It’s the thing that all comedians fear: the brain fart. While Tig Notaro is not immune to this phenomenon, she knows how to navigate it.
“We had a limo take you here…to forget your story.”
Comedy ain’t easy. Good comedy is really hard. Great comedy is almost impossible. It takes years to perfect not just a joke but the ability to develop the complicated structural web (a web made up of specific word structures, sentence structures, breath control, audience manipulation, philosophical layering and more) that both underlies, and is, a great joke.
But what do you do when you have been perfecting your art for over 15 years and you get in front of a television audience of millions of people and forget that very joke?
Enter Tig Notaro.
You rely on your experience to incorporate that very brain fart in to the structure and style of your joke. Through maintaining the same tonal and syntactic structure that epitomises your comedy, you blur the lines between what is a joke and a genuine mistake for long enough that the crowd is either too confused to criticise you or so impressed with the fact you haven’t run off the stage that they forgive you for your brain lapse.
When Tig told this same joke to a crowd of This American Life listeners in 2012, she made damn sure she knew it. But this was not the case that same year when she told the joke for Conan O’Brien.
Tig’s joke about her three encounters with 1980s pop diva Taylor Dayne contains a range of interplaying comedic and storytelling techniques, none of which are easy to pull off. Tig hasn’t spent her career developing jokes, but developing techniques, just as a professional rock climber spends their career developing the techniques to help them navigate every new pitch they come across.
What are her techniques in the Taylor Dayne bit? It is a 10-minute joke, which compared to the jokes of other big-name comedians, is a long time to spend on one bit. There are many more techniques in this bit than the average joke, and they range from the micro to the macro. Tig is one of a number of modern comedians to really experiment with their craft, a result of which has been a deconstruction of the typical joke into a joke with many punchlines.
For instance, there is the repetition of the line Tig uses when introducing herself to Taylor Dayne all three times: “Excuse me. Sorry to bother you, but I just have to tell you, I love your voice.”
This is itself a punchline, and it introduces the joke. Not the punchline, but a punchline. Why? Because the repetition of that phrase for each three occasions Tig meets Taylor Dayne not only creates structure in the joke (a play of three acts), but by the second time Tig uses those same words, the audience realise that this phrase is important for some reason, and that it is most likely to be repeated more than once (because not only are the exact words repeated, but so are the pauses between words and the same tone of voice). Through the importance placed on such a line, and the laughs it generates as a result of its repetition, it becomes a punchline.
The genius of this technique is that it allows the audience to see the moving gears that make the watch tick. They are aware that they are seeing the methods that make the joke move forward, and feel empowered because of this knowledge.
An empowered audience is a laughing audience, whether or not the joke makes them comfortable or uncomfortable.
Tig made a crowd in this same year (2012) uncomfortable when she revealed to them that she had cancer, only days after finding out herself. Discomfort defined the show. No comedian had ever come on stage to tell the crowd they had cancer, and that it was okay to laugh. The show was such a success that it catapulted her career to new heights. This was a big year for Tig: her mother died, Tig developed breast cancer as well as a separate bacterial disease that ate through her gut, and her partner broke up with her. It was such a ridiculously awful sequence of events that she identified a punchline in it.
Discomfort can be key to both a bad or a successful set. Watch Dave Chapelle’s most recent Netflix specials to see how discomfort can ironically create empowerment in an audience. Whether it be in his exploration of his relationship with the trans community in his show Equanimity, or in his critique of the #MeToo movement in The Bird Revelation, there is a discomfort in the crowd that leads to laughter; or if you think his jokes are beyond the pale, then they fail in your eyes. That’s why comedians repeat the mantra that nothing is off limits for a comedian – discomfort can be key to making people laugh and making people reassess their values. Hell, even Shakespeare knew this. King Lear’s Fool spends the entire play trying to make King Lear uncomfortable with the truth.
Tig is one of a number of modern comedians to really experiment with their craft, a result of which has been a deconstruction of the typical joke into a joke with many punchlines.
Back on Conan’s set, and forgetting what comes next in her joke, Tig draws a blank. Excruciating seconds labour by as she stands on stage, racking her brain for what comes next.
“Yeah this is awkward, I know,” she admits. “I don’t know what to do.”
Those excruciating seconds of nothingness fail to bring the set to an early close, because that discomfort has already occurred on stage only a minute or so earlier.
After telling the crowd about the first time she met Taylor Dayne, Tig goes on to explain the second meeting. Here she inserts discomfort into the set:
“I happened to be out to eat with that same friend of mine, Pam. There’s a party of ten seated right behind us. You guys are not going to believe who was sitting there.”
Tig waits for eight seconds without saying anything.
“Any guesses?” She then asks.
Tig waits another eight seconds and peers out to the crowd, searching.
“Just think about the story I’ve been telling.”
The crowd as a whole now knows what is going on, and can see the gears of the watch ticking. The genius of this technique is that those audience members more in tune with her style or more receptive (or just more intelligent) know exactly what Tig is doing within seconds of that first pause. This results in empowerment and different levels of it (as more and more of the audience realise the bit). Eventually, the whole audience are on board and they know what they have to do. Someone shouts out, “Taylor Dayne!”
Tig can now go on with the joke.
By purposely placing the joke on hold, Tig takes the audience outside of the story to show them how a joke works, and to include them in the idea of discomfort, while providing them with the empowerment of awareness. It is a technique she has perfected for nearly 20 years and shes is one of the best comedians alive today who does it in this way.
That is why when she forgets a joke, people aren’t sure whether she has forgotten it or is just pretending.
“You guys are thinking this is a joke. But it’s not.”
Either way, they are hooked.