Courtesy photo by Bob Chamberlin.

Comedy

Tig Notaro Plays It Painfully Safe at the Texas Theatre

After Notaro vowed to avoid politics in her performance, it proved impossible to take the comedian seriously.

Tig Notaro can lead her fans into the smallest moment onstage and keep them there. She’s able to harp on an understatement or mute the ridiculous like few other popular comedians, in feats of control — a fascinating command of herself and her own body, and a gently asserted control of an audience smitten with Notaro’s childlike classicism.

Live, this dissonance of performance and reception feels at times like watching mumblecore with a blaring laugh track. That effect, for me, was augmented, since I laughed at only one joke during Notaro’s entire set at the Texas Theatre on Saturday as the audience roared around me, an observer among devoted Tig fans.

That metric means nothing about the quality of her performance. The sold-out crowd adored Notaro, as she is in many ways adorable. The joke I’m referring to illustrates this perfectly, the most evocative moment of the set: Notaro took us inside the home she shares with Stephanie Allyne, just after their wedding. Bows from gifts were strewn across the floor upstairs, the sweet debris of a union that sparkles through Notaro’s material. A union mediated, at first, by their cat, Fluff.

“When we would go to bed [Fluff] would drag – what I started to call ‘night-night ribbons’ – she would drag her night-night ribbons down the stairs to the end of the hallway, and then she’d place them at the foot of our bed, and just be like, ‘Here you go – you get some rest.’”

Tig, the cooler of the cat moms, picks up the amassed pile of night-night ribbons and dangles them over Fluff. She acts out this rapturous play onstage, blading her hands in a slight curve (Fluff’s paws) and staring wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the ceiling (Fluff’s head, her “walnut brain” inside) while batting imaginary streamers. It’s a dance no one wants to end. Enters Stephanie, who stops short with a word of caution:

“Be careful of her neck.”

Tig recoils at the suggestion Fluff could be hanged by night-night ribbon. Stephanie walks into a scene of unrivaled cuteness, and this is what she has to say?

It was a tender scene, punctuated with absurdity, and it was funny. Stephanie and her questions as Tig relays them enriched the performance with a certain delightful substance, a relative agitation. “Can a bee sting another bee?” Stephanie asks, out of nowhere, in one anecdote. She warns Tig to stop meowing at Fluff, because Tig “doesn’t know what she’s saying.”

I was able to laugh at the night-night ribbons story and smile at those others because, in a roundabout way, Stephanie gave voice to a concern — no, outrage — that settled in me with Notaro’s introduction and didn’t ever lift.

She opened her set with a disclaimer: she’s not usually a politically involved person, but lately, she’s wanted to change that.

“I’m just going to carry a sign around with me that says, ‘Yeah, Totally,’” she said.

And an aside:

“And that’s the last of my political material for tonight.”

She opened her set with a disclaimer: she’s not usually a politically involved person, but lately, she’s wanted to change that.

The crowd cheered, some voices more pronounced than others. I heard individual articulations of relief, the same kind shared by people who pleaded with their circles to not talk politics at the Thanksgiving table this year. As if that confrontation is what we should be afraid of; as if fatigue from all these political demonstrations is the problem.  

I was thrown, looking around a venue with such a provocative history and present sitting right at the intersection of the personal and the political. The Texas Theatre is a haven where you can watch an Oscar-nominated short film with one other person in the seats and the next night shoulder through a pool of strangers toward the stage at a concert behind the screen. This creates a very fertile space for specific associations and memories, and causes one to feel strange at describing, for an out-of-towner who would love it, “the place where Oswald was arrested for the assassination of President Kennedy.” It’s a landmark that holds treasure and immense fracture.

It’s in no way the job of any performer to address the grief of those marginalized that’s been stoked by Trump’s election, or the spiritual war being fought by water protectors at Standing Rock — you know, all that political stuff. But for someone as brave as Notaro, who once did standup bare-chested to reveal her mastectomy scars onstage, to be so dismissive of physical, political or social action in the very prefacing and framing of her set kind of blew me over.

And indeed there was very little, at all, afterward, that could even be considered political or social commentary — except for a joke about her almost proposing while nurses moved her onto a bedpan, and how that could’ve provided basis for the disgust of homophobes in the room. Notaro’s freedom to go there — and to not go other places — is one I respect. Her introduction, though, and the response of the audience, set a tone of complacency that has me feeling unsettled still as I write.

Louis C.K., one of Notaro’s original encouragers, was in Dallas the day after the election. A friend at the show texted me afterward, impressed with how the comedian handled such staggering pressure, made the most of it. He dissected white privilege, institutional racism, and social media activism, and, as my friend put it, reflected the things “swirling around — even by making himself unlikable.”

That’s why C.K. can do both the personal and the political so well. His work is less about inviting us into his home, and more about building one around us all — a home where serious questions are welcome, even when the answers are a joke.

Comments

  • Mike Renfro

    What a shit article. The comedian didn’t pander to you and keep your echo chamber going so you write this garbage, that’s pathetic.