'Those were real tears': Tig Notaro on turning her year of cancer and loss into the sitcom 'One Mississippi'

'Those were real tears': Tig Notaro on turning her year of cancer and loss into the sitcom 'One Mississippi'
Tig Notaro in Los Angeles, a few days before the debut of her new Amazon comedy "One Mississippi." (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Tig Notaro has been busy. Since the 2012 standup set at L.A.'s Largo that began, "Hello. Good evening, hello. I have cancer" turned her overnight from a working comic to a famous one, the circumstances of a very bad year — a near-fatal intestinal infection, the sudden death of her mother and a diagnosis of invasive breast cancer — have become an album, a documentary film (Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York's 2015 "Tig"), a book, "I'm Just a Person" (Ecco); and now a television series, "One Mississippi." While this was happening, she fell in love, got married, and in June became the mother of twin boys.

Created by Notaro and "Juno" screenwriter Diablo Cody and executive produced by Louis C.K., "One Mississippi," which premieres Friday on Amazon, semi-fictionally tells the story of Notaro's return home, while still ill, to her mother's deathbed and the house of a remote and quirky stepfather. It is also a small-town comedy, with romance.


I spoke with Notaro on the eve of her series' premiere.

Were there other possible sitcoms in your past? Ones where you played, say, a librarian, or owned a motorcycle shop?

Not at all. I really got into stand-up for stand-up and I never really noticed the pattern that stand-up comedians had their own sitcoms. I remember when I got out to Los Angeles people kept asking, "What do you ultimately want? What's your sitcom?" "My sitcom? What do you mean?"

This period in your life has provided material for a stand-up performance, a documentary, a book, a situation comedy. Each time you approach it from a different angle do you learn something new about your life and yourself?

Yeah. Through stand-up I learned that sharing and vulnerability and asking for help was empowering. With my book, the concrete thing I realized was that my girlfriend, who I went through all that with, in a lot of ways saved my life. We had not really ended on very bad terms — it was just unfortunate timing because right after we split up I was diagnosed and right after I was diagnosed I went viral. It just fed itself in this weird way and put a wedge between us. And toward the end of writing the book, I was like [strikes her chair to make the sound of an epiphany], "This person basically saved my life." I ran into her a few months ago and it was so nice to see her. We didn't have that wedge anymore and I was able to tell her that.

Tig Notaro with John Rothman in Amazon Studios' "One Mississippi."
Tig Notaro with John Rothman in Amazon Studios' "One Mississippi." (Amazon Studios)

People are like, 'Oh, that was such good acting.' I'm like, 'I wasn't acting. That was really heavy for me.'

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With the TV show there was a lot of reflecting on, "Yes, that's my mother, yes, that's my brother, that's my stepfather, but who are these people to everyone else?" And of course I know that my mother is somebody's daughter and somebody else's mother, but it really hit me in a way. Also seeing my stepfather's pain — even though moments were created — I still think there's insight I was able to access.

The series reshuffles the reality a bit.

The timeline's totally off, and a lot of events are fictionalized. One of the fun parts of doing the show was letting go of reality. It was really hard to do that, because everything I had done up to that point — my stand-up set, the documentary, the book, everything — was so "This. Is. What. Happened." And then to go into the show … you can't really find people that look exactly like or act exactly like [the real people].  Although the actress, Rya [Kihlstedt], who plays my mother, is my mother. I can't wait for friends and family to see her. It was like, "How am I going to find somebody that beautiful, passionate, powerful, funny, cool, stylish, somebody who will destroy you in a handshake — there's no way." And then she walked in.

There was no sense at all that you were betraying the actual experience by making it into a sitcom?

No. A lot of the deals that came about in my life, from the book, to movie, album, TV show, happened so long ago. It's really just this old story. I felt I could go anywhere with it. Because the book's out there, the album's out there, the documentary's out there.

When you were reliving the death of your mother for the camera, was that hard or odd in any way?

It was definitely hard. People ask me, how did I prepare? And I don't prepare — I try my best to learn the lines, but I'm not somebody coming from acting school. I don't know what's going to happen when they call "action." And I didn't have to prepare; when I was at my mother's funeral in the pilot, those were real tears. People are like, "Oh, that was such good acting." I'm like, "I wasn't acting. That was really heavy for me." And then there are moments that happen between me and Rya, the actress playing my mother, that never happened, and they were so emotional to do because she really embodies my mother, and I really felt like I had time with her.

Does "One Mississippi" mark the end of this chapter in your work?

I can't imagine I have another comedy special about it or album or movie. I don't really feel the need to tell the story again. Even though it's still something I still struggle with — losing a parent, you just don't move on from it. It hits you in ways and at moments you don't expect. But I had a unique opportunity to express myself in all those different ways; I feel lucky for it. I can't believe people kept listening, but I did have a lot to say, and it coincided with a lot of offers that came up and obligations I had to see through. And I feel proud of them all.


Is there a direction you want to head in now?

I don't think too much about it. When I go onstage it feels very free to me, and I think that freedom allowed me to announce I had cancer, and the freedom to take my shirt off, and to do anything. I mainly just want to stick with that to see what comes up naturally. But I don't feel like I need to top anything, or that I have to play into anything, or really try that hard to figure out what's next because I feel the 20 years I've been doing this have proved that there is always something next. Stand-up is just such a passion for me, it's almost like two different people in that I'm like, "I'm curious too — I don't know what's out there."


'One Mississippi'

Where: Amazon Video

When: Anytime starting Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

On Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd