I’ve been thinking a lot about what we can learn from stand-up comedians. I recently came across an amazing, tragic, deeply personal, and therefore hilarious stand-up set by Tig Notaro, which aired on This American Life last October (you really should listen to it here). I am approaching this from my perspective as a preacher and teacher, but I believe anyone trying to get a message across, especially in some public forum, could learn so much from stand-up. For example, read what I wrote on comedian Jim Gaffigan’s work here. I will focus on Notaro and her set that was featured on TAL in this post, but I want to first explain a few general thoughts I currently have about stand-up comedy.
Stand-up is a strange phenomenon. People pay to go listen to a person speak, and interestingly the audience actually listens, paying attention to every utterance. Sure, the audience is entertained, but the humor can affect their way of thinking about these everyday observations, too (see George Carlin or Jon Stewart, for example). Comedians must strike emotional chords of truth in order to get people to laugh, pay attention, and be persuaded. To quote Homer Simpson, “It’s funny ’cause it’s true.” Stand-up, though, is so often crass and politicized, which can alienate large swaths of people from the outset. Thus, I am interested in that rare breed of comedians who seem to have a broader appeal without losing their edge. So what can I (a preacher) or you (someone trying to get any message across) learn from these comedians and their art?
Notaro’s set is unique because she has just learned that she has breast cancer just days beforehand. She speaks completely off-the-cuff about her present suffering, which also includes another recent illness and the death of her mother. She tells Ira Glass on TAL, “I really had the fear that if I walked away from this opportunity to perform that I would never be able to again.” Rather than cancel her performance or tell some old-hashed jokes to get through the thing, she stared the tragedy of her (and our) own mortality square in the face, telling the truth yet allowing us to laugh—not in a trivial or uncomfortable way, but in a completely honest and vulnerable way without being self-gratifyingly narcissistic.
Fellow comedian Louis CK, who was present that night, had this to say about Notaro’s groundbreaking performance:
I stood in the wings behind a leg of curtain, about 8 feet from her, and watched her tell a stunned audience ‘hi. I have cancer. Just found out today. I’m going to die soon’. What followed was one of the greatest standup performances I ever saw. I can’t really describe it but I was crying and laughing and listening like never in my life. Here was this small woman standing alone against death and simply reporting where her mind had been and what had happened and employing her gorgeously acute standup voice to her own death.
The show was an amazing example of what comedy can be. A way to visit your worst fears and laugh at them. Tig took us to a scary place and made us laugh there. Not by distracting us from the terror but by looking right at it and just turning to us and saying ‘wow. Right?’. She proved that everything is funny. And has to be. And she could only do this by giving us her own death as an example. So generous.
We could replace the word “comedy” in what CK says with “preaching” or whatever your genre is: “plenary talk,” “business presentation,” “college lecture,” “everyday communication,” or “family intervention.” Basically, giving of oneself as an example, especially with some self-deprecating humor, is generous. Not only that, but when we do so, people both laugh and listen. They just might need to laugh first before they will listen. Humor breaks defenses, allowing us to think seriously and differently about topics we might normally avoid. To be sure, we cannot rely on comedy alone, but Notaro’s set that night proves that her humor also allowed her to talk about some really weighty topics while keeping her audience at the edge of their seats surprisingly begging for more. Someone was finally talking about breast cancer in a way that allowed us all to relate. Would that we could all do this with the topics that are important to us—like faith, for example.
Of course, a transcript won’t do stand-up comedy justice, so you really should listen—either the excerpted version with the Ira Glass commentary on TAL or the full-length comedy album version called Tig Notaro LIVE from iTunes or Amazon. In any event, the full transcript of what aired on TAL is available here, but I will share some highlights from what Notaro said that night:
I literally got diagnosed just a few days ago. And this friend of mine, she was like, oh my gosh. I’m sure you’ve heard about these funny cancer greeting cards. And I go, whoa, whoa, whoa. You’re sure I’ve heard about funny cancer greeting cards? I was like, I just got diagnosed.
I didn’t just go out and learn all about the subculture, and start buying knickknacks, and like, no. I don’t know about the funny cancer greeting cards. I just don’t know. I just got diagnosed.
And so my friend texted me one of the cards. The outside of the card says– oh, what is it? So you have cancer. Sad face. Then you open the card. And it says, thank goodness. I’ve been looking for a reason to shave my head.
I can’t believe that’s what you guys haven’t laughed at tonight. That was straight from the funny cancer greeting cards.
She also did some theology on stage that night (namely related to poking fun at the trite kind of theodicy we so often hear). I simply can’t pass it up:
But you know what’s nice about all of this is that you can always rest assured that God never gives you more than you can handle. Never. Never. When you’ve had it, God goes, all right, that’s it. I just keep picturing God going, you know what? I think she can take a little more.
And then the angels are standing back going, God, what are you doing? You are out of your mind. And God was like, no, no, no. I really think she can handle this. But why, God? Like, why? Why? I don’t know. I just, you know. Just trust me on this.
Bonus material: Here is a video of Notaro from a different episode of TAL that was performed live on stage several months earlier: