Telling Stories: Cancer, Comedy, And Going There / by Josh Guess

I'm not just a writer, I'm also a comedy nerd. I love language and telling stories as things alone, but to me comedy is a perfect example of blending language and storytelling into an experience that creates a reaction. What I try to do with words on a page, comedians do with their tone of voice, body language, and a dozen other little things.

I've been trying to work all afternoon and evening and have little to show for it. A little while ago I took a break to listen to a stand-up routine I bought from my favorite comedian of all time, Louis CK. It isn't his performance. It's an audio track by a friend of his, fellow comedian Tig Notaro.

Louis posted this tweet not long after watching Tig's set:

in 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.

Sixty seconds before the set, Tig told Louis that she had cancer, was probably going to die, and had lost her mother not long before. "I'm going to go up there and talk about it," she said. "It's probably going to be a mess."

I listened. It wasn't.

She took to the stage and did something really unique. By bluntly confronting the tragedy in her life, not complaining but seeking an honesty with her audience I've never heard of much less seen, Tig Notaro gave what was probably the performance of her life. Louis called it masterful, and it was. She made me laugh when I didn't want to even through tears.

She walked up to the curtain between life and death, threw it open for those of us who have never really faced that kind of tragedy, and taught us something about grace and humor in the worst possible situation.

Her ability to keep the audience with her through the whole thing was nothing short of miraculous. The talent Tig displayed in taking something like cancer, the death of a loved one, and other awful experiences (all true, at that) and making us laugh at it--amazing. Really, truly amazing.

I'm fascinated in the mechanics of comedy. That's part of why I love Louis so much; he's a comedian's comedian. He understands the deeper currents of confronting people's fears and doubts and pointing out the absurdity in our own shame. Comedy is about dealing with fear and anxiety. The best comedians can make you look hard at yourself by using themselves as a mirror.

The trick is making us laugh at what we see. Louis does this well. Tig Notaro did it in her set better than anyone. Period.

She did it with humility and raw emotion, and I want more than anything to give her a hug. To tell her how much I hope she does well. To thank her for an experience I can't get out of my head.

But I can't. So I wrote this. It's a sad imitation and she'll probably never read it, but if I can convince even one person out there to buy the special and hear what I heard, felt what I felt, I'll have done at least some small good.

The link is here. I can't be clear enough that you should click on it.