“My favorite laugh noise is the sigh after the laugh … It’s like you’re reminiscing about one second ago. ‘Remember one second ago?’” comedian Tig Notaro jokes during “Boyish Girl Interrupted,” a stand-up special that will air on HBO on Saturday night. In the bit, she’s breaking down the way different audiences laugh, from the sigh to the snort. “’I still feel like she doesn’t get how much I get her,'” she mused, speaking from the perspective of an imaginary fan. “‘I think I’m going to go ahead and snort like a pig.’”
If Notaro has listened to her fans closely enough to break down their expressions of joy, “Boyish Girl Interrupted” is a tour through Notaro’s particular comedic strengths. It almost feels like a reintroduction. The stand-up set that made Notaro nationally famous was shocking and revelatory for the way it handled a series of personal traumas that would level most of us. “Boyish Girl Interrupted” shows us the particular talents and techniques that let Notaro mine jokes from those tragedies.
One of the delights of “Boyish Girl Interrupted” is the way it showcases Notaro’s gift for physical comedy; she’s particularly good at capturing others’ expressions and using her hands to invoke a whole character.
Telling a story about going to get an ice cream cone to console herself during a Las Vegas engagement that was going poorly, Notaro makes a point of holding her microphone as far away from her mouth as possible, so we can see her mime licking an invisible cone with greater vigor. She arcs her hands when she pretends to be a pig sitting in the audience, clapping its hooves, in a bit about the different kinds of laughter she hears from the stage. During a long anecdote about the search for a perfect Santa Claus impersonator, Notaro captures the reactions she and a friend shared when the spitting image of Saint Nick pulled up next to them in traffic. When she’s miming the response of a TSA agent who had to pat her down after her double mastectomy, Notaro captures the woman’s mounting confusion about whether or not Notaro is actually a woman (Notaro chose not to have reconstructive surgery). And the special climaxes in a moment so genuinely thrilling, so profoundly physical, that I’m not going to discuss it until you’ve had a chance to see it for yourselves.
The special also gets at Notaro’s particular talent for mining the funniest details out of even relatively small incidents. While she may have become national famous for her set at Largo about a set of calamities that had befallen her in rapid succession — her mother’s death, a life-threatening infection, breast cancer and a devastating breakup — Notaro’s comedy is often refreshingly low-stakes. She performs a set and later finds out that she had a chocolate moustache nobody bothered to warn her about; she pranks her friends; her family lives up to an archaic Southern stereotype the first time they meet her girlfriend. When I saw her live at Largo in Los Angeles in early August, Notaro told an extended story about how the kitten the couple had just adopted had decided to hide, sending their household into an utter panic before being discovered in a drawer.
Instead of relying on risk to generate tension, Notaro does something different: she spins out stories that in the care of another teller might risk dullness, landing on deadpan punchlines and luring the audience into a reaction.
“People are like, ‘Tig! Why are you shooting your special in Boston?’ I’ll tell you something,” she begins “Boyish Girl Interrupted.” “My grandfather was originally from Boston. And my mother lived in Boston when she was a tiny little person. And this rug, hear me out, this rug, I am standing on, has been in my family since the 1800s and was in my mother’s house in Boston in the ’40s. Why am I shooting my special in Boston? I wanted to show you my rug.”
And there’s something giddy about the way Notaro handles her audience’s reaction and the risk that she could become more icon than comedian. “Relax! I’m just a person!” she says repeatedly, simultaneously parodying faux-humility and defusing the tension by acknowledging it. “I’ve never detected a punchline there,” she ribs the audience after a burst of laughter that’s more nervous than a reaction to any particular joke. “Maybe I should listen more.” And after reeling off a series of puns, Notaro lectures the crowd, telling them “Boston, that’s a terrible joke. I’m sorry…I will reimburse you, I’m sorry.”
I can’t imagine she had many takers, or that she will after Saturday night.