Q&A With Comedian Tig Notaro

Showtime documentary airs Friday

In the documentary Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro, co-directors Michael LaHaie and Christopher Wilcha film comedian Tig Notaro as she travels around the country with fellow comic Jon Dore, performing in backyards, small living rooms, and cornfields.

The Chronicle spoke with Notaro by phone shortly before the film premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March. (Read original story, “This Comic Does House Calls,” March 13.) Knock Knock debuts on Showtime on Friday, April 17.

Tig Notaro (courtesy sho.com)

The Austin Chronicle: I heard you used to live in Austin?

Tig Notaro: Yeah, over 20 years ago, maybe for a year and a half. Something like that.

AC: Was that during the time when Chances – the lesbian bar – was around?

TN: Maybe. I’m not the best bar person.

AC: Let’s chat about the special: One of the interesting things about it is that it vacillates between you performing stand-up at nontraditional venues (people’s homes, farmland, etc.) and traveling in the car with your opening act, Jon Dore. What’s your relationship with him; when did that begin?

TN: I saw Jon perform in Portland probably four or five years ago and I was blown away – he’s one of the funniest people living and breathing on this planet right now. We became friends immediately, we had a mutual admiration for each other, and to this day he’s one of my favorite comedians to watch. He really amuses me. We have really fun banter offstage as well. He’s up for anything in any moment, so I thought he’d be a perfect person to bring along. When I got this special I wanted to include somebody to come along; he’s the first person I thought of.

AC: It seems like your friendship deepened along the journey, just like anybody who goes on a long journey with someone else is bound to – well, either that or implode. But it seems like your banter and relationship evolved. Would that be accurate to say?

TN: Um, yeah. We were already pretty close beforehand, but I’m sure there’s some degree of closeness we reached after that experience together. I think that’s fair – you can’t help but become closer.

AC: Instead of a traditional stand-up film, most of the material that made the cut is entirely improvised and jump-started by some moment of audience interaction. How do you build the confidence to cede that control to audience members?

TN: It’s like any show – I don’t go in with any sort of expectation. I didn’t think of these shows as – even though they are house concerts – I didn’t go in with that feeling. I went in wanting to have a fun show. There was no power struggle for me or anything like that. I just looked at it like any other show and hoped for the best. There’s certainly an awkward element to it because it’s not at a normal show – people go in with expectations, and fears, and concerns, and ideas – but it’s just me delivering what I think is funny to a group of people and there happens to be a house cat nearby. It really shouldn’t be different than a club, but I didn’t think much about any of that.

AC: You have a gift for improvising with what the audience gives you. Other comedians might be aggressive or defensive, but you seem to have a light touch. Is that a skill you’ve had to foster or have you always been attuned in that way?

TN: You can’t help but get better with what you do over time, and as you do it over and over. I’ve gone through different ideas on how to deal with an audience. I like to remain open; I think it accomplishes more, whether I’m having an awkward set, or a bad set, or the audience didn’t like me. It’s like any relationship off the stage, if you stay open to it and let it unfold and breathe, let it have its say and you have your say. I’ve never been someone who wanted to fight with an audience; I’m sure in my early days there were shows where I was combative and defensive. But just two nights ago I did a show in Tucson, it was so much fun. So much fun! But there was a woman in the second row center who wasn’t smiling and at the end of the show I said, “I feel like maybe you didn’t enjoy yourself tonight.” And she said, “No, I didn’t.” And I said, “Oh, why’s that?” and she said, “I don’t know, I just don’t think you’re funny.”

AC: Whoa, that’s honest.

TN: Yeah. I said, “OK, I guess I’m not for everyone. Typically people that come to my shows are fans of mine.” She pointed to the person next to her and said, “Well, I came with her.” And the crowd started to get upset and I said ,“Honestly, I’m not offended at all. I clearly have the support and attention of an entire theatre; I’m more just fascinated by you.” And I’m being honest, it did not hurt my feelings in the slightest bit. It was just fascinating.

AC: What made that show special?

TN: A vibe of everyone connecting and the momentum of the crowd and laughter carried really well. It was a little distracting having someone look miserable – I did an hour and a half show, which is a sizable performance. I told my girlfriend about that moment later – she wasn’t there – and she told me, “You know that’s fine if you want to be open to people, but that’s just rude to you. I don’t think that’s appropriate.” And I said, “Yeah, sure, but also I’m going to make more of an impact on someone like that if I remain open to them.” And by the end of the show she did say that I had won her over. I just feel very lucky to do what I do. I just don’t care if people don’t like me. [laughs] It just doesn’t matter.

AC: Do you have the same attitude when you’re doing your podcast, Professor Blastoff? Remaining open and fluid?

TN: Yeah, for sure, you have to. We get criticism all the time. We should have an expert on certain topics, for example, or we were wrong about something. It’s funny to me because we’re just friends sitting around talking. We are not specialists. More than anything we hope our listeners stay open and never forget that we are just three friends who they get to eavesdrop on every week. We are not claiming to be right; we are not claiming to be knowledgeable, even!

AC: It’s funny, because that’s what the podcast genre is all about in a way! I feel like you shouldn’t have to make that disclaimer…

TN: Right, but we get complaints. Even this week a friend of ours died from a heroin overdose, and so we sat around and talked about addiction. We had a comedian friend come on who was open about having a problem with alcohol and we were sitting around talking about that very casually. And our sadness and the loss of Harris Wittels. And people wrote in to say that we should have had someone in with a clinical perspective on addiction. We should have a specialist. But we were just talking about addiction, truly that’s all it is, and sharing feelings.

AC: And how it affects each of you, how you’re processing something like a death.

TN: Yes. But even still this isn’t a class people paid thousands of dollars for. And if you don’t like what you hear, you should definitely not listen.

AC: I have a question about the gig that ends the special – the gig in Pluto, Mississippi. It was lovely. Everything was there – music, kids, people seemed to make an event of it. And because of that it was sweet. I’m wondering what you’ve observed in performing in places that rarely anyone plays a show in, much less visits?

TN: I feel like people are so thankful when you go to a town that most people skip over. People are typically so thankful for live performance in their town – so thankful for a free podcast – I think it’s really more so when you hit a town that has a population of seven people. It is such a beautiful moment in the film – it’s so beautifully shot. Mississippi is an easy target to rip on, but it’s obvious that audience was so excited and loving. There were gay couples there. It was the wildest experience to perform on this farm in Mississippi with such appreciation, love, and openness. It was just really fun.

AC: So that gig sticks with you?

TN: Oh for sure. It really stuck out to me, even though I think the whole film is beautifully shot – there’s just something so gorgeous about that.

AC: Yeah, you’re performing in the transition from day to evening, it’s a nice closer. But there’s another moment in the film I feel I need to ask you about, which is the moment you and Jon Dore visit a combination roadside tombstone and fireworks shop. Jon buys a tombstone for you after an extended discussion of graveyard aesthetics. So I’m wondering if you still have it and if you’ve given any thought to what might go on it.

TN: Well you know that moment in the film – we thought it was so funny to have a tombstone/firecracker store…

AC: And there were hardly even any firecrackers!

TN: And all these little posters of kittens! It was really such a fun place. We ended up buying a tombstone from him for like $300 or whatever it was, but I’m sorry to tell you we ended up leaving the tombstone – we more paid him for his time. So I actually don’t have the tombstone.

AC: It’s probably better that way.

TN: We didn’t want to waste his time and leave – so we joked around and bought the tombstone and then… took off.

Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro debuts on Showtime on Friday, April 17, at 9pm ET/PT. See TV listings for additional airdates.

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