Tig Notaro's 'I'm Just a Person' Is the Sweet, Heartbreaking Memoir You Want It to Be
Tig Notaro went viral for describing what was essentially the worst year of her life. Over the course of four months in 2012, she landed in the hospital with a severe bacterial infection, she and her girlfriend broke up, her mother died after a sudden fall — and then Notaro was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts.
In the midst of what was an almost unbelievably bad streak of terrible things in her life, Notaro delivered an off-the-cuff stand-up set at Largo in Los Angeles, describing, in her typical deadpan style, the pain, fear and absurdity of the past few months. The recording of the show went huge, as Notaro's friend, comedian Louis C.K., made it available for purchase on his site. It sold 75,000 copies in its first months.
Critics hailed the set as "instantly legendary" and praised Notaro's "raw," honest approach to her personal tragedies. Notaro's new book about roughly the same period, I'm Just a Person, could easily have been a rehashing of everything she said in her now-famous Largo set — but it's not.
If Notaro's famous set was a cold shower of suffering and humor, almost shocking in its frankness, I'm Just a Person is a long bubble bath, weaving in and out of Notaro's worst year and her memories of growing up in Mississippi and Texas, her lovable, wild mother and her path to stand-up comedy.
I'm Just a Person has the conversational, nostalgic tone of a wedding toast — Notaro is eager to pull readers into her memories, to convey her affection for her past, while at the same time staying sharp and funny. (The humor only gets better when you read those passages as if delivered in Notaro's iconic deadpan.)
There are a few truly biting moments — like when Notaro edits, question-by-question, a quality survey the hospital sent to her mother the week after she died. "During this hospital stay, was the area around your room quiet at night? Or, could you hear the 12 hours of your daughter, alone at your bedside, sobbing and telling you things she wished she had been brave enough to tell you when you were conscious?"
Her book is also more cautiously optimistic than her standup set at Largo, delivering platitudes like, "I cannot express how important it is to believe that taking one tiny — and possibly very uncomfortable — step at a time can ultimately add up to a great distance." Part of that is because, by the time Notaro wrote I'm Just a Person, she was with her now-wife, Stephanie, something she delves into over the course of the book. It's a relationship that she says makes her "more happy than I ever imagined I could be."
Notaro's sexuality gets a relatively laid-back treatment in I'm Just a Person. Throughout the course of the book, she brings up old girlfriends, mostly in relation to how they helped support her through a truly devastating year. But there's no big coming out story, at least not in this memoir.
That's not to say her sexuality doesn't come across as an important part of Notaro's identity, and — at a time when success for female comedians usually means success for cis, white, female comedians — it's all the more important to hear queer voices. Yet the title of I'm Just a Person speaks to Notaro's self-view: She constantly seems taken aback by her own success.
While a string of tragic events is what launched her into the public eye, it's clear from I'm Just a Person Notaro seems almost equally surprised when good things happen to her. After all, what's a dark comic to do with a happy marriage, a Grammy nomination and an outpouring of support from fans?