Tig Notaro’s pauses mean as much as her words. Sometimes it’s in these pauses—which punctuate her shorter jokes and give rhythm to her longer bits—that she gets the strongest reactions from her audience, who are hanging on her every word. Notaro’s delivery slow-drips. She takes her time. This is, after all, the comedian who pushed a stool around on television for two-and-a-half minutes before ever delivering the punchline. In Boyish Girl Interrupted, her first HBO special, her signature drawn-out deadpan is on full display as she uses pauses and silence in ways that would make most comedians feel uncomfortable.
But Notaro thrives on that discomfort. She doesn’t poke the audience just to make them squirm or punch down at all; instead, she lets herself feel vulnerable and uncomfortable and invites you to feel the same. Some comedians try to generate discomfort through provocation, but Notaro relies on the simple humiliations of everyday life to give Boyish Girl Interrupted a bite. Her story about bombing 12 shows in a row in Las Vegas and slogging through the last one in a chocolate ice-cream mustache that no one had the decency to tell her about is the kind of story a friend might tell over dinner—simple, not overly constructed, not formatted like a bit. But again, Notaro slow-cooks the build and leans into those pauses, her rhythm elevating the story.
The physical gag of placing her finger above her lip as a makeshift mustache and bobbing her head as she sidesteps works in the same way as the stool bit. It’s weird, it’s silly, it lasts at least 30 seconds longer than anyone expects it to (“Sorry! This bit goes as long as whatever stage I’m on,” she tells the audience). As the special’s title references, Notaro speaks on her experiences of being mistaken for a man, which started to happen more frequently after her double mastectomy. “I was enjoying the awkwardness so much,” she says of the time an airport security guard just couldn’t quite determine her gender. And you believe her. Notaro enjoys the awkwardness, and she’ll push it until she hits a wall and then keep on pushing it right through.
There’s a conversational quality to Boyish Girl Interrupted. She tells a story about seeing a Santa Claus out in the wild with her friend, and much like the Vegas tale, the way she tells the story doesn’t feel overly performative. Make no mistake though: She’s in full control throughout the special. She strikes that difficult balance of making some of the hour’s best moments feel spontaneous even though they’re tightly rehearsed. The set isn’t entirely told in stories; there are the more conventionally constructed jokes, some that she has been workshopping and improving for years. One of the funniest moments isn’t a punchline at all, but rather her reaction of feigned confusion when the audience giggles after she refers to her fiancé as a “he.”
And Notaro takes risks with more than just silence. “Of course I’m not going to take my shirt off on my special,” she says when the audience claps and nudges her on after she removes her blazer. And in that moment, you know the shirt is coming off. It’s one of those moments that feels spontaneous and rehearsed all at once. She slowly unbuttons her shirt, playing with the audience’s expectations, until she finally just takes it all the way off. For the remaining 20 minutes of her special, Notaro performs topless, the scars from her double mastectomy on full display. She doesn’t address the scars or the surgery directly—they’re just there, a part of her. It’s not the first time Notaro has performed topless—she did so in New York shortly after the operation. But doing it in her HBO special sends a very clear message.
Boyish Girl Interrupted debuts on the heels of Tig, the documentary about Tig’s life and career so far that premiered on Netflix last month. Tig builds to the one-year anniversary of Notaro’s famous 2012 Largo set Live, focusing on the tragic events that made Live possible. In the span of only a few months, Notaro was diagnosed with C. Diff, lost her mother, went through a breakup, and was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. In the years following Live, Notaro’s comedy was discussed in terms of her comeback, in terms of her unwavering ability to find the humor in her compounding tragedy. But that narrative sometimes obscures the fact that she’s also just a damn good comedian. Boyish Girl Interrupted doesn’t deal directly with those tragedies, but like her physical scars, they’re still there, a part of her. She goes dark at times, recounting taking her fiancé Stephanie Allyne to the cemetery where Notaro’s stepdad got a good deal on burial plots after her mom died and telling Allyne that’s where she’ll be “gay buried.” Boyish Girl Interrupted reinforces that Notaro can find humor not only in profoundly sad experiences but in all aspects of her life—the humiliating, the mundane, the silly.
“I’m just a person,” Notaro insists at least eight times over the course of the special. Sometimes in all the talk of her perseverance and rise to comedy fame against all odds, that gets lost. But Notaro is wholly human in the special, someone whose stories delight with little embellishment. She’s just a person—a really fucking funny person—but just a person.