When most of us want to hide in the dark corners to deal with our mental health privately, it seems counterintuitive that in the comedy community, comedians so often use the stage as a form of therapy. Jokes become a kind of confession as performers work through their issues with an audience. Frequently, this comedic form can be a recipe for failure. At its worst, psychologically confessional material makes the crowd uncomfortable and wastes precious open mic time for people who are working on their humor, not their trauma. Sometimes, though, this transparency serves the material well. If a comic is able to glean insights and real jokes from their shortcomings, the audience can connect deeply with them and share in healing laughter. Whether the material discomforts or heals hinges upon the performers ability to maintain a careful balance of authenticity, humour, and most of all self-awareness.
You’ve probably seen Tig Notaro before. Her signature deadpan delivery and tight writing make her an adored stand-up comedian and interview subject, especially when she’s sharing about her complicated roots, difficult past, and relatable struggles. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Tig underwent a double mastectomy in 2013. Understandably, her work and her comedy began to focus inward on this life-changing experience. Tig opted out of reconstructive surgery and, in 2014, performed a portion of her stand-up set topless in New York City, quite literally baring it all. Her encounter with cancer became a focal point of much of her work and is explored heavily in her latest Amazon show, One Mississippi which just finished its second season..
One Mississippi is a semi-autobiographical dramedy that chronicles Tig’s life as she attempts to host a successful radio show while returning to her home state to deal with the death of her mother. There she comes to terms with her past with her brother Remy and her tight-ass stepfather Bill and navigates romantic relationships, all while still recovering from serious illness and its aftereffects. It’s a show full of bold honesty and meaningful during a cultural moment in which we are lacking both.
As a collective, we think we are used to baring it all to our friends and complete strangers on the internet. But in truth, what we are used to is baring a carefully curated image of our best selves on social media. Boomers still marvel at the mundane narcissism our generation displays online – sharing what we eat, where we’re going, what lipstick we’re trying. Despite their curmudgeonly reviews, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that brand of sharing, and it’s what we collectively decided to do with the platforms. But it’s more than top-down Instagrams of brunch, social media has become a place where people can air themselves in a very specific way. There used to be at least a blurry line of when sharing became oversharing, but we all crossed it long ago and its hard to differentiate what is and isn’t appropriate for the mass public, and everyone has a different opinion on what that means.
It’s not just a TMI issue. It’s also an honesty and self-honesty issue. When one is open and genuine about their life on social media, one receivespositive feedback from people who find their honesty agreeable and so they believe they find that honestyrefreshing. But there’s an addiction element to the currency of affirmation and dopamine tinged “like” and “share” buttons that trains one into a behavioral perfomance. Performative honesty is most definitely a thing, just as much as performative morality, and bothare permeating our social media landscapes these days. One can be transparent about grief or trauma or embarrassment, but without authentic self-awareness, this performative transparencycan become a parody of honest transparency, a distorted image of who one really is. In short, people can become addicted to their pain and the attention it brings them without even realizing it.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with sharing difficult things about your life. Tig shares a lot in the semi-autobiographical One Mississippi. The entire premise of her character’s radio show (and in some ways the Amazon Prime show itself) is to tell personal stories with a carefully curated soundtrack at carefully timed intervals. Listeners connect with her because of her openness and her rad taste in music. She talks about her childhood sexual abuse, her cancer diagnosis, and eventually her relationships and experience coming out.
While many appreciate and find companionship in her recollections, others take issue with it. What Tig shares on her shows could be considered oversharing.But the motive behind her sharing makes all the difference. Tig is never really performing by sharing. She’s driven by the freedom to say what she wants – hence staying in Mississippi rather than going back to Los Angeles to co-host with her replacement, who she hates. She would rather have control and personal freedom, and so she uproots her life to maintain it.
Tig never shares for sympathy and handles any presentation of it with deadpan humour.“I’ve been blaming you this whole time,” she says to her sound engineer and romantic interest Kate, (Stephanie Allynne) probably the thousandth person to apologize for what she’s been through. Instead, Tig is driven by connection to others with an awareness of the triviality of life. She wants us all to be who we are in the time that we have to be that. That is to say, Tig doesn’t share for a pat on the back about her bravery, and she doesn’t manufacture stories and bend the truth for engagement.
Her recollections about Tig’s childhood sexual assault make people uncomfortable, as they should. Her sharing about her step-grandfather’s abuse makes people question the capability of members of their own families and confront painful memories. Strangers, including an elderly woman who might otherwise have kept the painful secret to death, tell Tig about their experiences. Many of these conversations need to be had, and when mutual sharing exists, it creates a haven for others to confront their own traumas in an empathetic environment. Most importantly, it assures that nobody is really ever alone. This doesn’t mean that Tig has fully worked through what happened to her. The conversations she has with others continue to help her heal and deal with her own trauma in a healthy way, and shows that we’re never really done working through our own pain.
Still, Tig pays a price for her transparency, hemorrhaging sponsors who take issue with her sexual orientation. Acquaintances are uncomfortable and speechless when faced with the story of Tig’s sexual assault. Her family asks her to refrain from speaking about it. Through all the pushback, Tig is headstrong and continues to speak her truth and only rarely antagonizes with sarcastic comments and painfully pointed accusations. There is a price we all pay for speaking our mind and sharing ourselves with others; the information ill always be overwhelming for some and sometimes, the people from whom we want response will not know the right thing to say. When Tig goes on a date with Phoebe (Angela Trimbur) who’s still in the closet, Tig’s comfort with her own sexuality exacerbates Phoebe’s discomfort with her own until she simply leaves. Again, Tig is being “too honest”.
While questioning the validity of her romantic relationship with her girlfriend, Tig meets Jessie, a feisty news anchor with “be honest” tattooed on her wrist. She is upfront and assertive in making the moves on Tig, and ends up as the landing pad for Tig’s impulsive decision to miss her plane. As they spend the day together, Tig asks Jessie about her tattoo, and Jessie says it’s a reminder to be honest in every moment. She wants to be outspoken and expressive, but the pendulum has swung too far and Jessie’s honesty is totally inauthentic because it caters to an image of herself she wants to project. Jessie isn’t honest with herself, and she isn’t honest when it counts the most when caught for stealing, or when, overwhelmed by Tig’s relationship status, she chooses to straight up lie or run away instead of telling the truth. Jeesie and Tig create a symbolic expression here of the fault line between performative honesty and authentic self-honesty.
And this chasm is highlighted by a more physical and literal expression of the same symbol. Though real-life Tig has already come to terms with her post-surgery body, it’s something that One Mississippi Tig still has to work through early on in the show. In fact, she has not even looked directly at her own chest since the operation, facing away from the mirror and keeping her eyes carefully averted from confronting her reality. Jessie is an overly enthusiastic scar fetishist whose enthusiasm does less to make Tig comfortable with herself as it does to portray Jessie as a wild, out-there kind of girl. It feels disingenuous and embarrassing to watch Jessie scramble all over Tig’s body, frantically licking her scars and ranting about the sexiness of them. In the end Tig can only overcome her issues in the quiet of her bathroom, willing herself to look at and accept her new body.
Much of Tig’s acceptance of life’s difficulties are done in private. Like many survivors, she keeps her abuse secret until she feels strong enough to push back. When her mother, Caroline (Rya Kihlstedt) insists she kiss her grandfather goodbye, Tig fights back and in the climax puts her friend Shelly on the phone to tell Caroline the whole truth. It’s strange how often we are afraid to tell our secrets to the people closest to us. Tig counts her parents as complicit in her abuse simply for not noticing, and she holds onto that well after her mother’s death.
Tig’s not perfect. Being in her childhood home opens up old woundW.These outbursts about her past happen often, but they happen in private. She criticizes her stepfather Bill (John Rothman) for not knowing what was happening to her, but never calls him out on air. She makes purposefully hurtful comments to people and acts like a teenager sometimes. She disregards Bill’s attempts to reconcile, and tries to hurt him by revealing a dark secret she has learned about her mother only to discover he knew about it the entire time. She is often impatient with others who have not reached the same self-awareness as she has and her sarcastic comments can be ferocious. But she’s trying, and she stays true to herself and her motive for connecting with people.
Bill is the most private of all, to a fault. He almost never shows emotion and controls his environment in an obsessive-compulsive fashion. It’s not immediately clear by his behaviour, but he too is dealing with the death of his wife, to whom he remained committed for years, and his own culpability in what happened under his own roof. His stunted emotional growth affects every relationship he’s in. He’s unable to connect with his step-children, and his romantic interest Felicia confronts him about his… Bill shares nothing of importance with others because he finds it so difficult, but in order to achieve real healing he learns by the end that this needs to change.
Finally, there is Kate, Tig’s central romantic interest in the show. Stephanie Allynne is Tig’s real-life wife and the chemistry is electric between them. With all of the voices surrounding Tig, Kate’s is one that she connects with in its openness and honesty. Kate involves herself in the meaningful conversations and laughs off Tig’s idiosyncrasies. She is tremendously charming; the connection between the two happens early and they become a potential couple you root for immediately. But Kate is confused about her sexuality and lives in denial about herself. She tends to lead Tig on, and even sets her up on her date with Phoebe in a strange move of self-sabotage. She’s in and then she’s out and she displays the same kind of false self-assurances many people who don’t understand their sexuality tend to exhibit. Repeated statements about not being gay, kissing and then taking it back, jealousy about other relationships. This all hurts Tig, and shows her that Kate needs to take time to be honest with herself and figure out what she wants privately before she can really share herself with another. Thankfully, Tig plays the long game and has enough patience to wait it out. Not everybody does. And this asks the audience to be introspective toward their own limits of patience.
The best part of One Mississippi is its ability to carefully balance joy and pain, catharsis and introspection. Life has plenty of both and the show reflects the reality of life. It’s a show that is often funny, but it makes you cry just as much as it makes you laugh. In a time of self-obsession and performative online engagement, it models the fast-fading art of authentic connection and sharing with others. It reminds us that sharing hard, ugly things is good. But sharing should come from an honest place and it should encourage other people to feel safe without forgoing the need to be held accountable through fair evaluation. Openness should be true and self-aware, and we should be more selective about how and what we share in order to make real, meaningful connections with people. The show boasts strong performances all around with sharp writing that cuts straight to the heart in order to heal instead of injure. Tig Notaro has somehow managed to create a serial work that is deeply personal but still relevant, meaningful, and important.. There’s something healing in watching this show. How many others could you say that about in 2017?
Featured Image: Amazon Prime