In 2010, angular punk band The Need played a rare show as part of the 2010 Fall Into Darkness festival. The performance felt somewhat ritualistic with the spare but important stage dressing and the sage smoke that was released thickly into the room. But in one fell swoop of a shirt, the mood of the night shifted into something that felt far bolder and dramatic.
Drummer/vocalist Rachel Carns, overcome enough with the heat in the room, whipped her top off and tossed it aside, revealing a chest marked by double mastectomy scars. I still remember being amazed and inspired by that bold “fuck you” to the mores of the rock club, to the cancer that took her breasts away, and to any standard of beauty that requests women to either subject themselves to reconstructive surgery or asks us all to politely ignore the truth of Carns’ body.
Obviously, I bring this up because about two-thirds of the way through Tig Notaro’s first HBO comedy special, the 44-year-old standup also removes her shirt to let the Boston audience see her now completely flat chest, and then performs the rest of her set without commenting on it. This time around, the move was a little less electrifying (due to the nature of the event, the audience was prepared for it to happen as she led them to it, jokingly begging off the idea that she would do it), but no less inspiring. Hearing the crowd erupt in supportive cheers was part of it, as was Notaro’s well-documented year of horrors that culminated in her post-cancer diagnosis performance at Largo that catapulted her into the limelight.
As others have pointed out in their reviews of this special, and of the show the previous night in New York, the move by Notaro to remove her shirt was daring but it also quickly fell by the wayside as you get caught up in the last part of the show. Though tinged with the similar “fuck you” spirit as Carns conjured up five years ago, it felt here like another great bit of conceptual stage work on the comic’s part. It was, like her insistence that she get a standing ovation at the end, a commentary on the nature of these kinds of standup performances. As great as they can be, standup shows can get routine because audiences are now trained to know what to expect. The truly outstanding comics are the ones that mess with the formula. That’s why everyone from Louis C.K. to Ed Helms was freaking out about her Largo set. She dared to address this huge thing head on and dared to mine it for laughs.
That’s been the magic of Notaro’s standup work for her whole career, though. And why her current success feels so justified and so worthwhile. She’s been in the trenches for so long, it’s about time the world took notice of her flat, halting delivery and unique view of the world around her. It’s the kind of voice that can take what would be a plain anecdote like she and her friend trying to chase down a Santa impersonator and turn it into an ROTFL moment. It’s also the voice that elevates an already great story about bombing hard in Las Vegas with an ice cream moustache on her face to the level of breathless hilarity. Shirt on or shirt off, Notaro is still going to remain one of the best standup comics around. Long may she run.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.