Sometimes, Tig Notaro imagines an alternate reality, one in which she never got onstage at Largo in Los Angeles on August 3, 2012 and declared to the audience, “Good evening, hello. I have cancer.”
In the half-hour standup set, which Louis C.K. released on his website in October 2012, Notaro describes a sequence of events that sounds too catastrophic to be real: First, she contracted pneumonia, followed by a life-threatening stomach infection that made eating nearly impossible. Then her mother died. Then she and her girlfriend broke up. Then she was diagnosed with cancer.
“I had taken my mother off life support and I was deteriorating,” Notaro said during an interview at a New York event for the show. “My childhood bed is very high off the ground, and I was lying under my childhood bed. My mother’s dead, and I just have my stoic stepfather and my brother. I didn’t feel close to them in the way that I would have brought my mother into my illness and my sadness. I think back to that, how I thought I was going to be dead in a month or two and no part of me thought that this would be a movie or a TV show or a book or a standup set.”
Four years later, that string of calamities has led to all of the above. Last year, HBO released a one-hour comedy special titled Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted, and Netflix released a documentary, Tig, chronicling the 45-year-old comic in the year following that 2012 Largo set. In June, Notaro published a memoir, I’m Just a Person. And on Friday, her autobiographical series, One Mississippi, which she created with Diablo Cody, will be available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Notaro describes the show as “loosely based” on her life. The first episode — which follows Tig-the-character as she travels from L.A. to the fictional Bay Saint Lucille, Mississippi to take her mother off life support — hews closer to reality than the following five, in which Tig stays in her hometown with her emotionally stunted brother, Remy (Noah Harpster), and her stepfather, Bill (John Rothman), whom Tig describes as having a temperament “somewhere between room temperature and sleet.” “Can’t we just be a family for five minutes?” she asks Bill when they return from the hospital to her childhood home. “Not legally,” he replies.
Tig and Bill’s chilly relationship is a focal point of One Mississippi, and although we generally see Bill through Tig’s eyes, Rothman’s excellent, nuanced performance elicits sympathy for a man who is clearly dealing with the loss of his wife in the best way he can — even if his stepchildren can’t see it. “Trying to create order out of chaos is his struggle,” Rothman told Flavorwire. “And it’s impossible.”
Like Amazon original comedies Transparent and Fleabag, the latter of which will be available to stream next week, One Mississippi finds humor in grief and family dysfunction. Louis C.K. is an executive producer, and like his FX series, Louie, One Mississippi features the odd surrealist reverie that highlights the absurdity of a serious moment. In the first episode, Tig imagines wheeling her dead mother through the hospital corridor and waving while the staff cheers her on; in the sixth and last episode, she has a fantasy slumber party with her mother while visiting her grave.
Although the actors are quick to point out that much of the series is fictional, Rothman admitted to me that it was “scary” to play a part based on an actual living relative. Notaro said her stepfather and brother have seen and “really liked” the pilot. “But my stepfather, when I’ll ask him, ‘Oh Rick, what’d you think of how that character responded to this or that?’ He’s like, ‘It’s great. I mean, it’s fictional, right?’” Notaro said. “I think he’s taking it with a grain of salt and looking at it as entertainment and not trying to read too much into anything.”
Still, Notaro’s co-stars are very aware of the responsibility of recreating such a tender moment in her life onscreen. Harpster — who hasn’t yet met Tig’s real brother — told Flavorwire he treated the series “as a straight drama,” and found humor in the camaraderie between the siblings. “They entertain each other in sad moments. It’s about this side-eye from your sibling — the church giggles. That’s what my [onscreen] relationship with Tig is to me — when you’re in a situation that’s uncomfortable, but you have no other choice but to sit across from this person whom you love and look them in the eye.”
Notaro — who told me she doesn’t “identify with being an actor” — simply tried to remember her lines and be herself. Her character’s bone-dry wit and low-key, almost monotonous tone of voice will be familiar to fans of her standup. “I’m doing my best at being myself in those scenarios and situations that may or may not be fictional,” she said.
“The sequence of events that led to this show are mind-blowing,” Harpster said. “This is a real thing with real people with real feelings, and real consequence. And I think that set the tone for the show in a lot of ways.”
One Mississippi may be about the death of a loved one, but the show is buoyed by a sense of hope that clearly springs from Notaro herself, who is now cancer-free and married with twin babies. “I’m breathing,” Notaro marveled. “I’m so aware. Because I really made that decision to be honest onstage that night.” And while she “wasn’t immediately laughing when I got the news that I had invasive cancer,” the comedian in her couldn’t deny the farce of the situation.
“I got diagnosed with cancer and I was like, this is hilarious how bad my life is,” Notaro said. “My mother is dead and I can’t eat food and I broke up with my girlfriend and now I have invasive cancer! I don’t care! I’m scared I would have just held it all in, because I was plotting with my manager how to keep everything a secret. And it’s really sad to think of carrying all that on my own.”
One Mississippi is available to stream on Amazon Prime.