And she’s got plenty to joke about. In the midst of a tour, her first CD, Good One, lands in stores Aug. 2.
Pollstar recently spoke with “Officer Tig” about her career, life, working with Sarah Silverman and everything in Universe Notaro.
Women comedians have commented on difficulties they faced during their careers that they felt were brought about because of their gender. Have you encountered any problems along those lines?
I don’t even relate to any of that. I just haven’t had a problem with it, and if I have, I haven’t recognized it as because I’m a woman. I think it’s best to go in not thinking in those terms and just be a comedian.
When you arrive in town for a gig, do you immediately size it up for possible material?
Not really. If something exceptional and extraordinary stands out, I might talk about it when I get on stage. But I’m not like a comedian that as soon as I get to town I start looking for something. I pretty much have my stuff I talk about and hope they enjoy it.
But, yeah, when something crazy happens. Like when I was in Florida, up in Orlando I got in a car accident right before the show. I talked about that immediately.
Is there a lag time from the moment you first come up with a new idea and when you first present it on stage? That is, do you spend a considerable amount of time working on the idea, or does it come quickly for you?
There are both. I improvise a lot on stage. Each show is very different in the way that I have jokes and stories I’ve worked on for a few years. Then there’s stuff I’ll talk about that’s happening maybe in the room or maybe that day. Something unusual that’s happened. So it can range from immediate to years.
Do you have a specific person for trying out new material?
No. I’m 13 years into doing it. I have a pretty good gauge as to what’s going to go okay. And even if it doesn’t end up as something I do on stage, it’s still workable up there, even if I don’t end up keeping it. I’ve found you can’t really tell if a joke is going to work unless you do it on stage. It’s the only way. I learned a lesson in the past that running things by friends and them saying, “No, it’s not going to work.” Like recently, one I was told wasn’t going to work has become one of my signatures.
What was the signature piece that your friends said wouldn’t work?
An infant taking a shower. Just the concept of that. It’s kind of a little bizarre concept but it always made me laugh. Whenever I ran it by people, they were like, “I don’t know.” Now it’s a more popular thing I do.
When you present new material for the very first time and the audience laughs, do you immediately experience, say, an internal sigh of relief? Or does that come later?
Oh, yeah. Absolute relief. It’s an immediate action. Does anybody hear me? Does anyone relate? It’s the ultimate in being stranded.
What did you do before you began your career?
I’ve done a few different things. I worked for director Sam Raimi as a production assistant. I worked at a coffee shop. I did promotion, booking and management stuff. It was helpful for comedy because it made me realize there was a certain amount of work I needed to put in to get my career going before anyone was really going to get behind me. It made me less panicked to get representation because I understood what it takes to get a career going.
Was being a comedian always the goal?
People would suggest it casually. For me, it was something more like a burning desire, secretly and forever. I never thought I would actually be doing it, but it was my out-of-this-world fantasy situation and dream situation to be doing it. When people ask if it’s hard to be a woman or hard to travel, to me none of that is an issue. To me, I can’t believe I get to do what is my out-of-this-world dream.
Which comedians do you look up to?
I love Paula Poundstone, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers. Those [comedians] were probably three favorites of mine, but I just love stand up. The longer you do it the more specific your tastes become. Now, I don’t just love stand up from where I can go in and watch any stand up. And now my peers, the ones I’m coming up with now, are my favorites.
Who makes you laugh today?
You worked on The Sarah Silverman Program. Did you know Silverman before the show began?
I got to do all the seasons [as] the cop. It was really fun. She’s a good friend of mine and it didn’t feel like working. I’ve known her for years. She hired all her friends and family to work on the show as writers, actors and production people.
Do people around you expect you to be funny all the time, even when you’re not working?
I think people who don’t know me well, or just know me as a comedian – friends and family I haven’t seen in a while – they get kind of nervous and think that I’m going to make fun of everything they do. [They think] I’m going to be outrageously entertaining all the time. There’s definitely that expectation or awkward feeling. I call it the “curse of the clown.”
Your first comedy album comes out next month. Is it all stand up or is there some conceptual humor?
It’s straight up stand up. I’m not very much a sketch person.
Are comedy albums kind of a lost art?
I’ve heard that, but maybe I’m just so submerged in the comedy world that I don’t realize that. I feel like people buy them but I don’t follow the numbers. Everyone around me seems to be putting them out and buying them. I’m not really concerned about it. I’m really excited for my CD to come out and I think my label has pretty realistic expectations.
Do you think you’ll always be doing stand up?
I can’t imagine not doing it. It feels so right to me. I’m not a comedian that got into it to ultimately abandon it for acting. I want to be better at stand up. My vision is very specifically comedy driven. It would make no sense to me, if I could see into the future, and I was starring in a movie. I just don’t see that happening.
But would you take them up on it if offered? That is, to star in a movie or maybe have your own television show?
Absolutely. I want to have all those opportunities – writing and acting – but I never would want to abandon stand up.
As a professional, do you find yourself critiquing other comedy projects such as movies and TV, or other stand-up comedians?
It’s almost impossible [to critique] but every now and then there’s someone so amazing you get lost in it. But even after I get lost in how amazing they are, I still come out of it thinking about them and how they’re writing blows me away.
And when somebody is so bad, I can’t get into their minds. I can’t understand why they wrote that joke.
Following that line of thought, when you were starting out, did you look at other comedians and think, “If they can get a gig, then I should be able to.”
It wasn’t so much that I thought the people were bad. When I went to see a bunch of comedy shows, I thought I was going to be intimidated. But when I saw a couple of weeks of stand up in Los Angeles, I did think I could do this. Not because I thought they were bad, but because it seemed reasonable I could do that.
Did that opinion change after your first time doing stand up?
No. My first time went unusually well to where I thought, “Wow, this is a really easy thing to do.”
Then the second time I went on stage, I competed in a comedy competition. And I bombed so horribly that I ran offstage after a minute. That’s when I realized what stand up is. It’s very hit or miss. If you’re odds are 51 percent doing well, then I think you’re on to something.
When you bombed doing the comedy competition, how did you psych yourself up to go back on stage?
You remember the first time was so good. I thought maybe I could recreate that. Then go back and forth until my odds got better.
Is it awkward to be recognized in public?
I think what I appreciate the most is when people come up and say they like what I do. It’s not this long drawn out “I’m not a weirdo. Oh, my gosh!” I’m embarrassed when it gets like that.
Has the situation ever been reversed, where you saw someone famous you liked and you turned into a fan nightmare?
I don’t know if I had a fan nightmare, but I remember the first time I met Paula Poundstone I was so nervous. I couldn’t believe I was seeing her in person. I’m sure I said stupid things to her, thinking I was funny. And the last thing in the world she wants, I’m thinking, is someone who thinks they’re funny.
I’m a big fan of Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders. I’ve had a couple of opportunities to meet her and I passed on both of them because I don’t trust myself. She makes me very inspired, excited and nervous. And that’s from the 200th row back at a concert.
What would be a perfect night for you? That is, not just doing a great performance but the entire experience from the moment you arrive in town. What’s the perfect gig?
It’s so easy to do things right, I think, as the club and promoter. And a lot of them do, but some of them drop the ball. Just to make sure you’re taken care of from the arrival at the airport to the hotel. I just had club bookers, management and promoters not want to reimburse me for my cab fare, not answer my phone calls or text messages when I’m in town or charge me for drinks or food while I’m performing. To me that’s so tacky and makes me not want to return to their venue.
I also like to bring friends of mine on the road to emcee and open for me. I think building a show with friends you think are cool and funny people makes for a good week together. Because you’re not awkwardly in a green room with someone whose comedy you don’t quite connect with.
Is the life of a comedian a very solitary experience? Like an author, everything is on your shoulders. It’s you that comes up with the material and presentation. It’s not like you have a staff writing for you and assisting you.
It can be. After traveling for so many years, I have so many friends around the country, around the world, I try to bring my opening act. Like right now, I’m with my opening act at this coffee shop and we’re going to spend the next couple of days going around Philadelphia together.
I try to keep my life and headspace pretty normal with having a routine on the road and being surrounded by people I enjoy while doing what I enjoy.
Is it a laugh a minute when you’re with your comedy friends? Or is everyone very serious until they step on stage?
There’s a mix. A lot of ridiculous conversations then it gets serious, then lighthearted. It’s a good time. It’s definitely not three robots hanging out together.
Is there something you’ve wanted to tell the world, but no one has asked the right question?
I don’t really think about the questions. I feel like I’m somebody that if I had something to say, I’d make sure to tell the interviewer that I’d like to say this or it’s important to me for people to know. Like the isolation of a comedian. I understand a lot are that way. But I try to make my life as happy, healthy, fun and cool as possible so I’m not living that [isolated] life and that being a woman is not a struggle to me. I think it’s empowering. But I also think it’s kind of a non-issue.
So life is good for Tig.
I feel tremendously lucky. I’ve had my share of hard times and it makes me more aware of how good I have it.
Tig Notaro is appearing at the