While watching Tig Notaro’s new hourlong standup special, I couldn’t help but think of another comedian who’s currently experiencing a career peak. In Joel Lovell’s stellar GQ profile, Stephen Colbert expounds on the role of discomfort in his life: “I like to do things that are publicly embarrassing,” he tells Lovell, “to feel the embarrassment touch me and sink into me and then be gone. I like getting on elevators and singing too loudly in that small space.” This idea’s role in Colbert’s comedy is obvious. But in Boyish Girl Interrupted, Notaro might just embrace Colbert’s life philosophy even more than Colbert.
Notaro thrives on discomfort like it’s oxygen, or maybe jet fuel: toxic to mere mortals, in Notaro’s hands it’s a pure, propulsive life force. She even says as much herself, during a bit about a TSA agent in disbelief about her gender, post-double mastectomy: “I knew that all I needed to do was speak, and then she’d know that I was female,” Notaro smirks. “But I just did not want to help her out at all. I was enjoying the awkwardness so much!”
In her act, this worldview manifests in jokes dare the audience to be mortified on Notaro’s behalf, even as her deadly calm delivery tells them she sure isn’t. That’s part of what made Live, the 2012 special praised by Louis CK as one of the best he’s ever seen, such a perfect—if horrific—collision of comedian and material: Notaro opens by bluntly announcing she has cancer, a buzzkill if there ever was one, and steamrolls her audience from there. By the end of her half-hour set, the audience’s laughter shifts from nervous to genuine.
Boyish Girl Interrupted is dedicated to Notaro’s mother, whose sudden death takes up much of both Live and its follow-up Netflix documentary, Tig. But with the exception of one radical set-piece I won’t spoil except to say it’ll make up most of Sunday’s feel-good Internet headlines (“Tig Notaro Did Something Powerful in Her New Special; Click Through to Find Out What!”) the stand-up’s trials are mostly relegated to the background here — not ignored, but simply incorporated as a fact of life. One joke revolves around Notaro’s fiancée meeting her family… and visiting her mother’s grave. The TSA bit brings up her mastectomy… to joke about her gender ambiguity, which was part of her act years before the cancer. Even when she discusses her illness directly, it’s as a meta reference to her own career. “I was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer,” she deadpans, “but I haven’t told anybody yet. You’re the first people to find out.”
The bulk of Boyish Girl Interrupted, taped at Boston’s Wilbur Theater in May, focuses instead on everyday absurdities. Notaro doesn’t just love social awkwardness, she cherishes it, picking it apart until one man’s one-sentence anecdote — “One time I walked around all day with a chocolate mustache on my face,” say — becomes another woman’s 12-minute epic of self-humiliation. This special establishes Notaro as a master of the anecdote, plus the comedic timing and reactive facial expressions that make for a great one. (Notaro’s flat affect means she’s not known as a physical comedian; anyone who sees her pantomime of eating an ice cream cone will be quickly disabused of that notion.)
The rest of Notaro’s bits are observational, analyzing laughter, airplane safety protocol, and public pool signage like they’re Derrida texts. She takes such joy in embarrassment, in fact, that even when she’s not powering through it herself, she’s either inventing someone who is — the kind of person who needs a sign to tell them not to go swimming with diarrhea, for example — or recommending it to her audience. “I have a gift for you all, something that brings me a lot of joy,” she announces, in one of the special’s many jokes that’s been test-driven on late night. “I love sending text messages to friends of mine at random times of the day that just say—’What’s your ETA?'”
It’s the performer’s confidence required to revel in these jokes that strikes the casual viewer. Simply surviving what Notaro has is inspirational in and of itself, of course. But Boyish Girl Interrupted puts the machinery required to translate those experiences into great comedy on full display. It’s almost awe-inspiring. But mostly, it’s funny.
Boyish Girl Interrupted airs Saturday, August 22nd at 10 pm on HBO.