[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the first season of Amazon’s One Mississippi.]
Tig Notaro has described One Mississippi as 85 percent real.
Her semi-autobiographical Amazon series stars Notaro as a version of herself, also named Tig, reliving a version of the real-life events that comprised the most difficult year of her life.
In 2012, the stand-up comedian nearly died from a bacterial infection called C. Diff, went through a break-up, suffered the untimely death of her mother and was diagnosed with cancer. She relayed the series of tragic events in a legendary stand-up routine, “Hello, I Have Cancer,” which made her an overnight sensation. Although she’s since recounted the events in subsequent TV specials, documentaries and in a memoir, One Mississippi is her first attempt at tackling that year with a scripted, half-hour TV comedy.
On One Mississippi, Los Angeles radio host Tig — or “Fig” as the character was referred to by showrunner Kate Robbins and in the writers room — returns to her hometown in Mississippi to say goodbye to her dying mother and grieve with her brother Remy (Noah Harpster) and stepfather Bill (John Rothman).
“People think that random means spread out and sporadic,” Notaro tells The Hollywood Reporter about the life-threatening and life-altering events hitting her back to back. “It can all pile up or it can all be spread out, there’s no way of knowing, and that’s with the good or bad in life.”
Notaro is now healthy (she displayed her double mastectomy during her Emmy-nominated HBO special, Boyish Girl Interrupted), is doing stand-up at Carnegie Hall for the New York Comedy Festival Nov. 5, and she and wife Stephanie Allynne — who also writes and stars on the show — are new moms to 4-month-old twins Max and Finn. Below, Notaro talks to THR about the cathartic journey, ideas she has brewing for a potential second season and why you won’t hear her mention the word “cancer” in her current routines.
Amazon first released the pilot last fall before giving you the full six-episode season order, which was released last month. Did you feel pressure coming back to finish the season?
I don’t know that I felt pressure. I felt like that was the show that I wanted to make and I was fine with putting it out there to get a vibe to see if people were into it. When they were, I was really excited to continue to work on it. We had assembled such a great writers room that it just seemed like it was going to be really fun to see what everyone was going to bring to this, and that’s what happened. I felt a version of, “OK, well, hopefully people will like this and if they don’t, we can move on.”
You co-wrote the fifth episode with Stephanie [who plays Tig’s possible love interest, Kate]. Why that episode in particular?
She and I both really connected with it. Even though the show is all very intimate, this was something on a different level of intimate because it was the first time I was going to have any sort of physical interaction with somebody or a makeout scene. I have never done that, and when we were assigning different episodes, it was the one where she and I were like, “Oh, that’s going to be so much fun to write.” And we had such a blast writing that together, we’re really proud of it. There can be that tendency to think that I’m pushing for her because she’s my wife, but I don’t even have to push for her. She’s so talented.
What was it like filming your first love scene for scripted TV?
(Laughs.) What I learned doing this first season is that I forgot when we were in the writers room that I would actually have to do the things that we were writing. When we were in the room, I was freely writing and okaying things and elaborating or fictionalizing, It was just a free for all. And then when I was getting to set, I was thinking, “Oh my God, I’m actually going to have to cry here and kiss this stranger.” Those were the two most nerve-racking moments of the show: doing my mother’s eulogy at her funeral and making out with the character Jessie. I was like, “What was I thinking?!”
After we did it, I felt like it came across well and I was happy. Though, if there is a second season, I don’t know if I’m going to do that again. I don’t enjoy it. It’s such an odd thing to be somebody that loves stand-up and who wrote some jokes and went to coffee shop open mics, and all of that led me to acting and having to make out onscreen? There’s a disconnect somewhere along the way and I just have to bridge that gap. I just have to start acting and making out, just because I wrote some jokes at a coffee shop.
You’ve been on The Sarah Silverman Program and Transparent, but did you take acting classes or do any prepping to face those fears of leading a show?
I think I just got more comfortable with some things. This is me playing, not even a version of myself, I think it just might be me. (Laughs.) But I’m familiar with these moments, and when my life fell apart in 2012, going through something like that and coming through it gave me more confidence in everything and put things into perspective of, “Oh, I can probably handle this.” A lot of what gets in the way of acting is getting insecure and doubting yourself, and I just feel more comfortable.
You mentioned that filming the eulogy scene was the most difficult. How hard was that to relive?
When I’m crying in her funeral, as soon as I walked up to the little podium in that scene and opened my mouth, I started really crying. People told me, “God, that was really good acting.” (Laughs.) I was like, “No it wasn’t, I was emotional.” But that was really, really hard for me because that really took me back to when I spoke at my mother’s funeral.
There’s also a part in the pilot when the nurse is laughing that some people just see as really weird and funny and crazy, and other people see the other levels of the actual moment. When I watch it, I’m laughing too, but it was born out of such a sad moment. Of leaving her and not knowing what to do or how to leave her because it didn’t feel natural to leave my mother at such a vulnerable, just sad, moment even though she was dead. It didn’t make sense to me and I just didn’t know what to do. When I went through that in my mind, in reality, I thought, “Well, what do I want? Am I expecting them to make this her special room and I can always come visit her?” It’s just another dead person to them, but it’s my mother. I really struggled with that. The scene forces you to laugh in the moment because the woman’s laughing, but the layers underneath are really from a sad place.
When you tip-toed back and forth to the bathroom, that also makes you laugh and yet feel instantly sad.
Exactly. It’s really what was happening to me. I was there by myself, I have diarrhea and my mother’s dying. This couldn’t be more pathetic.
What do your brother and stepfather think of the show?
They love it and are so proud of it. My stepfather sent me a card and it was dated Sept. 9, which was the day it came out, and he watched the whole series. I wasn’t quite sure what he was going to think because it’s really personal stuff, but I also thought, nobody edited me before and I can’t imagine it’s going to start now. He wrote me this card that he filled out on both sides, going on about how much he loved it and how he thought it was a perfect combination of funny and touching. He even put in examples of what he enjoyed. I couldn’t believe it. And my brother, he’s always my biggest fan, he just loved it.
What did you learn most about yourself, or the other people in your life, while writing and filming the show?
I know that I wasn’t the only one going through it at the time, but when you’re buried in devastating and painful experiences like I was, I couldn’t really consider other people. I could barely breathe, keep myself alive or consider myself. So in writing the show and considering everybody’s perspective, that’s where I got touched the most. At the end of episode three when Bill leans over to touch the empty side of the bed, that was one of those moments that I was like, “Oh my God, yeah.” We were all in so much pain and I can’t say that I was selfish, because I really was doing my best. But I think we were all doing our best. We’re all human and really everybody was doing their best. It gave me more of a full picture.
After all you and your character have been through, what was behind the decision to also reveal that Tig had been molested by her grandfather as a child?
After 2012, I thought, “Oh wow, I’ve lived through this and now I have a free ride in life.” And I can’t believe I really thought that. As soon as I was healed from cancer and everything I was going through, I got back out into life and realized it doesn’t work out like that. I can have hard times still, or again, my cancer could come back or Stephanie could leave me or that I would never have children. It doesn’t mean that everything’s going to be an easy ride from there and that’s kind of how life is. It’s not that everybody only gets a certain amount of things in life that are painful, or good.
Has there been talk of more episodes or a second season?
Nothing has been confirmed. It’s my understanding that Amazon released all of their pilots and comedy in September and then they’re going to make decisions. Amazon has made me believe they’re very excited about the show, but I never want to be anywhere that I’m not wanted. So if people don’t want the show, then that’s how it is.
If you do return, what can you share about a second season? Will Tig pursue Kate?
What’s funny is that one of the notes about the show was that I had too many romantic interests. That it was a little too confusing and who was I interested in? I don’t mean to be braggadocios, but there was actually a fourth person in the real story. (Laughs.) I said: Just so you guys know, I toned it down for you, so I think we can handle three.
The Kate part is obviously a hint or tease that maybe there’s something there, but there’s nothing confirmed of what we’re going to do. I watched the series twice. Stephanie and I sat down and watched it and took notes of what we thought would be interesting to add. We certainly have ideas, but nothing set in stone. I broke up with Brooke, will that be the end of Brooke? I don’t know. I love Casey Wilson and she makes me laugh harder than most people alive, so it’s hard to say we’re done with her. But maybe we will. And because Stephanie is my wife and person in real life, I think people assume I’m going to end up with Kate. Will I? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. That’s been the fun part of it. It’s all very loosely based in reality, but we’ve been able to run with different storylines. It was hard for me at first, my hands were very tied to reality and truth and once I let go a little bit it was so fun because I didn’t know where the show was going. The Jessie character, who knows? That was a real relationship that went back and forth and it was not the one for me, but it was so helpful in my healing. There’s more to that story but I don’t know if I’m going to tell it.
Did any of those other relationships reach out about their portrayals?
I have not heard from the Jessie character. I did hear from the Brooke character. She and I broke up right before I was diagnosed with cancer and we didn’t see each other and four years later, we ran into each other after the pilot came out and all the anger and resentment was gone and we had a really nice talk. She said she watched the pilot and she thought it was really well-written and acted and I was blown away. That was how our first meet-up would be, that I would have written a show about our experience and that she would approve. The only person I haven’t heard from is the Jesse character but I’m not concerned, I don’t think I portrayed her in a bad light.
When you look back at that year of your life, are you ready to put that year to bed, creatively?
Creatively, in my standup, there’s not really anything grief-heavy in there. I have a 20-minute bit that I close with now that’s the most ridiculous thing that I’ve ever done in my career that would bring no one near to tears, unless it was joyful tears. I’ve been able to share my story through my book, documentary, TV show, standup special and album, and I couldn’t help but have a lot to say because it was a very traumatic time for me. But now, if I wrote another book, it’d probably be about my standup career. And if I did another special, there probably wouldn’t be one mention of cancer. I definitely feel like I’m moving on. But like I said, who knows what is down the road? Hopefully it’s happiness and joy, which is what I’m neck deep in right now. I just don’t like to say anything is absolute, but for right now, I’m at the best part of my life, so far. There’s not much about the time in 2012 that’s rearing it’s head in what I’m doing. I’m mainly doing standup and considering another comedy special or book. But I’m a full-time Mommy so that’s been nice. I’ve taken time off to really devote to them and they’re my best friends.
Do you still have parts of the grief you’d want to put into a second season?
As far as One Mississippi, we’ll probably follow some of the older storylines but into newer territory and more fictional topics. But who knows! I really have no idea as I’m talking. I’m like, what am I talking about? Because I haven’t sat down with the other writers. People ask about my standup, “Are you going to close the chapter on the close association you have with cancer and people knowing you with that?” And I say, “If it feels right to let it go.” And it has. I don’t talk about having cancer in my standup anymore. I don’t have cancer. But if it comes up for me again, that I’m going through something, I’m going to talk about it. I’m going to do whatever feels right whenever it feels right.
All six episodes of One Mississippi are streaming now on Amazon.