TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is comic, actor and writer Tig Notaro. She has a new Netflix comedy special that premieres next Tuesday. The last time she was on our show was in October 2012. She was coming out of an awful period. Within the span of a few months, she had pneumonia, a life-threatening intestinal infection, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. She and her girlfriend broke up, and her mother died suddenly in a freak accident at home.
Just a few days after Notaro received her cancer diagnosis and before she had publicly talked about it, she did a previously scheduled comedy set at the LA club Largo that took everyone by surprise and left the audience stunned. Here's how she began.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TIG NOTARO: Good evening. Hello.
NOTARO: I have cancer. How are you? Hi. How are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer. How are you?
NOTARO: It's a good time. Diagnosed with cancer.
NOTARO: It feels good. Just diagnosed with cancer. Oh, God.
NOTARO: Oh, my God. It's weird because with humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy.
NOTARO: I am just at tragedy...
NOTARO: ...Right now. That's just where I am in the equation. Oh, it's fine. I - here's what happened. I went - I'm going to get - it's very personal - found a lump. Guys, relax. Everything's fine.
NOTARO: I have cancer.
GROSS: Tig Notaro had been doing stand-up for years, but that set made her famous. A lot has changed since then. She's recovered from her double mastectomy. It's unlikely the cancer will return. Professionally, she's had an HBO comedy special and was the subject of a Netflix documentary. She co-wrote and starred in a semi-autobiographical series on Amazon called "One Mississippi." She wrote a memoir. She fell in love with actress Stephanie Allynne. They married and now have twin boys. So here's an excerpt of Tig Notaro's new Netflix comedy special called "Happy To Be Here."
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "TIG NOTARO: HAPPY TO BE HERE")
NOTARO: For the majority of my adult life, I have been mistaken for a man at least once a week. It's more than that, but I don't want to seem like I'm exaggerating.
NOTARO: But I also feel confident that probably nobody here is like, we're going to need some examples.
NOTARO: And it doesn't bother me. I feel comfortable with who I am. I know who I am. I know what I am. You can call me a choo-choo train - doesn't matter. I know who I am. Now, I can't believe it took me 46 years to come up with this response. And if this happens to you, please feel free to use it. Give me credit...
NOTARO: ...'Cause it's good.
NOTARO: I went into a shop and walked up to the counter and the man behind the cash register said, how can I help you, sir? And I said, just the gum, ma'am.
NOTARO: And we were just in this locked down moment of utter confusion. Just like, yeah, I don't know what I'm looking at either.
NOTARO: I don't know how he felt about that exchange, but I know for myself I did leprechaun kicks the entire way home.
GROSS: That's Tig Notaro from her upcoming Netflix comedy special "Happy To Be Here."
Tig Notaro, welcome back to FRESH AIR. That whole idea of being mistaken for a boy or for a man is a recurring theme in your comedy. Did it ever bother you, like, when you were a kid or a teenager?
NOTARO: Yeah. I think when I was little and, you know, getting teased for looking like a boy, it bothered me then, and I think just growing up and becoming an adult and realizing how it's kind of ridiculous to get mad about it.
GROSS: So I want to ask you about another really groundbreaking comedy set that you did. This was an HBO special. And, you know, kind of in the middle of the special you talk about being in an airport after having your double mastectomy and a woman security guard at security pats you down on your chest. And she feels like you don't have breasts, you don't have nipples, and she's utterly confused. And as we already established, a lot of people confuse you (laughter) with being male. And so, like, she's really kind of baffled. And it's a funny bit.
And then when you're done telling the story, you start taking off your jacket and then unbuttoning your white shirt and then you take both of them off and reveal your chest post double mastectomy. And then you let the audience kind of look at you for a while, and then you keep telling airport jokes (laughter). And it's kind of stunning and hilarious at the same time. Can you talk about the process of, one, deciding you were going to take your shirt off on stage and, two, figuring out how do you get in to that part and how do you come out of that part?
NOTARO: (Laughter) Well, when I - after I had surgery and I was going home from the hospital and - you know, it was the tail end of so much in a series of events I had gone through. And there I was in the car going back to my place just thinking, oh, my gosh. Like, now I have these just wounds across my chest with stitches, and I can't lift anything. I can't lift my arms. I can't - I had to have people stay with me to take care of me. And I just couldn't even believe that this was where I was. And then my brain just immediately in that drive home went to, oh, my gosh, what if - what if I did stand-up with my shirt off? And it just tickled me on this really deep, deep level. And I told my friend Lake (ph) who was with me when I was at home. And she was like, oh, my gosh, you have to do that. And I was like, oh, yeah. I don't - I don't know. Maybe. Maybe I'll do that. I don't know. I went back and forth in my head, but it really made me laugh.
And then I started doing stand-up regularly. And when I would be in front of these audiences, it just - the thought kept running through my head. Oh, my gosh, I could take my shirt off right now. I could take my shirt off right now. And I was trying to get used to my body. I was trying to get comfortable with my body. And I had some shame and sadness and discomfort about the way I looked after my surgery. I think that my brain going to, oh, take your shirt off was something that I thought might help me move through it and...
GROSS: Did it?
GROSS: Did you feel like once you took your shirt off in front of an audience and they gave you a kind of positive response to that that you had nothing to feel embarrassed or ashamed about anymore or uncomfortable about? It wasn't hidden. It wasn't a hidden thing that you had to worry about people's reactions. It was out there.
NOTARO: Yeah, but, I mean, you know, my story was so public at that point, so people knew I had had a double mastectomy. But it's still different when - you know, it took me a very long time to be able to look down at my own body just in the privacy of my own home when I took a sponge bath or something. I didn't - I always looked at the ceiling because it was so painful for me. And - yeah, I think that seeing that response and hearing and feeling the response of the crowd and, you know, nobody had to say any particular sentence. It was in the audience reaction, the cheering, that I heard everything I needed to hear.
GROSS: Well, getting back to just, like, the craft level of doing that, when you realize you were going to take your shirt off as part of your comedy performance, figuring out when - then what? Like, you're going to take your shirt off. People are going to look at you. They're going to, you know, hopefully have a positive reaction, which they did. And then where do you go after that? What do you say after that? Because what you do...
NOTARO: (Laughter) No, trust me. I didn't know.
NOTARO: But when I had the idea that I was going to go ahead and take my shirt off, I wanted to make sure I didn't lose touch with being a comedian. And I wanted it to be funny. I didn't want it to just be this intense or poignant moment. I wanted it to be funny. So I thought that if I took my shirt off nonchalantly and revealed something that was very heavy, I didn't need to talk about it. I think it said everything. And so I wanted to make sure that I followed up with only not just jokes but jokes that could potentially be considered hacky, and a lot of people consider air travel jokes hacky. And so I thought, well, I'm going to go right into air travel with my shirt off.
GROSS: And that's what made it so funny.
NOTARO: (Laughter) Yeah. I just - it was fun for me because everyone knew what was happening. We didn't - we didn't need to talk about my shirt being off, and it just felt pretty great. And, you know, when I had run it by a few people, there were some skeptics, and they were like, oh, what if you bum people out? Or, you know, what if this or what if that? And I just really could feel inside me that it was going to go OK, and I think I'm - (laughter) I think I was right.
GROSS: So this is, like, an existential breast question.
NOTARO: Oh, OK.
GROSS: So there were publications where a woman wouldn't be allowed to reveal her breasts because that would be considered - is obscene the word? But, you know - like, you can't be - show naked bodies in a lot of publications. OK.
NOTARO: Good to know.
GROSS: Right. So if you're a woman with a double mastectomy and you don't have breasts, would it be OK to publish that picture in a publication that wouldn't publish breasts? It's just a kind of weird question that came to my mind thinking about your special.
NOTARO: Yeah. It came to my mind because when I wanted to do the billboard for my...
NOTARO: "...Boyish Girl Interrupted" special, I wanted to do it topless and show my double mastectomy scars. And ultimately, I didn't. I was told that they wanted to keep it a surprise, but I don't know what the answer is. And you'd think that I would have followed through more with it. I even actually tried to reach out to - or my manager did - to - I didn't pick up the phone and call Playboy. But I was - not that that's a matter of legal or illegal, but I was definitely open to seeing who was open to or interested in this sort of thing, whether it be a billboard or on HBO or in Playboy or you know. I've gone swimming in public, and I haven't worn a shirt.
GROSS: Were you thinking of offering, like, a topless double mastectomy centerfold to Playboy, seeing if they were interested?
NOTARO: (Laughter) Yes.
GROSS: Seriously, is that what you were thinking?
NOTARO: Yeah, you know, something.
GROSS: But you didn't follow through.
NOTARO: They weren't interested.
GROSS: Oh, they turned you down (laughter).
NOTARO: Yes (laughter).
GROSS: Did you ask for an explanation of why (laughter)?
NOTARO: I think they just said that it wasn't their thing, but...
GROSS: And I'm sure they're right that it is not their thing.
NOTARO: Well, that was why it interested me to go to that extreme. And, I mean, I think...
GROSS: No, that would have been so interesting and kind of cutting-edge on their part and really kind of funny and subversive on your part.
NOTARO: That's what I thought, but I also want to make sure that it's clear that I don't think my mastectomy scars are the only thing that would be odd about me being in Playboy.
GROSS: (Laughter) No.
NOTARO: (Laughter) I know that I don't have the mug or anything going on that their subscribers would be interested in, but...
GROSS: Or the interest in men.
NOTARO: Exactly. The whole thing is a miss, I think. But that was why it interested me. But I did - I thought it would be cutting-edge of them.
GROSS: Right. OK. So let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tig Notaro. She has a new comedy special that will premiere on Netflix May 22. It's called "Happy To Be Here." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is comic and now actor Tig Notaro. And she has a new comedy special that will premiere on Netflix May 22. It's called "Happy To Be Here." So can I ask you a couple of Louis C.K. questions?
NOTARO: If - I guess we'll see what the questions are (laughter).
GROSS: Sure. I'll ask the questions, and you could tell me if you're comfortable answering them. So just as background, you did, you know, that groundbreaking set at Largo that we talked about. There was only, like, a few hundred people in the audience, but there was an audio recording made, and it got a large national audience after Louis C.K. tweeted about your set and then asked with your permission to sell it on his website and - which he did, and it was kind of a sensation. And he was also credited as the executive producer on your Amazon series, "One Mississippi."
But after he became attached to the series, you heard stories about how he'd masturbated in front of women comics. He initially said that was all just rumors, and then he confessed and apologized. What was the process like for you, once you started hearing these stories, of figuring out what you were supposed to do, how you should respond to it, both in terms of the creator of the show that he was listed as executive producer on and also in terms of just deciding what, if anything, to say to him if to ever talk with him again? Like, what to do and to tell other people or to keep it to yourself, how did deal - you know, all of that.
GROSS: Sorry, that's a huge question.
NOTARO: (Laughter) Yeah. Before we even shot the pilot, I had seen sides of him that I had not seen before. And I also want to back up and clarify - Louis isn't an old friend of mine. And because he promoted that album "Live," people assume that we had been friends for years. And I had never even met him - you know, we hadn't ever eaten a meal together, you know? He wasn't somebody that I really knew. He - I knew him - he lived in New York, and I lived in Los Angeles. And it's not like I came up with him or had some big history with him. There's comedians that you meet over the years, and he's one that I had met. But he popped into Largo the night I was doing my set, and that was kind of the beginning of it all.
I had certainly performed with him a couple of times before, but I just want to clarify that I don't have a huge history with him. And so when he called me to do this TV show with - that became "One Mississippi," I agreed to do the show. But then when we were moving towards doing the pilot is when I saw sides of him that I hadn't seen, and I shared that with other people. And that's when I started hearing stories about the, you know, behavior that he had - I don't even - my head...
GROSS: The inappropriate sexual behavior.
NOTARO: Yeah, yeah. My head's just been - there's so many things, there's so many elements to this story. But when I heard that he had done these things, I had asked around, and it had led me to specific people. And the five people that ended up in The New York Times article - four of them were friends of mine. And once I had - before that article came out - once I had confirmation well before the article came out that he had done this, I started publicly trying to separate myself from him. And I had been asked in the press what I thought, and I said, he should handle it. And that was when I had known and gotten confirmation from people. So I was already on the move, trying to remove myself from him. And I...
GROSS: How did you do that?
NOTARO: Well, I mean, he and I stopped talking because of - I just didn't like what I had seen. We had parted ways before the pilot even shot.
GROSS: I see.
NOTARO: Then after that is when I talked to people. And it was a slow process. But it - you know, it was maybe almost two years that it took for everything to kind of come to a head? And it was crazy that all of this was brewing elsewhere and that it was going to - there was going to be this large upheaval that I and nobody else really knew was coming with Louis and several other people.
GROSS: My guest is Tig Notaro. She has a new comedy special that will premiere on Netflix next Tuesday. After a break, we'll talk more about Louis C.K. and talk about Tig's marriage to Stephanie Allynne who many people know as Tig's co-star on "One Mississippi." And Justin Chang will review Paul Schrader's new film "First Reformed" starring Ethan Hawke. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with comic, actor and writer Tig Notaro. She has a new comedy special called "Happy To Be Here" that will be on Netflix starting next Tuesday. When we left off, we were talking about Louis C.K., who has admitted to inappropriate sexual behavior after accusations from several women. Notaro started a professional relationship with him after her groundbreaking comedy set at the club Largo in 2012, in which she startled the audience by revealing she had cancer. His tweet about how masterful her set was went viral. He hosted a recording of that set on his website, and he became an executive producer of Tig Notaro semiautobiographical series, "One Mississippi." But after she saw things about him she found disturbing and heard from other women about his sexual behavior, she separated herself from him personally and professionally. Before we continue, a heads-up to parents - this part of the interview will include discussion about sexual misbehavior, which may not be appropriate for children.
You said that you'd seen a side of him that you hadn't seen before once you started working with him. Do you care to say any more about that, or would you prefer not to?
NOTARO: I'd prefer to not really go into the details, but it was enough for me to just be like, I just want to get away from this person.
GROSS: Did you feel at all conflicted because, you know, he'd given your career such a big boost? And then you found out things that you found really bad that he'd done. So was it hard for you to separate yourself in the way that you did because he had helped you, because there was a side of him that was - you know, was very good to you?
NOTARO: There was a side. But I couldn't help but, looking at all of the pieces, wonder what his motivation was. I don't know if he was...
GROSS: Well you actually said that you were afraid he released your album to cover his tracks, that he knew it was going to make him look like a good guy supporting a woman.
NOTARO: Well, yeah. I mean, that's how I feel. I don't know. I feel like there's a lot of manipulation. I think there's a lot of abuse. I think - I just - I don't know what to think. And...
NOTARO: I know that people can surround themselves with situations, and people, and projects and whatever to protect or make things look OK or like they're positive or in support of women or certain people. But I don't know. You - it's very odd behavior.
GROSS: So you actually used that as the jumping-off point for part of a storyline on your Amazon series "One Mississippi," in which you play a character named Tig. And your now-wife, Stephanie Allynne, plays Kate, who's your producer on a radio show that you do. And so there's a scene in which Kate is pitching an idea to one of her male co-workers who's seated behind his desk, and as she talks, he moves his hand under the desk out of sight. And you can tell by his hand movement and by the expression on his face that he's masturbating. And as Kate is talking to him, she's kind of in shock as it dawns on her what exactly he's doing. And she's kind of, like, confused and paralyzed. And then in the next scene - or maybe it's not exactly the next scene - the character of Kate and your character, Tig, go speak to your boss, who's played by Philip Casnoff. And you're asking him, like, what should you do? So here's an excerpt of that scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ONE MISSISSIPPI")
PHILIP CASNOFF: (As Ezra Weiss) Oh, my God. I am so sorry.
STEPHANIE ALLYNNE: (As Kate) It's not your fault.
CASNOFF: (As Ezra Weiss) There were rumors. I just thought, it can't be; he's so progressive. Do you think he thought he was just, like, making a move?
ALLYNNE: (As Kate) A move...
NOTARO: (As Tig Bavaro) ...Would be to ask her out for a drink.
CASNOFF: (As Ezra Weiss) But in his mind - I mean, I'm just so confused by this basically out-of-the-blue behavior.
ALLYNNE: (As Kate) Well, yes. I was confused, too.
CASNOFF: (As Ezra Weiss) And he just started under the desk. And you're positive it was, you know...
ALLYNNE: (As Kate) Yes.
CASNOFF: (As Ezra Weiss) And you tried to leave?
ALLYNNE: (As Kate) At first, I was just like, what is happening here?
CASNOFF: (As Ezra Weiss) But once you realized, did he block the door?
ALLYNNE: (As Kate) I mean, it all happened really fast.
NOTARO: (As Tig Bavaro) You were in a state of shock.
ALLYNNE: (As Kate) I was really confused. I was flustered, I guess. I mean, my brain couldn't even comprehend what it was he was doing.
NOTARO: (As Tig Bavaro) It's traumatic.
ALLYNNE: (As Kate) I guess - yeah, it was.
CASNOFF: (As Ezra Weiss) Obviously, I'm taking this to HR.
NOTARO: (As Tig Bavaro) HR? Can't you just fire him?
CASNOFF: (As Ezra Weiss) Sadly, no. It's a legal thing. They have to investigate. But we'll get him fired. Trust me.
NOTARO: (As Tig Bavaro) But he doesn't get to be here while they're investigating it.
CASNOFF: (As Ezra Weiss) Well, they usually just try and figure a way you don't have to deal with him while they're looking into it.
NOTARO: (As Tig Bavaro) So he just gets to masturbate at everyone while HR's looking into it.
CASNOFF: (As Ezra Weiss) I can't imagine he'll masturbate at everyone.
ALLYNNE: (As Kate) It's fine.
NOTARO: (As Tig Bavaro) We should just go to the police then.
CASNOFF: (As Ezra Weiss) Police? Really?
NOTARO: (As Tig Bavaro) Yeah, it's a crime. It's assault.
ALLYNNE: (As Kate) The police aren't going to care about a producer masturbating at someone. I mean, to them, that's less of a violation than parking in a loading zone.
CASNOFF: (As Ezra Weiss) It's terrible. But I just think we have to handle it internally.
GROSS: OK, that's a scene from "One Mississippi." So how did you decide to create a storyline based on what you knew of the story of Louis C.K. - of that part of his story?
NOTARO: I mean, having confirmation from people, I just felt like it was a - and also knowing that this was happening to others, once I was speaking to people, it just felt like a time to move forward and do something. And, you know, if somehow - I (laughter) - it's so...
GROSS: Hard to talk about.
NOTARO: It is. It's - you know, when the show got cancelled, we certainly would've done more - another season if we would've been given the opportunity. But when it got cancelled, I have to say I was relieved. I was ready to just be finished with this person, you know? So yeah, going through all this - I mean, I try not to...
GROSS: OK, no, I see it's hard for you to talk about it.
NOTARO: I'm just...
GROSS: I get it. I just want to say one more thing about Louis C.K., and that is, I feel so bad in the sense that I think he's so talented. I think he is sometimes, like, so funny. And, you know, I really liked his show, not always so much when there was a love interest. That didn't always work out very well. But I think it's just so sad that he had the compulsion to behave the way he did because he is so talented and because he had so many good insights into human nature that he can express comedically. I just wanted to say that.
NOTARO: Well, I mean, that's one thing. But it's - you know, it's also sad. I - like I said, I know so many of the people - there's other people. Not everybody...
GROSS: No. Oh, absolutely.
NOTARO: ...Was in that article that...
NOTARO: ...He's done this to. And so to know firsthand the pain and destruction that - just what it's done to other people is - that's really, really sad to me.
GROSS: I completely agree with you, and I didn't want to make it seem like I was making light of all the pain that he caused. I just think...
NOTARO: Oh, no, no, no.
GROSS: I mean, it's tragic for him, too, that he's trapped in that kind of behavior that I don't - it's behavior I don't understand.
NOTARO: Yeah. I don't either. And I just - I have spoken in depth with many people that he affected, and it is infuriating what it has done to them.
GROSS: So I know this is hard for you to talk about. So let's move on to another subject (laughter).
NOTARO: Thank you.
GROSS: (Laughter) Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actor and writer Tig Notaro. And she has a new Netflix comedy special that premieres May 22. It's called "Happy To Be Here." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF VITO LITURRI TRIO'S "JUST A DREAMER")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic, actor and writer Tig Notaro. She has a new stand-up comedy special that premieres on Netflix May 22. It's called "Happy To Be Here."
Who were you before you were a comic, before you started performing and knew that that's what you wanted to do? What kind of life did you envision for yourself?
NOTARO: My gosh (laughter). You know, I failed three grades and dropped out of high school. And I don't think I had much - I don't know. I just - I don't think I thought I had much in store. It's funny 'cause my stepfather was visiting recently - or, no. No, we were in Boston for my brother's engagement party. And I said, gosh, I don't know where I would be if it wasn't for stand-up. And my stepfather said, nor do I. I do not know where you would be.
NOTARO: And we had a laugh because it is true. I really - you know, I just was always moving. You know, I was always looking for another town to live in. Or - I was always moving apartments and having different relationships and different jobs - always a new job, always a new place. Everything was always new. There was nothing settled. And it was that - the unrest. And I hadn't found comedy yet. I hadn't met Stephanie and didn't have the babies. And once I had that - once I had comedy, there was a different level of security and stability that I had. And - same with finding Stephanie and then having the babies.
It's just - you know, when I hear people talk about their fear of commitment and what will be taken away from their freedom, I - to me, as soon as I met Stephanie and committed to her and then married her and had Max and Finn, my idea of what was out there for me in the world just grew and grew and grew. And it grows every day. I feel like - I already feel like I have it all. And I feel like I could have even more. And I mean that - and I'm not talking about career. I just mean the fulfillment in all of that. It's extraordinary.
GROSS: When you found out you were having twins as opposed to, like, one baby, were you prepared for that?
NOTARO: I was. And I was hoping for that. And that's the beauty of science these days. You know, we were trying to have twins. And so we did what we could. I think we put in three embryos, and two of them took.
GROSS: I see. I see. Why did you want twins?
NOTARO: Well, I wanted twins because I'm an older parent - I would potentially be an older parent if I had kids. And also, I'd had a lot of medical issues and health issues. And I just thought, OK, I want to have kids. And I want to just have two at a time, just get this going, you know? And boy, did we. It just - it happened, and it has been going.
And I have moments where I think, oh, I want more. Or, you know, I think - I'm still interested in adoption. But I also catch myself in moments thinking, is that fair? I'm now 47 years old. I don't know. But I'm certainly happy with what I have now. But my brain does wander to - hm, I mean, we do have an extra room.
GROSS: So you know, the last time we spoke, we talked a lot about some terrible things that had happened in your life. You had gotten pneumonia. You had C. difficile, which is this absolutely horrible intestinal infection that can cause death. You'd become kind of skeletal as a result. Then when you got out of the hospital, soon after, you were diagnosed with cancer. And in the middle of what I just said, your mother died. So it just seemed...
NOTARO: And my girlfriend and I split up in the middle of that, as well.
GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry that I forgot to mention that.
NOTARO: Yeah. Come on.
GROSS: What was I thinking?
NOTARO: Those other things, too. But yeah.
GROSS: So - but since that whole, like, really miserable chapter of your life, lots of great things have happened to you, like your career has taken off. You got married to Stephanie Allynne, who you met on the set of "In A World." And you were still sick when you were on the set.
NOTARO: Yeah, I had all of those diseases at one time and didn't know it.
GROSS: But now you're married. You have to children.
NOTARO: Yep, she married me anyway. Yup.
GROSS: (Laughter) You have twins. So it just seems like, whoa - you know, total flip of your life. What kind of wedding did you have?
NOTARO: It was gigantic. We thought we were just going to go someplace and get married privately, just the two of us. And we started going to all these weddings after we got together, and Stephanie at one point said, I think I want to have a big wedding. And I said, I'm feeling that way, too. And this was before marriage had become legal nationally. And so I said, you know, I'd really love to get married on the beach in my hometown in Mississippi. And we were having the wedding on the beach, and then we were going to walk across the street. And my cousin lives across the street, and we had the reception at their house. And when we talked to my cousins, they asked, well, how many people are you thinking? And we said, oh, you know, like - I don't know - 200? - even though in our heads, we thought 350. We were just trying to get a gauge.
NOTARO: And they were like, oh, yeah, we thought you meant, like, a really big wedding. And we were like, well, like, I mean, would 350 be a problem? And they were like, no, no, no, that's not a problem at all (laughter). And so there were 350 people on the beach in this little town in Mississippi. And the local police - it became legal. It was crazy because it became legal the day after we sent out our wedding invitations. And the local police shut down the road in both directions, and there was just traffic lined up for miles. And we were all headed, you know, down the street to my cousin's house - and all of our friends in from New York, and LA, and Texas and Colorado - everywhere. And I think people didn't know what to expect for a gay wedding in small-town Mississippi. And it was really the most beautiful day. And the neighbors were running out of their houses, yelling - this is so beautiful, congrats - and, you know, following us all down the road. And I turned to Stephanie, and I said, I bet they think I'm a man.
NOTARO: It is - I'm so used to it. It's like...
GROSS: Well, Tig Notaro, thank you so much for talking with us.
NOTARO: Thank you for having me on again. I'm happy to be here.
GROSS: Yes, which is the name of your special. Good work.
NOTARO: Thank you.
GROSS: (Laughter) The name of Tig Notaro's special, which premieres on Netflix May 22. Thanks again, Tig.
NOTARO: Thank you.
GROSS: After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new film "First Reformed," written and directed by Paul Schrader, who also wrote "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL FREEDMAN'S "LOVE TAKES TIME")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic Justin Chang has a review of a new film by Paul Schrader, the 71-year-old director of movies like "Affliction" and "American Gigolo," and the screenwriter of Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver." Schrader's new film, "First Reformed," stars Ethan Hawke as a conflicted Christian minister. Justin says it's a spiritual drama that moves like a thriller.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "First Reformed" is a stunner, a spiritually probing work of art with the soul of a thriller, realized with a level of formal control and fierce moral anger that we seldom see in American movies. This isn't just Paul Schrader's best picture in years; it distills his brilliant, erratic career into one magnum opus. It brings together his background in Calvinist theology, his fascination with male sociopathic rage and his scholarly expertise on the austere, contemplative style of filmmakers like Carl Theodor Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu. If that sounds like a lot to process, don't worry. It's also a hell of a compelling story.
Ethan Hawke brings a powerful sense of inner turmoil to the role of Reverend Ernst Toller an ex-military-chaplain who now leads a tiny congregation at a Dutch Reformed Church in upstate New York. The nearly 250-year-old chapel has since been absorbed by a wealthy, well-attended megachurch called Abundant Life ministries. One of Toller's few parishioners is a young woman named Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried, who asks him to counsel her depressed husband, Michael, an ex-con and environmental activist. Michael, played by Philip Ettinger, is so frightened by the devastating implications of climate change that he wants Mary to abort their unborn child, prompting Toller to share his own experience of grief and despair.
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ETHAN HAWKE: (As Ernst Toller) So you know my story.
PHILIP ETTINGER: (As Michael) You were a chaplain.
HAWKE: (As Ernst Toller) My father taught at VMI. I encouraged my son to enlist. It was a family tradition like his father, my father before me. Patriotic tradition. My wife was very opposed. My son enlisted anyway. And six months later, he was dead in Iraq. I talked my son into a war that had no moral justification. My wife can no longer live with me. I left the military. I was lost.
CHANG: Their back-and-forth is a masterwork of spiritual interrogation in which Toller's urgent plea for hope collides with the full force of Michael's torment. Schrader shoots the dialogue and the entire film in long, measured takes, rarely moving the camera or cutting away unless necessary. In scene after scene, he plants us in the room with the characters, forcing us to adjust to the unhurried rhythms of their conversation. But despite its measured pacing and formal spareness, "First Reformed" has a powerful sense of narrative drive. Will God forgive us for destroying his creation, Michael asks. And before long, Toller is asking the same question, especially when he learns that Abundant Life - the parent church - is in business with one of the region's biggest industrial polluters.
"First Reformed" is essentially the story of a minister's extreme doubt, disillusionment and radicalization. It doesn't help that Toller has so little to live for. His health is declining rapidly, and he's seemingly determined to drink himself to death in any case. His thin, ravaged body becomes a stark metaphor for the dying earth itself. "First Reformed" isn't the subtlest of theological provocations. With his explicit references to the Iraq War and global warming, Shrader is implicating modern evangelical Christianity for what he perceives as its lapses in moral leadership and co-opting by the conservative right.
The plotting may be a little convenient, but Schrader makes no attempt to conceal the fact that he's written a polemic. It's both a work of deep introspection and a call to arms. The movie isn't undone by these contradictions, it's fulfilled by them. Toller finds himself drawing closer to the kind, gentle Mary. But even that can't stop him from harboring dark and increasingly violent thoughts toward the church.
At times, "First Reformed" suggests a loose remake of "Taxi Driver" by way of Robert Bresson's "Diary Of A Country Priest." Shrader even throws in references to Ingmar Bergman's "Winter Light" and Andrei Tarkovsky's "The Sacrifice" for good measure. Ethan Hawke has said that his great grandmother longed for him to be a priest. It may not have been his destiny, but he was certainly born to play one. Ettinger and Seyfried are heartbreaking in their vulnerability, and so too is Victoria Hill as a church choir director who carries a torch for Toller but earns only his unbridled contempt.
The most surprising performance comes from a terrific Cedric the Entertainer billed here as Cedric Kyles. He plays Reverend Joel Jeffers (ph), the charismatic-but-deeply-compromised head pastor of Abundant Life. At one point, Jeffers tries to get Toller to snap out of his despair, telling him, you're always in the garden. Even Jesus wasn't always in the garden. "First Reformed" itself feels like the work of an artist who has spent a lot of time in his own private Gethsemane, wrestling with his demons. By the end of this beautifully sustained movie, it's Schrader's career that's been resurrected.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Trump versus the deep state. My guest will be Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, whose new article is about how hundreds of nonpartisan civil servants considered not loyal enough to the Trump administration have been sidelined or pushed out of government. Key positions have been left open to an unprecedented degree, leaving the president with few restraints on him. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "FUGUE NO. 16 IN G MINOR FROM THE WELL-TEMPERED CLAVIER BOOK II, BWV 885")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "FUGUE NO. 16 IN G MINOR FROM THE WELL-TEMPERED CLAVIER BOOK II, BWV 885")
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