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Tig Notaro's TV Show Is Great Because She Nearly Died

The comedian's new semi-autobiographical show is a moving, darkly funny look at death, double mastectomies, and intestinal disease.

by Ilana Masad
Sep 15 2016, 4:30pm

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

Tig Notaro is not a quick comedian. She doesn't jump from joke to joke in her standup. She speaks slowly, measuring her words, sometimes as if she's coming up with what to say on the spot and thinking hard about whether she's going to land the punchline or not. She's physical, hunching over, reaching out, shuffling sideways, always patient, trusting her audience to stay with her.

Her sense of timing makes the title of her new Amazon series, One Mississippi, which came out last Friday, absolutely apt. Timing is, after all, essential for a comedian. As Notaro said in her now famous live show, "The equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy." She added, "I am just at tragedy." But the roars that greeted her at every turn during that set prove that the equation is actually tragedy plus Tig Notaro equals laughter. This second formula is the key to the success of One Mississippi.

The trials and tribulations that ground the show are semi-autobiographical. Notaro takes the events of her life, which she's written and talked about extensively in her book (I'm Just a Person), her Netflix documentary (Tig), and her standup—cancer, double mastectomy, an intestinal disease called C diff, and the death of her mother in a freak accident—and switched around the order a bit to make everything just that much more devastating. Every terrible occurrence hits her all at once, instead of in the leisurely four months they took to happen in real life. Timing plus tragedy indeed.

The show's pilot has been discussed a lot in the last few days, with special attention given to the scene in which Tig—the character—asks a nurse whether she just leaves her freshly dead mother at the hospital and goes home. The nurse begins to laugh, and soon both she and Tig are in hysterics, with Tig then wheeling her mother's gray corpse out of hospital room, waving joyously to doctors and nurses in the hall. She then snaps back to the moment when she asked the question, with the nurse sympathetically telling her that she should, of course, go on home. It is the first moment in the show that even hints at comedy, as if the laughing characters are telling the viewers that it's OK, they're allowed to laugh at death, since what else can you do?

The dreamscape tactic is used multiple times throughout the show, with the zany images that are in Tig's mind translated to the screen before reality pulls her back. These scenes feel like a direct homage to showrunner Kate Robin's past work on HBO's Six Feet Under, which used them to excellent effect. One Mississippi has a lot in common with Six Feet Under, even though their premises are completely different. In both shows, death, dying, and disease are main plot points, as is a freak accident causing the death of a parent in the first episode. They also have a reluctant character returning home to their remaining parent's house. And, most importantly, both programs use seriously depressing themes in a way that makes us uncomfortable, and as a result, makes us laugh.

But to call One Mississippi a comedy, as it's being marketed, is a stretch for me. Like SFU or the Showtime sitcom The Big C, there are definite moments of humor. And while the show's runtime, which is less than 30 minutes per episode, suggests comedy, I'd align it more with the dramedy genre. Here, humor is a relief tactic. Vox writer Todd VanDerWerff made an interesting point when he wrote that the entire show, about three easily binge-watchable hours, is like an extended pilot rather than six distinct episodes.

Both One Mississippi and Six Feet Under use the serious and seriously depressing themes in a way that makes us uncomfortable, and as a result, makes us laugh.

Which brings us back to the fact that Notaro is not a quick comedian, and that she takes her time, whether onstage or, now, on television. The opening sequence shows Tig stopping at multiple bathrooms on her way to her flight to Mississippi, clutching her stomach after exiting each ladies' room and looking exhausted. It's a slow scene that shows Notaro's continued trust in her audience. The rest of the episodes show an evolution of grief for Tig's dead mother, as well as a gradual introduction to the character Tig, who is a storytelling radio show host in LA. Tragedy first struck her at a young age, and it just won't let up. We find out that Tig hasn't yet looked at her mastectomy scars when she doesn't let her pretty awful girlfriend see her chest and, more movingly, when she keeps her eyes rolled up in the bathtub and dabs awkwardly at herself with a sponge. And, central to this first (hopefully not last) season is that we find out, alongside Tig, that her mother wasn't as perfect as the immediate post-death memories indicated.

What's funny about tragedy is how utterly used to it we become. This is the biggest strength of One Mississippi. By the time we reach the third and fourth episodes, the fact that the cat belonging to her stepfather, Bill, goes missing becomes as upsetting as (if not more than) Tig's cancer and C. diff and her mother's death. The sympathy we have for Bill's awkwardness becomes all-consuming. And when Tig gets stood up at a Farron concert by a femme reporter who is super into Tig's mastectomy scars, we feel for this gayest of gay ghosting as we watch Tig mouthing the lyrics to herself with an empty chair as her date. Notaro makes us forget the big tragedies in favor of the little everyday ones that we ultimately are able to understand much better than disease and death, even if we've experienced them. Which also makes the good moments, like when Tig flirts with Kate (Notaro's real-life wife, Stephanie Allyn) all the more thrilling.

In the depths of tragedy, Notaro seems to be saying, we smile at only two things, really: gallows humor, love, or both.

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One Mississippi is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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