Laughter in the Face of Fear

Things around here at Pop Theology have been fairly quiet over the last few weeks. With my on-going world tour and Richard’s recent migration to Cajun country, pop culture theological reflection has been on a back burner of sorts. However, I am currently in one place for the rest of the month and am hoping to do a bit of pop culture catch up. To that end, I somewhat belatedly encountered a quite moving, news-making comedy performance, Tig Notaro’s standup set that has comedians and commentators in awe. While many observers have pointed to Notaro’s comedic brilliance, I want to draw quick attention to the theological aspects of this immediately legendary performance.

Recently, Notaro learned that she had stage two breast cancer in both breasts…or lumps, as she jokingly called them. The diagnosis followed quickly on the heels of her bouts with pneumonia and clostridium difficile, an intestinal disease through which she lost 20 pounds. In between these illnesses and her cancer news, her mother suddenly and tragically died and her partner broke up with her. Notaro could have easily been forgiven for never wanting to tell another joke again. But she did not cower in the face of her potentially impending death and fear. Instead, she forged ahead with a scheduled performance at Largo in Los Angeles, which has now become something of comic legend, helped along in no small part by Louis CK’s tweet (that it was one of the best standup routines he’d ever seen) and subsequent campaign.

Notaro took the stage with no script…no idea of where the set would go…and stepped boldly forward and said, “Hello! I have cancer. How are you?” For the first few minutes of the set, she recounts the experience of her diagnosis, and you gradually hear the audience come to the realization that this is no politically incorrect standup routine…even as Notaro herself continues to come to grips with the reality of what is and might be happening to her body. For the next thirty minutes, she fearlessly bears her fears, frustrations, and anxieties, managing to console audience members in the process. She addresses so many situations that cancer patients endure that no doubt parallel other experiences of grave suffering and trauma. How do the healthy interact with the terminally ill? Ho do we make meaning of mundane daily activities when we are faced with impending death? And…if we are people of faith…how do we engage the Divine and theologize in the face of tragedy and suffering?

Louis CK writes about Notaro’s performance:

The show was an amazing example of what comedy can be. A way to visit your worst fears and laugh at them. Tig took us to a scary place and made us laugh there. Not by distracting us from the terror but by looking right at it and just turning to us and saying “wow. Right?” She proved that everything is funny. And has to be. And she could only do this by giving us her own death as an example. So generous.

Here, in just a few minutes, Notaro has also exposed (explored?) the darker corners of some iterations of Christian theology. In the midst of recounting her suffering, Notaro jokes and subsequently laments, “You can always rest assured that God never gives you more than you can handle. […] I keep picturing God going, ‘You know what? I think she can take a little more.’ […] But why, God, why? […] God is insane…if there at all.” Born in Mississippi and raised there and in Texas, Notaro is no doubt familiar with such theological patronizing…as are many of us. I was reminded of our deportation experience when my wife said, “If one person tells me that God has a plan for us in all of this, I’ll kill them.” The experiences, though drastically different, parallel one another in the revelation that such elementary theologizing and “counseling” so often fail to meet us effectively in the midst of deep, real pain and suffering. But Notaro’s jokes point to a bigger theological problem…the notion that God might just be some sick, cosmic puppeteer up in heaven measuring out suffering to each of us to test our physical, emotional, and spiritual limits. For what? Well, we’re not quite sure…nor is, clearly, Notaro.

However, in the midst of what is no doubt a profound feeling of loneliness (she intimates as much), Notaro points to friends who were there for her, although imperfectly. More than these, however, the act of standup (and standing up to her experience), as bold as it is, also sounds (and of course for most of us the sound is all we have to go on) as if it is therapeutic for her. Laughing and making others laugh seems to be an avenue through which to make sense of a life-altering experience. After all, Notaro says at the conclusion of her set, “I guess God was right. I can handle this.” For all of us who are suffering, have suffered, or who minister to and live with those who do, such laughter can be both a gift and a provocation.

You can download the set here:

Here’s a bit with Notaro on Conan: