Tig Notaro and the art of chaining yourself inside a water tank

The standup comic talks acting, digging holes onstage, getting pandemic perspective and more before her set at the Southern Theatre on Sunday, Jan. 16

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Tig Notaro

Tig Notaro revels in confusion. Throughout the comedian’s standup act, she tells stories about uncomfortable situations, which Notaro often purposefully creates. She loves going to parties where she knows no one and tossing off deadpan comments like, “Just to let you know, I’m going to bed in 10 minutes.” She sometimes pretends to look for an imaginary dog, and even gives it a name (Mitsy). The more bewildered looks the better. 

Often, the audience is the mark. In one elongated bit from a previous tour and TV special ("Happy to Be Here"), Notaro ends her set by introducing the Indigo Girls onstage over and over again, leaving the crowd perplexed and wondering if the duo is actually there or not. (No spoilers here.) The longer it goes, the more Notaro seems to enjoy herself.

“Each show, I don't know if people are going to go along on that Indigo Girls bit. It's not like that's a proven [thing]. There's moments where people are like, ‘Come on.’ But that's part of the fun. ... When people are truly like, ‘OK, I don't know what's happening right now,’ to me it's so fun to put people in that situation,” Notaro said recently by phone. “My mother was very funny, and she did a lot of pranks, and so that might be the influence.”

The challenge, then, is to turn that confusion into comedy. “It’s my own weird hole that I start digging myself into,” said Notaro, who brings her "Hello Again" tour to the Southern Theatre on Sunday, Jan. 16. “And then it's like I’m an escape artist: How the hell am I going to get out of this? And I think the audience is feeling that way, too. It’s kind of like watching somebody chained up in a water tank. And I don't know why I do that to myself, but it's fun. … It's not this routine of the same thing over and over.”

The last 10 years of Notaro’s life have been anything but routine. In 2012, she turned a breast cancer diagnosis into a now-legendary bit of comedy onstage at Largo in Los Angeles. After a double mastectomy and a life-threatening intestinal disease, she married actress and writer Stephanie Allynne, who later give birth to the couple’s twin boys. Throughout all of that, her career took off, including more standup specials (“Boyish Girl Interrupted” on HBO and “Happy to Be Here” on Netflix), an Amazon TV series (“One Mississippi”), a documentary (Netflix’s “Tig”), a recent animated comedy special on HBO (“Drawn”) and lots of acting gigs.

More:Tig Notaro on getting comfy with her mastectomy and her newfound love of minivans

“I didn't see that coming,” said Notaro, who starred in zombie heist film “Army of the Dead” last year and filmed another season of “Star Trek: Discovery,” not to a mention forthcoming movie with Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher (“Your Place or Mine”), a ghost movie in New Orleans (“We Have a Ghost”) and a musical filmed in Mexico based on the songs of the Indigo Girls (“Glitter & Doom”).  

For many of these projects, Notaro collaborates with Allynne; the couple recently co-directed a movie starring Dakota Johnson that will premiere at Sundance this year. But Notaro said the work-life balance with a spouse and creative partner hasn’t proved to be an obstacle at home. “It doesn't really feel like work,” she said. “It feels like using your imagination with your friend when you're a kid. [We’re] writing and doing ridiculous things together and then also raising kids and traveling the world. It's beyond anything I ever imagined for myself, honestly.” 

Notaro, who turned 50 last year, also launched two podcasts during the pandemic ("Don't Ask Tig" and "Tig and Cheryl: True Story"), which gave her an outlet for comedy when performances weren’t possible and also provided a way to connect with others during a time of isolation.  

The pandemic also gave her a new perspective on the value of comedy. “Over the years, I would always hear people say that I'm doing a public service — that comedians are like doctors. And I never really took that to heart,” she said. “But it was in the pandemic that I realized how much people need to laugh. … It makes me have a bit more pride around it, whereas before I just felt like a ridiculous clown that's confusing people onstage and then going home to my family, which, it's still that. But I do understand that it's not all like, ‘Oh, it's so fun to laugh!’ Sometimes it’s more like, ‘God, I needed that.’” 

In that vein, Notaro doesn’t include pandemic-related material on the "Hello Again" tour. “I'm wanting to talk about something else, and I hope people are ready to hear about something other than the pandemic,” she said. “I've only been onstage four or five times in the past two years, so I don't know what people are laughing at. I hope it's me chained up in the bottom of a water tank.”