stool when I do standup, and I was picturing myself being kind of that comedian for the night where I pull up a stool, and I say, hey, you know, it's been a rough few months, bear with me, I'm working on some material that's a bit of a detour from my regular stuff.

And then I was taking a shower about an hour and a half before the show, and I was thinking I can't do that, that's so lame. And I don't want to make excuses for my show before I get started, regardless of what I'm doing onstage. And my brain just popped out with this idea that I walk on stage and say thank you, I have cancer, thanks for coming. And it just made me laugh so hard just in the shower.

And then I was thinking oh, gosh, even though that's funny to me, I was scared of offending people and confusing people, and, you know, thinking about people that maybe did have cancer in the audience or had somebody that they loved that had cancer.

And then the reality hit me that I have cancer.

GROSS: Yeah.

NOTARO: Like this is my story. And I just kept thinking about it and picturing it, and it just kept making me laugh so hard. And so I just decided to do it. I was really nervous, though.

GROSS: So what was...

NOTARO: But it seemed to be the way to get in.

GROSS: What was it like when you walked on stage, and you did the whole good evening, I have cancer, and people laughed? I think other people were just astonished and shocked. But everybody - I think everybody was completely with you no matter what their reaction was. What were you feeling at that moment?

NOTARO: I was very nervous. I was rattled, and I felt raw, and I felt very vulnerable. Even though I had been diagnosed maybe a week prior to that, it was only maybe the day before the show that I had met with my doctor, who told me that I had stage 2 breast cancer and that the tumor on the left side was invasive and that because the cancer was not contained, their fear was that it had possibly spread to my lymph nodes.

And so they didn't know where the cancer had spread or if it had or how far. Like, they just didn't know. And I was just in a very vulnerable, raw place, and I had no idea what was in front of me.

GROSS: I don't even know how you were able to get onstage and do this. You had gotten the - you know, the real lowdown the day before. You must have been in shock and totally horrified.

NOTARO: I was devastated.

GROSS: Yeah.

NOTARO: Yeah, I was devastated, and I had been working on this - I had done "This American Life" in May, and Ira Glass, the host, had invited me back immediately. And so I had pitched an idea about when I got my wisdom teeth removed about 15 years ago, and he said great, let's do that.

And then he called me a couple days later and said where are we on that piece? And I said, oh, you mean you want me back immediately. And he said yeah. And I said, oh, to be honest, I am in no place to be talking about my wisdom teeth and some silly story. I feel so just consumed by the hell that my life had become.

And he said well great, let's talk about that then. And I told him I wanted to talk about that, and he said great, let's do it. And so I wrote about 10 pages about what was going on, and then I happened to be in New York and met with him, and he read over the pages, and he looked at me, and he said this is so depressing.

And I said yeah, I know, but it is my life. I don't know what to do. And he said, you know, your power is doing this onstage, and if there's a point that you feel that can do this onstage or find anything funny, then I think you need to do this onstage. And so I - a part of me was thinking, you know, I just want to get on "This American Life" again, and then another part of me, I didn't know if I was dying. I didn't know if I was ever going to get onstage again, and I better take this opportunity.

GROSS: Well, I want to play another excerpt of your set at Largo, and this was recorded in August, just a few days after you were diagnosed with cancer. And it's not just the cancer that you were dealing with, but also a few weeks before the cancer - actually more like maybe three months before the cancer diagnosis, you had gotten pneumonia, and then as a result of that you got an infection called C. diff, short for C. difficile, which is a kind of deadly bacterial infection that wreaks havoc with your whole digestive system.

And then your relationship with your girlfriend fell apart. So you had all these things, terrible things happening to you. At the same time, your career was actually going very well at that point. So at this point in your set, in which you're talking about all these things that have happened to you, you've been talking about the good and the bad happening at the same time and how this is changing you.


NOTARO: Again, just please bear with me. It's so hard because, like, right now in my life, I don't feel - 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 405 freeway. Like all the jokes that I've written, I just, I'm like I can't even bring myself to talk about it because - and everyone relax - my mother just died.

Should I leave?


NOTARO: My mother died but - tragically, too. She was 65. She tripped, hit her head and died a week after I got out of the hospital. I can't believe you're taking this so hard. You didn't know her. You didn't know her. I'm doing OK. What happened was after we buried her in our hometown in Mississippi, we drove back to Texas, and I was checking the mail, and the hospital sent my mother a questionnaire to see how her stay at the hospital went.


NOTARO: Not, not great. It did not go great.

GROSS: That's Tig Notaro, and this set was recorded and is being released, and has been released exclusively on Louis C.K.'s website. So Tig, you know, when I was listening to this set for the first time, I think I really didn't know how to react, and I was, like, laughing and then thinking, like, I shouldn't - this is not really funny. This is really tragic. It's horrible. I shouldn't be laughing.

But then I was thinking no, no, but what's she's saying isn't funny, but the way she's saying it is very funny, and she's a comic. She'd probably prefer it if I laugh. It's probably better if I laugh. And I was so almost distracted having this internal debate with myself about whether it was approp - I was listening alone in my car, you know, and laughing and having this debate with myself.

And then I'm listening to the audience respond on this recording, and some people are laughing, and some people are shushing the people who are laughing. And you also hear - you can kind of like hear the silence of some people.


GROSS: Like what response made you feel best during - you know, as the set kept going, and people are kind of getting more and more attuned to where you're heading, and some people are laughing, and some people are shushing them, and some people are just astonished?

NOTARO: Yeah, it was a lot to take in. You know, I feel like the 300 people that were in that audience that night were the exact perfect people that should have been there. They were just so tremendous. And, you know, like you were saying, there's just so many different reactions. There was laughing and silence, and it was the first time in my career where I've looked in the audience and seen people crying.

It was a very intense experience, and there was a point where I wasn't sure if things had gotten too dark, and I had considered and suggested that maybe I just call it a night. And this guy, you know, he spoke up: Absolutely not. And the crowd just burst into this supportive - I don't even know. It just - it was so emotional. I almost started crying.

GROSS: Really?

NOTARO: It was - yeah, I just thought oh, please, don't cry. Just - you can't walk out here and tell them all this stuff and then start crying onstage. You know, I just would have felt so defeated. But it, it just - I just wanted to - I don't know. I wanted to feel and seem strong. And I had to pull myself together before I spoke again.

GROSS: Was it a hard decision to make about whether to include your mother's death within this set?

NOTARO: No, it was not. My mother was a very, very funny, outrageous, outspoken person, and she never edited me. Her whole thing in my life was if anybody had a problem with me, tell them to go to hell. She told me that just a little kid, through my whole life. I actually spoke about that at her funeral.

GROSS: My guest is comic Tig Notaro. We're talking about the set she performed at the Largo Comedy Club in L.A., right after she was diagnosed with cancer in each breast. Comic Louis C.K. also performed there that night. He's released a recording of her set on his website. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is comic Tig Notaro, and we're talking about a set that she performed at a theater called Largo in L.A. This was in August, and it was right after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in each of her breasts. And the set that she did is all about that, but it's also about these other horrible things that happened to her within four months.

There was first pneumonia, and then as a consequence of that C. difficile, C, diff, which is a really horrible bacterial infection, that is very difficult to get rid of, in your digestive tract. I mean, so bad some people die from it. And then she and her girlfriend broke up. Then her mother died. And then it was on top of all that that she was diagnosed with the cancer.

So at this part in your set, you're talking about how you were trying to - like, one night you were just so depressed you were trying to drown your troubles with food, but the problem was because of still recovering from the C. diff, there was very little that you could eat. So, like, you were binging on Triscuits because they're basically like wheat flour and water.

And so this is...


NOTARO: That's rock bottom.

GROSS: Yes, rock bottom, absolutely. So this is that part of the set.


NOTARO: I just, I was trying to drown my emotions in something. That's all I could do. It's like that's it, I'm going to the store and I'm buying Triscuits. It's like through all of this, like getting diagnosed, like, oh, I'll call my girlfriend. Oh, we broke up. I'll call my mother. Oh, my mother died. Oh, I'll go buy some food. Oh, I can't eat anything.

Guys, who here is just wishing I would tell bees going down the 405?


NOTARO: I just can't. I'm sorry. But you know what's nice about all of this is you can always rest assured that God never gives you more than you can handle. Never. Never. When you've had it, God goes: All right, that's it. I just keep picturing God going: You know what? I think she can take a little more.


NOTARO: And then the angels are standing back going: God, what are you doing?


NOTARO: You are out of your mind. And God was like: No, no, no, I really think she can handle this. But why? God, like, why, why? Oh, I just, you know, just trust me on this. She can handle this. God is insane, if there at all.

GROSS: And that's Tig Notaro from her set recorded at Largo in L.A. in August, and that set is now available exclusively on Louis C.K.'s website. Did finding comedy within the tragedy help you get through it, or did it at least make you feel, like, well, I'm good professionally. I can, I know, I know how to make this work onstage, and I'm good at that? What did you get from the performance?

NOTARO: I got so many different things on so many different levels at so many different times. It was just the bursting-at-the-seams, cathartic moment onstage of just being held up by these - this sold-out theater. And then I went to bed that night, and I'm not on Twitter, and I don't follow blogs, and so I emailed Ira saying, oh, I think I might have gotten something that maybe you could use.

And I went to bed, and I woke up the next day, and my phone when I turned it on just kept beeping, just so many voicemails and text messages, and I didn't understand how the whole world knew I had cancer. I was so confused, you know. And then to go from the 300 people that night to the world knew, and I've just been lifted and carried and supported. And I have amazing friends and family, and my first thought when I was diagnosed was, oh, I have to keep this a secret, I don't want to lose work. And then that just blew the roof off that.


GROSS: Good point.

NOTARO: Yeah, there was no - it was just so funny, 'cause I was talking to my manager just days before, like, how are we going to keep this a secret, you know? I'm going to be going through chemo, I'll be bald, four pounds, you know, this is - clearly something's going to be suspicious. So next thing I know, everybody's, like, oh, everybody knew I had cancer.

GROSS: Tig Notaro will be back in the second half of the show. A recording of her comedy set that we've been talking about was released by comic Louis C.K. on his website. We'll hear from him later. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with comic Tig Notaro. We're talking about the now famous set she performed last August at the Largo comedy club in LA, just after she was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. She had tumors in both breasts. She's healing now from her double mastectomy and the doctors say she has only a seven percent chance of recurrence.

Let's talk about your earlier life and how you got into all of this in the first place. You didn't set out to be a comic - I don't think you did, anyway,s because professionally first you were I think trying to be a musician and then ended up promoting bands.

NOTARO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So just tell us a little bit about your music - your early music life.

NOTARO: Well, I got my first guitar when I was nine because I wanted to be the fifth Beatle, even though they had already broken up and John Lennon died that year. I was obsessed with music and I started playing drums when in, like, maybe when I was 20 or so. And yeah, I kind of had this fantasy where I would've loved to have been in a band. But whenever I performed and played guitar in front of anybody, whether it was one-on-one or on stage, the couple of times that I tried to, my hand would shake so tremendously that I could not pull it off. So I thought maybe being in music business - just being around music would be my thing. And when I was doing it, I thought, this is perfect. I found my thing, I'm so happy doing this. But I had always, my whole life, followed stand up and comedy and that was my if I could do anything, but I just didn't understand how people became comedians. I thought it was just something you were born. Like I really couldn't understand how Richard Pryor or Paula Poundstone became standup comedians. But that was truly what I wanted.

GROSS: So how did you take the first step?

NOTARO: Well, I grew up with a couple of friends, my friends Beth and Leslie. Leslie and I just went wherever Beth went because Beth was going to school - and graduate school - and I had the clear direction in life. So Leslie and I just would move wherever Beth got into colleges, and we just didn't to know where to go or what to do, so we followed Beth and so Beth wanted to go...

GROSS: And you're flexible since he dropped out of high school.


NOTARO: Yeah. I failed three grades and dropped out of high school. And I just didn't have anything going on, really so I was like oh, Beth wants to move to LA to be a producer. That's fine. There's music out there. So yeah, we all packed up and went to LA to follow Beth's dreams.


NOTARO: And then when we got there I opened the LA Weekly and I saw all the opportunity to do standup. You could do open mics and coffee shops, laundry mats, comedy clubs. I just couldn't believe. We had just been living in Denver and there were only at the time a couple of outside rooms, aside from the actual comedy club there. So when people are surprised that I started standup in Los Angeles, they think it's so intimidating whereas, I thought it was intimidating to start in Denver where there was such fewer opportunities. In LA, you could fly under the radar in all these just horrible places to work out material.

GROSS: So what did it feel like the first time you got a laugh?

NOTARO: I wasn't expecting it. It's so interesting, I didn't account for laughter, which seems odd, but I had been talking to myself for so long at my apartment. I was so focused on getting all of my material down and when I got on stage at the coffee shop and people laughed, I remember being taken aback. I was like, oh, oh that's what I was telling you this for, was for the laughter, but I just didn't even, didn't even factor it in at all but it was so exhilarating.

GROSS: So a lot...

NOTARO: So much so that I the second night I did stand up I thought because the first night went so well I was like oh, this is so easy. So I went and I...


NOTARO: I competed in a standup competition and I got booed off the stage and walked offstage, really. I was like what am I doing?

GROSS: And how come you weren't so discouraged that you never went back on stage again?

NOTARO: It's that thing of comedy. It's that roller coaster that just sucks you in. It's kind of like gambling, I guess. You hit big one time and then you bottom out, and you're like oh, I can hit big again, and so that just kind of keeps you going. Luckily, I'm not a gambler, or a drinker or, you know, I get my fix of comedy.

GROSS: So one of the things you talked about in your set in August in which you talked about, you know, having cancer, the first time you talked about it in public, was that you and your girlfriend had recently split up, and like, what are you going to do now?


GROSS: Like, how do you, you know, like who is going to be interested now that like you're really, you know, you're going to be sick...


GROSS: ...which actually it looks like you won't really be sick. It looks like you're going to be in great shape. But anyways, I'm thinking like you are probably getting so many inquiries.


NOTARO: You know, it is...

GROSS: But you're probably just like swamped with people who want to get to know you.

NOTARO: You know, my life has been so - since March when I first got a tickle in my throat and wasn't feeling well, to lying in the hospital...

GROSS: The thing before the pneumonia - right. Yeah.

NOTARO: Yeah. To just getting my bandages off, that was just days ago. Through that whole time, I've been in this crazy capsule. Like just going out to eat I feel like I just got released into the world. I feel so free and excited. And everything negative has birthed amazing and positive things, and enlightening things for me. And people tend to think oh, poor Tig and she's alone and I just - there's just no - nobody should be concerned for me. All is well. And my mother's death brought my stepfather so far out of his normal comfort zone and he has become so emotional and he's reached out to me. And the C. diff is what caused me to realize that I had cancer from checkups from that and my breakup made me realize so much about myself and who I had been dating and who I actually wanted for myself. And the cancer has just been this, just explosive. I'm typically more private and this is something that is pushing me so far out there in a way that has never been. I have no complaints. My life is tremendously wonderful.

GROSS: Well, Tig Notaro, thank you so much for talking with us. And congratulations on your great prognosis. It's just wonderful news.

NOTARO: Thank you. I'm so excited. And thanks so much for having me on.

GROSS: My pleasure.

Tig Notaro's comedy set at the club Largo in LA last August is available for purchase on comic Louis C.K.'s website. He was there the night of the show and thought the set was masterful. He'll tell us why after break. This is FRESH AIR.


TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Earlier in our show, we were talking with comic Tig Notaro about the now famous set she performed last August at the comedy club, Largo in LA, right after she was diagnosed with cancer in each breast. Part of the reason her set became famous is that comic Louis C.K. was there - he also performed that night - and he got the word out when he tweeted this: In 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night. Her set was recorded and he's just released it on his website. We called him to talk about that set. He just won two Emmy Awards for writing, one for his FX comedy series "Louie" and one for is comedy special "Live at the Beacon Theater."

Louis C.K., welcome to FRESH AIR. I know you're on the road now. Thanks for taking some time out with us. First of all, congratulations on your Emmys. That's really wonderful.

LOUIS C.K.: Thank you. That was very fun to get them. Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. So let's talk about Tig's set.

C.K.: OK.

GROSS: Did you already know that she had cancer before you heard the set?

C.K.: No. I didn't know, well, I knew like - I don't know - 60 seconds before. Tig had been sick before.

GROSS: The C. diff infection - C. difficile infection.

C.K.: That's right. And I knew about that. I hadn't seen her during that but I knew as we have a lot of mutual friends who were taking care of her. And so when I called to ask if I could perform at Largo that night, Flanagan, the guy who runs it, said actually Tig's was sick and she could use the help, like she could use somebody to come in and close out for her. And so I thought geez, she's still sick, you know, but I assumed it was the C. diff thing. So I went in and there was Tig and we're standing in the dark next to the stage and she's getting ready to go on. And I said hey, I heard you're sick. I'm sorry. And she said actually, I have cancer. And I was like what? And she said yeah, it's really bad and it's in my whole chest and it's going to go all the way to my lymph nodes and I'm not going to make it, probably. And she started telling me this stuff and, you know, my eyes filled up, I couldn't believe it. And she said I'm going to go talk about it on stage and she had this handful of papers. And I, it was a lot to learn all at once, you know? And then she went on stage and I stood on the wings of the stage and watched the whole set.

GROSS: OK, so she comes out and she says - and no one in the audience knows about the cancer, and she comes out...

C.K.: No.

GROSS: She comes out and she does the whole, you know, good evening. Thank you. I have cancer. Thank you.

C.K.: Mm-hmm. Yup. And she kept saying, it's OK because everyone was upset, people were gasping and crying. And she said it's OK. It's OK. I have cancer. I've never seen anything like it. She was using I have cancer as a soothing thing to say.


GROSS: Yes. Like she's soothing the audience.


C.K.: Yeah.

GROSS: Like and telling this, like, horrible news. So what was your reaction to the audience's reactions? I had asked Tig this question because when she starts doing this whole good evening I have cancer, like some people are just like in shock and they're kind of gasping. But other people like, they're laughing like this is just a regular set. And I know some people are laughing, probably because it's so horrifying they're laughing out of, you know, nervousness and, you know, just not knowing how to respond. But some people, you get the feeling like it's a comedy club. Yeah. Ha.


C.K.: Yes. The most interesting thing was how different reactions were going on in there. There was a woman in the front row who burst into tears, really visibly. And Tig went out into the audience, this is really early in the set.

GROSS: I didn't know that.

C.K.: And she said ma'am, it's OK. It's OK. You're going to be OK. I'm not, but you're going to be OK. And everybody was - it was like somebody had you on the bus and they were jerking the like a joystick forward and back, and side to side, because everybody was doing the same thing. She would say these things and you'd explode in laughter and then you'd realize what it was about and you would gasp and it would choke you back and you'd cry. And I don't think she knew how she was going to do it. She was running by instinct.

GROSS: One of the reasons why this performance got such a huge reaction outside of the people were there was because of your tweet - the tweets where you wrote: In 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great masterful standouts sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.

C.K.: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: From a comic's perspective, what made the set so good?

C.K.: Well, you know, for comedians you see everything. We know all the tricks so it's hard to impress a comedian with comedy. But some people have a sound that's just theirs that's patented. It's kind of like horn players. There's probably times that Charlie Parker would tell John Coltrane, you know, I saw this guy in Chicago you got to hear him. I mean, nobody's doing what this guy is doing. Tig has this really beautiful sound on stage. She has this way of dropping her jokes that are - they're wonderful deadly jokes. And they're about small things usually, like bees and drapes, but they're incredible. So here she is applying it to something really big. It was an incredible example of what comedy is good at, which is taking people to the scary parts of their mind and making them laugh in those scary places. That's a great gift. And some of us do it through calculation or through repetition and, kind of, like, you know, focusing on a bit and refining it. Tig just went up there with her voice and in front of us she processed her own death, her own imminent death, with humor, with comedy, which is this very pure oxygen-rich environment.

You know, she did something about looking at a picture of herself when she was five and saying to this cute little picture, you're going to get cancer. And we're all going, oh my god. And I never - for me, I kept - I was crying and laughing the whole time and hearing the audience lurching back and forth, exploding, then hushed - totally hushed - and then exploding again. It's like I never saw anything like it, the way that she controlled it.

GROSS: So I love your description of her set and what comedy at its best can do. I just want to say for anybody tuning in now that Tig is actually not dying, that she's had a double mastectomy, and they think they got all the cancer and they told her there's - the doctors told her there's only a 7 percent chance of recurrence. So she's actually - considering what's happened to her, she's in a good place right now.

C.K.: That's right.

GROSS: So I just want to make that clear to anybody just tuning in. So did you ever see a set that tried to do something similar to what Tig did? In other words, tried to take something very personal, very confessional and very frightening and bomb, you know? And so instead of it being this kind of like miraculous set where, like, people are experiencing, like, laughter and grief at the same time and are processing what's being said on a very deep level, it's just, like, not working at all, even though the comic's just, like, bleeding on stage.


C.K.: Well, sometimes comics will go to dark areas, and they'll either go there by stripping away the real sentiment and just playing with the really refined darkness of the situation, and they'll purposely edit out any emotion about it. And that's something you can do to get laughs about a dark thing. Other people will really delve into the pathos of something, and then the crowd just goes quiet.

I've never seen somebody try it for a whole set. That would be hard. But I've seen people go to - stray into, you know, sad, dark territory where it gets quiet and it stops being comedy for a minute. And some people do that, and it's OK. I saw a guy once have sort of - reenact a nervous breakdown onstage to show everybody what it was like, and it was just - it was very hard to watch, and it didn't connect for the audience.

The thing that Tig was doing was something I haven't seen, which is telling you what it feels like to just have learned this, and she's not complaining. She's just observing. You know, it's like that thing Jodie Foster says in "Contact." She says they should've sent a poet. Like, they sent - somebody sent Tig as a great comic poet to this place, to this precipice of life and death, and she reported beautifully what it feels like in a way that was so selfless and so grateful for life that it was funny, that it wasn't just pathetic or sad. You know, some people go up there and they complain about just the way they're treated by customer service and they sound like they're complaining more than she did. You know?



C.K.: It's, like, I called American Airlines today, and here's what happened. And they'll complain, and they don't sound the way Tig did. So, you know, I was proud of the way she was processing her tough news, and I was also proud of the way she was giving it to people, something they're going to get from it and that audience got, especially, and I got, which is if you have this funny explosion of laughter in the scariest, scariest depths of your fears, next time you see that fear again, you're going to remember the laugh. It's going to be there for you.

GROSS: Did you ever have - did you ever do a set yourself that was similar to what she did in the sense of breaking really bad news before you'd even told it to many friends, bad news that you had just gotten?

C.K.: You know, I feel like I have. I'm trying to remember. Because I always found the audience in stand-up to be a great friend. I always feel strong on stage, and I feel supported and I feel happy on stage. So when I was going through some things in my life, like divorce, I found being on stage and being able to say just what was on my mind was a huge help. And the audience - as long as they were laughing. I never would've stood there and just made them listen to some misery.

But I do think it developed the way I did during some tough transitions in my life. I talked about it on the stage, and that kind of got me to where I am with the way I talk on stage now, because I'm able to go back and forth.

GROSS: My guest is comic Louis C.K. We've been talking about Tig Notaro's comedy set about being diagnosed with cancer. He's just released a recording of it on his website. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is comic Louis C.K. He's on the road performing his latest stand-up show.

You're kind of branching out on your site. Like, you're on the road now. You're on a comedy tour.

C.K.: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you're selling tickets to your shows exclusively on your site, and you give two reasons for it. One is to avoid the added-on fees that are charged by ticket-selling places - ticket agents is, I guess, the expression. And the other...

C.K.: Yeah.

GROSS: to prevent scalping.

C.K.: Right.

GROSS: Just talk a little bit about the fees, like, how big they are and why you want to avoid them.

C.K.: OK. Well, comedy tickets roughly run from, like, you know, $25 to - depending on the comedian. Some comedians, it's like 25 to $45 a ticket, and some comedians are like 45 to $100. The fees, I don't know how they concoct them, but they're extremely high. There are some tickets where the fees are like $18 for, like, a, I don't know, a $60 ticket. That's, like, a third of the price.

I saw a $25 comedian ticket where the fee was $12. That's 50 percent. It's enormous. You know, congratulations to the people that are able to charge it and they're getting it. But what it creates is a possibility that, jeez, I bet folks would like to pay less. I decided in 2008 to start dropping my ticket prices instead of going up. The natural thing is to keep going up, but I reached this critical mass place where I realized I'm making enough money doing stand-up.

So if I drop tickets down a little bit - a recession just happened. I don't want people to be in pain to come see me. I want it to be an easy thing for them. So I'll drop ticket prices. And what happened when I dropped the ticket prices was first it didn't make much impact because the fees were so high, and, second, the scalping became more prevalent for my tickets because they were cheap to buy for scalpers.

GROSS: Yeah. How does scalping work nowadays?

C.K.: I don't know everything about it, but here's what I know. There's people who have a setup. They have, like - you know, some ticket companies say you can only buy a certain amount of tickets. So they have, like, you know, a thousand credit cards and they have either highly manned or automated systems where they're sitting there with their credit cards ready because they know the tickets are going on sale at 10 AM...

GROSS: I see.

C.K.: ...exactly whatever it is. August 4th, 10 AM, tickets to this show are going on sale. The guy's sitting there with, like, 50 people on phones, and they immediately start buying...

GROSS: I see.

C.K.: ...or on the Internet. And then they have those tickets. That's their currency. And they sit there - it's like a commodity. They mark it up and up and up as the show gets closer. And all we did was not tell anybody when it was going on sale. We also - we hired two people who used to be scalpers...


C.K.: ...who figured out credit card patterns, and whenever we find a ticket that was bought by a scalper, we contact them and we tell them this ticket has been moved to Will Call, which means you have to show up in person as the ticket buyer with the credit card to pick up the ticket. You can't print it at home. And so that ruins that person's ability to sell it.

So every time we've done that, the scalper starts yelling and cursing at us, and they say scalping's not illegal, man. And we go, well, I know. We're just beating you because it's fun and we like to get our - that ticket now gets to go to a fan for $45. You know, we just saved somebody $200. So it's fun. I like doing this.

And also, when I first announced the tour in the press, I told people you shouldn't buy scalper tickets, because they may be deactivated by the time you get to the show because we have the power to do that. And that really hurt the scalper market a lot, just the perception that our tickets are not - may not be good.

GROSS: All right. Louis C.K. fights back.


C.K.: You know, it's worth it. They can make tickets on Garth Brooks or whatever it is. They can make money on plenty of people. They don't need my fans' money to live.

GROSS: So I want to get back to your tweet about Tig Notaro.

C.K.: Yes.

GROSS: When you said, you know, I've seen a handful of truly great masterful stand-up sets, one was Tig Notaro.

C.K.: Uh-huh.

GROSS: So what were some of the others?

C.K.: Bill Cosby in Montreal 2010, I think, not that long ago. It was a two-hour show, which is - I can't do two hours. He told four stories that just ripped your guts out with laughter and were easy to get through. And then he said to the guy in the front row, what time is it? And the guy said nine o'clock. It was a seven o'clock show. And everybody realized, jeez, it's been two hours. He did two hours. It was nothing.

And then he told his dentist story and went home. That was it. I'd never seen anything like it. He had 500 ways to get a laugh, and he also was elegant and gentle with his age, you know, and that was probably the best set I've seen overall, two hours of just mastery. I saw George Carlin at the Comedy Store in L.A. getting ready for a set. That was pretty amazing.

I used to open for Jerry Seinfeld when I was, like, 19, 20 years old, and I used to stand on the wings of the stage and watch him do concerts. This is before he had a show, but he already was a concert comedian. The way Jerry runs a theater show is unbelievable. If you ever get a chance to see Jerry Seinfeld in a theater, you have to do it. It's a thing that no one else can do like him. The consistency of his ability on the stage is really stunning.

Chris Rock at Caroline's in New York when he had done "Saturday Night Live," kind of bottomed out of it and disappeared for two years. Nobody knew where Chris Rock was for, like, two years. Where he was was on the road doing hard, hard shows, getting back his stand-up mojo and growing up into a man.

And then he came back to New York, and we all went to see him. This is when he was doing his specials like "Bring the Pain" and stuff. Right before those came out, I saw Chris showcase that material at Caroline's, and he did a set that ran a chill through my body. It made me almost quit stand-up comedy.

GROSS: Wow. Some people say when they heard Charlie Parker, they're giving up.


C.K.: Yeah. That's what - at the end of Chris' set, the audience was standing and applauding. And there was one bankhead of seats of comedians that were sitting with our elbows on our knees and our heads in our hands. All of us, like, six of us, just going oh, God.


C.K.: Like you thought you were good. It's like we were all running the 400 at, like, you know, a minute, and we all thought we are the fastest people alive. And then this guy shows up and does it in 20 seconds. And you're, like, I didn't even know a human being could do that. It's not fair.

GROSS: Well, Louis C.K., thanks so much for talking with us.

C.K.: Thank you.

GROSS: And congratulations again on those Emmys. I wish you a good tour.

C.K.: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Louis C.K. spoke to us from the road. He's on tour with his latest stand-up show. Earlier, we heard from comic Tig Notaro. Louis C.K. released a recording of her stand-up set about getting diagnosed with cancer on his website. You can find a link to another Tig Notaro performance, the one she gave last May on "This American Life," on our Tumbler: I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue