“I got yelled at that I was ‘horrible’ and ‘ugly’ for 30 minutes. That was kind of disturbing. It was one of the worst things that happened to me. That scarred me for a few years,” Notaro says.
Notaro was later told her material wasn’t suitable for the 1am slot in a pub. “And it was the end of the festival and people were tired and drunk. It was one of those things that, after it happened, I flew back to Los Angeles and I had a show in the Improv in Hollywood and I had no fear going on stage, because I had already been through the worst-case scenario. Nothing had ever happened that bad before.”
Notaro has had a half-hour special on Comedy Central, is a regular face on Conan and other American chat shows, and enjoys the imprimatur of comedy gods Louis CK and Sarah Silverman.
Her comedy shtick is slow delivery. She drops Beckettian flourishes into her routine, such as dragging a stool across the stage floor or along the isles of the theatre, for minutes on end, while the audience bellows with silly laughter. She has this offbeat view of absurdity. Her strict stepfather used to punish her if she didn’t tidy up her toys in the allotted time. He would put them in a bag in the boot of his car. To retrieve them, she had to do chores to earn money to buy them back from him.
Nothing, though, has been as crazy, she says, as her four-month treatment for cancer. Notaro was diagnosed in both breasts in July, 2012, which led to a double mastectomy. The day after the diagnosis, she spoke about her predicament at a comedy club in Los Angeles, which led to a ‘laughter is the best medicine’ feature on CBS news and huge iTunes sales of the recorded segment.
“The craziness of having my mother die in the middle of all of it, and having gone through a relationship break-up. To me, that was kind of the craziest part of it, even though I had friends and family, and everyone around the world knew my story and were helpful, but not having my mother and a partner was really more than I could deal with.
“I surprised myself. Getting through that time, mourning the loss of my mother, fearing for my own life — I wasn’t able to eat food for, probably, three months — was very hard. What I learned was to take the smallest steps. Just to keep moving somehow kept me going. Of course, there were days or moments when I would lie in bed, or on my couch, really devastated, but I would remind myself with little things: ‘OK, you’re still breathing; ‘OK, just get out of bed and take a few steps’. It was as basic as reminding myself that I was still breathing.
“I feel oddly lucky. I wouldn’t have believed I would say that when I was in the middle of it, because it was a very cruel joke, but now, with time and perspective, I feel lucky to have gone through that.”