Men didn’t make me laugh growing up. Still don’t. Men who are funny trigger suspicion within me — as though the funny is doing something to distract me from whatever the unfunny is up to. Never trust a funny man. It’s a good thing I am not funny.
Women, on the other hand, wow. My Blockbuster account looked like the black book in the booking office of the Crown & Anchor: Paula Poundstone, Rita Rudner, Ellen Degeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, it went on. And it wasn’t for their shock value; it was because they were funny as hell. (Although Judy Tenuta certainly had a flair for both: “My boyfriend said, ‘Judy, I'd like to see you in miniskirts.’ I said, ‘Yeah? Well I'd like to see you in Mason jars.’”)
I’d rather generalize about myself (suburban gay teen within walking distance of Blockbuster) than about what made the top female comics of the early ’90s more appealing to me, but certainly with all of those names I mentioned, some of their most devastating humor emerged from what they didn’t say, not through dropping bombs on the audience, f or otherwise.
Which is why Tig Notaro’s new Netflix special “Happy to be Here” is such a simple pleasure. Notaro’s name flew itself into the mainstream with comedy that dealt head-on with her fight against cancer. Her jokes about facing mortality were sharp and simple and savage, and while many rushed to process their own discomfort with her disease as Notaro’s “therapy” (especially her notorious topless set given in the days after her diagnosis) make no mistake, it was comedy.
The most shocking thing about “Happy to be Here” — enough that I paused to register it with hubby — is how clean it is. Cat jokes, kid jokes, party pranks, and a masterfully meta strata of jokes about jokes: Notaro loves to stop a moment and pull it apart to understand what it’s doing. Her affinity for cats starts to make sense. And in the context of her show, her more complex gags just feel like extensions of the same curiosity she extends toward, say, the linguistics of meowing.
One extended bit about the Indigo Girls — are they there or not?! — gradually reveals itself as an unsettling test of audience agency. We tend to think of comedians as vulnerable to the whims of their audience — like they can be Kathy Griffin’d into silence if and when they fail to please us — but with one excruciatingly long gag, Notaro plays cat and mouse with her Houston audience, showing us how much power we surrender just by listening. She could be saying anything up there; thank goodness it’s just funny.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MBrodeur.