From Taylor Dayne to stools across a floor, Tig Notaro is a unique comedian who finds the sublime, understated absurdity inherent in every facet of life, no matter how small stakes it might seem on the surface. In the 2010s, Notaro was hit with a horrific number of personal tragedies, and she cathartically used the pain as inspiration for an instantly iconic, spur-of-the-moment comedy album called Live, and a wonderful Amazon series called One Mississippi. Her latest project is a delightful bolt of silliness, and the perfect skewering of talk show tropes: Under a Rock with Tig Notaro. Produced with Funny or Die, the show finds Notaro chatting with celebrity guests like Lena Headey, Julie Bowen, and James Van Der Beek. But there’s a twist: Notaro is very unplugged from pop culture and has no idea who these celebrities are. So, she chats with them as a blank slate, trying to guess who they are in the moment. It is worth your time and thensome.
I was lucky to talk to Notaro over the phone about Under a Rock, the intersection between silliness and seriousness, the joys of getting to know people without any preconceived notions, the wildness of auditioning for the same Spider-Man role as Octavia Spencer, her Star Trek: Discovery role, and the embarrassment of not knowing who Anne Hathaway is. Plus: Notaro’s wife and collaborator Stephanie Allynne briefly joins the conversation to gently remind Notaro what pop culture they have been watching.
COLLIDER: When did you first realize, crystal clear, that you didn’t know who anybody was?
TIG NOTARO: [laughter] Well, I mean, before I moved to Los Angeles, it wasn’t really ever a conversation or issue. And then after I moved here and pretty much every job and every person surrounded that world and conversation, I started to realize that it just wasn’t the world that I had been in. I had moved out to Los Angeles with my childhood friends that were pursuing careers in entertainment, and we had all just kind of stuck together over the years, and so I just moved here following them. And that’s how I got into stand up and that’s how I got into this industry. And so, as little as I know now, it is light years beyond what I knew 22 years ago. And my first job in production was working at Sam Raimi’s company, and everybody in the office was just astounded by what and who I didn’t know and who they had hired to work for them.
What was it like working for Sam Raimi?
NOTARO: Well, Sam was very much on location most of the time, and so I had very minimal interactions with him. It was mainly over the phone, because he would be on some movie set. But it was really fun. I mean I still, I would say most of the people from that company are still some of my closest friends, and Sam has been supportive over the years of my stand up and acting career. And so I would say it was a very positive experience. One of the craziest things, actually, is that I did a movie with Octavia Spencer called Instant Family, and while we were working together, it came up that she loves horror films. And I said, “Oh, I worked for Sam Raimi.” And she said, “Really?” She said, “I worked for the casting director.” She was the casting director’s assistant on the Spider-Man movie. And I said, “Oh, I went in to audition for a part, that was my first time to audition. Sam just sent me in to do this role.” And she was like, “Oh my gosh.” She said, “I was in the room, then, with you.” And she said, “What role was it?” And I told her, and she said, “I ended up doing that role. My boss let me audition for that, too, and I got that role.” It was so insane.
That is a fascinating worlds-colliding moment.
NOTARO: I know. So I think Octavia’s part was checking people into the wrestling ring, and that’s the role that I tried to get, or that Sam sent me in for, and Octavia Spencer got it.
Wow. I remember that role. What could have been.
NOTARO: Yeah. (laughter) Yeah, right?
So, there’s this lifelong journey of not exactly knowing who folks are, moving to a place where you need to know who folks are. When does this turn and crystallize into the premise for Under a Rock?
NOTARO: Well, it just became comical when I would walk places with my wife or go to parties with her and we talked to people and then somebody would walk off and she’d say, “I can tell you had no idea who you were just talking to.” I would [say], “No.” Or she’d see me introduce myself to somebody and ask, “Oh, what do you do?” Or, “How did you two meet?” And she would just kind of laugh. She never gets used to it. And then I just thought, “Oh, wouldn’t that be funny?” Well, I always thought it’d be interesting to send me on a road trip and pepper the road trip with famous people at gas stations and grocery stores and see if anything clocks. But then I thought that an easier show would be for me to have a famous person in front of me, and let me just talk to them and see if I can figure out what they do, who they are. And when I mentioned it to Funny or Die, they were really into it. And so it came together pretty quickly. And it’s all very real. When people have doubts that it’s real, I always think, “Why would I spend my time pretending to not [know]?” It just seems like such a waste of time for me to do that.
For my money, you can track the reality of your reactions. Are all of the sort of investigative questions that you ask in the moment, are those mostly improvised on the spot, or is there a team that helps you craft it? What is the detective work like on your end?
NOTARO: All the questions that I ask are my questions, unless I pull the card from the table and ask something that the writers or producers thought I should ask. And then the writers also come up with the different games or activities to try and figure out who they are. And [guests] know obviously what they’re signing up for. So there’s also never any element of being mean to somebody. So everyone signs up knowing exactly what it is and they’re game for it. And then I end up having 30 to 45-minute conversations, and they are very genuine, authentic conversations. And I walk away really interested in seeing their stuff just based on them as a person.
Has a post-interview relationship with any of these people or with any of their products happen that’s been really interesting, important, or special to you?
NOTARO: Gosh. I think that I… It’s not like I’ve gone out and really started blossoming friendships with people, but I got a note from Tony Shalhoub’s people saying what a great time he had, and just that kind of exchange and connection that continued after. And then I have a mutual friend with Kaley Cuoco, and my friend texted me a couple of months ago saying that when life is safe again, to bring my boys over to Kaley’s house where there’s a lot of animals. And so, there are just bread crumbs of, “Oh, these are nice little connections I made.”
That’s so fun, I love that. It’s interesting to me, it feels like kind your last big statements, whether it’s Live or One Mississippi, have all been very personal and all very interested in dissecting very personal traumas and pains that have happened to you. What does it feel like to flip into something purely silly and purely fun?
NOTARO: [laughter] It feels amazing, because even when I did One Mississippi and when I did Live or my HBO special [Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted], whatever I did, I always would remind any producers, writers, directors that I still want there to be this idea — even with my documentary on Netflix [Tig], when I watched different cuts of it, I kept saying to the producers and directors that I want this ultimately to be a story about a comedian. I want the comedy to be there. And I always describe myself as a no-nonsense, 100%-nonsense person. And it’s just this line that I walk where I’m very no-nonsense, straightforward, but I also love silliness like crazy. And I also think that even though Under a Rock is silly, it’s still very real and authentic. And I’m trying to connect with people and just have that honest connection and not bring the elements of Hollywood and, “What’s your latest project, and tell me something about a celebrity you worked with that everybody is dying to hear.” You know? It’s just really like, “Who are you and where are you from? And tell me about your family and your interests.” But I do love that I can really get in touch with the nonsense side of myself and the sensibility, because it is very much there.
And as a fan of your standup, for me it’s been there from the beginning. “All-nonsense, no-nonsense” kind of feels a little bit like your role on Star Trek: Discovery as Jett Reno.
How did getting involved in that world begin, and what do you try to bring to this established world of Star Trek?
NOTARO: I got involved because Alex Kurtzman, to bring it back to Sam Raimi, was the showrunner/head writer for Hercules and Xena, which was also on the TV production side of Sam’s company. And Alex and I both started out as assistants at Sam’s company. And when he got the Star Trek world, he thought maybe there was a place for me, and he asked me to come to his office in Santa Monica. And I mean, I’ve known him 21 years, and he told me about the role, and he said he would write it completely for me and my sensibility. And we just had this really great two hour meeting. He said, “We would love to use you as much as you’re available.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, this would be so fun.” And I thought in my head, “Oh, I bet it’ll be one of those things where I go in, I do an episode, and it never happens again.”
But I was very excited. And when I saw the role on paper, I just thought they did such a great job. I guess they had really scoured through my stand up and watched a lot of my stuff to make sure that it felt right for me. And I really don’t identify as an actor, and I do struggle on that show with all of the dialogue. After the first episode, I called Alex and I just said, “I know you said you’d love to use me as much as possible, but I just want you to know I did a terrible job and I couldn’t remember my lines. I didn’t know what the hell I was saying or talking about. And I don’t want you to feel like you have to keep having me just because you said you wanted to.” And he said, “Well, I already saw the dailies and we edit on set, and it cobbled together in a way that I would never have known unless you called me.” And he said, “And so knowing that you struggled, I’m now, moving forward, going to make it even more difficult for you.” And so it seems like I’m not going to be able to lose that job no matter what happens, no matter what. [laughter]
Have you thought about testing that, seeing if you can come in and sabotage the shoot, see how far you could take it?
NOTARO: I have always tried my absolute hardest and best. (laughter) And I mean, there have been times where I have gone in and I truly cannot… Even when I do lines in regular movies or TV shows that are as simple as, “Hey, see you at dinner tonight,” I sometimes have trouble remembering, and I have to really go over my sides. And so with this made up outer space science, jumbled, I have no idea what I’m talking about. I can’t picture what I’m talking about. I have so much trouble, and they… Directors have brought in an apple box to sit and just feed me my lines. And I’ll call Alex and I’ll say, “Oh my god. (laughter) I tried to learn these lines. I can’t.” I mean, sometimes I get it down and I do it, but when I struggle, they have no hesitation. I apologize. I really try to learn it, and they’re just like, “Oh, who cares? It’s fine. I’ll just sit here and feed you your lines.” And I’m like, “Jesus Christ.” [laughter] I don’t want to be fired. I always want to do a great job with everything I do. I try really hard. Unfortunately, my friend is the creator and executive producer, and he won’t let me go.
Well, it sounds like from his perspective and from a viewer perspective, you are doing a great job.
NOTARO: I think so. When I see it all cut together, I’m like, “Oh, this is awesome. This is so fun.” My kids, they’re four, they think I really work in outer space. I’ve shown it to them, but they want me to fast forward past myself. And they just want to see the ship flying through space, but it’s a really cool thing to be a part of. And as far as what I bring, I don’t know. [laughter] I don’t know what I bring, but whatever I’m bringing, I’m happy to contribute it as long as they’re happy and the fans are happy, I’m happy. I love being on that show so much.
That’s wonderful. And it sounds like everyone’s happy. Coming back to Under a Rock, you always start the show with an admission that you don’t watch a lot of movies, you don’t watch a lot of TV shows. Right now, we’re forced inside of our homes. It feels like this is kind of the ample time to watch a lot of movies, a lot of TV shows. Is there anything that you are watching lately that you are loving, that you want to shout out?
NOTARO: Absolutely. Stephanie and I have for sure been ending a lot of our days, after our little cubs go to bed, we have been watching documentaries and TV series. We watched Mrs. America. We are watching the Jeffrey Epstein documentary [Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich]. Stephanie, what TV series have we watched? Mrs. America.
STEPHANIE ALLYNNE: The Hillary [Clinton] documentary [Hillary].
NOTARO: [to me] We watched the Hillary documentary.
NOTARO: Huh. [to me] Maybe it’s not a lot that I’ve watched. We started watching Homeland? We started watching Homeland. And, uh… [to Allynne] Wasn’t there a docuseries we watched?
ALLYNNE: The Hillary one, right?
NOTARO: Right. Oh, we’re starting to watch that I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, that Patton Oswalt did about his wife. [to Allynne] Yes, Stephanie.
ALLYNNE: Modern Love?
NOTARO: Oh, we’re watching Modern Love.
Oh yeah. The Amazon show with Anne Hathaway?
NOTARO: Yep. Yep.
Nice. It seems like y’all are really into real-life stories, maybe more than fictional ones.
NOTARO: Yeah. I mean, I’m a big fan of documentaries. We just started the I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and are probably halfway through Modern Love. I won’t bore you with my Anne Hathaway story, but it’s out there tied to the Under a Rock world.
Oh, I would love to be bored by your Anne Hathaway story if that’s okay.
NOTARO: [laughter] Sure. Basically, I was with Alex Kurtzman going back to our hotel room in Toronto, after the wrap party. And this woman came around the corner and said, “Oh, hey Tig.” And I said, “Hey.” I said, “Wait, I’m sorry. Were you just at the Star Trek wrap party?” And she said, “No, it’s me, Anne Hathaway.” She said, “I met you at Beck’s concert.” And I was like, “Oh right.” And I was immediately like, “Oh my god, just get me out of here.” And Stephanie, when I told her that, Stephanie said, “I can’t believe that she said, ‘I’m Anne Hathaway, I met you at the Beck concert.’ She should have said, ‘I’m Anne Hathaway from Anne Hathaway.'” And Stephanie said, “I remember seeing you meet her backstage at the Beck concert, and I could see on your face you didn’t recognize her.” And when we started watching Modern Love, I said, “Oh, there’s my friend.” And Stephanie said, “That’s right.” [laughter]
Under a Rock with Tig Notaro is streaming on YouTube.