We’re laughing about cancer. Sort of. There’s nervous laughter. Then long stretches of silence. Then some guarded laughter. Then the silence becomes awkward. Really awkward. He’s Lance Armstrong, still the world’s most famous cancer survivor. And we’re in the study of his West Austin home, huddled around his laptop, laughing about cancer. Sort of.
On a much smaller scale, this might be a little like how it felt to have been at Los Angeles’s Largo Theater on August 3 when comedian Tig Notaro opened her set with this:
Hello. Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer. How are you?
On the live recording Lance and I are listening to of Notaro’s set, released today as a download on Louis C.K.’s website, you can hear a smattering of nervous laughter from the audience, which seems unsure whether she really just went there: Did she just joke about having cancer?
But it was no put-on. A day before her Largo appearance, Notaro learned she’d been diagnosed with stage 2 bilateral breast cancer. Her thirty-minute set that night–which addresses not just her cancer, but the recent loss of her mother, a breakup, and a battle with a life-threatening bacterial infection–is noticeably, and understandingly, short on punch lines, but also undeniably raw, brave, and emotionally confusing. In the recording you can almost hear the audience’s hesitation. Does what they’re hearing deserve laughter or tears? Or both simultaneously? As we listen to the album, titled LIVE (as in “to live”), I’m looking at Armstrong for cues. He’s the guy who knows cancer etiquette. When is it okay to laugh? And if he laughs, or doesn’t, is it because his experience with cancer is dramatically different than my relative inexperience with cancer?
But I also consider the fact that we knew we were listening to an album about cancer. The crowd that night had no idea what was happening. Even so, Louis C.K., the night’s headliner, assessed the set on Twitter this way:
in 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets.One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.
— Louis C.K. (@louisck) August 4, 2012
C.K. knows comedy, but Lance Armstrong knows cancer. And Armstrong walked away from our listening session just as impressed. He was clearly moved, and admittedly, a little shell-shocked by what he heard. Immediately after, we launched into Armstrong’s first major interview since his August decision to drop his fight against charges from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, a candid conversation about the crossroads of comedy and cancer, the role of humor in healing, and what goes through the minds of the just-diagnosed.
From the moment Tig Notaro left the club, people were describing her performance as “brave.” Something like 24 hours earlier she got a life-changing diagnosis. There can’t be a lot of precedent for someone telling their cancer story to a roomful of people so quickly.
It’s incredibly brave. It was this weird collision of her being totally candid, and open and honest and an audience that thought they were coming to a comedy show and didn’t know quite what to think or how to react. And pretty far into it, a lot of them still seemed to think it was an act. But, to me, that’s all she was doing–telling her story, detail by detail.
I imagine you talk to people all the time who just received that kind of news. Take me through what someone is thinking that day.
For most people, that’s the scariest, most humbling, freakiest moment of your life. Everything flashes before you. And I guess the natural reaction is, ‘I’m going to die.’ Even in situations where doctors are confident that you’ve caught it early, people still dwell on, ‘Oh shit. I’m not going to live.’ That leads to a whole host of other questions: What’s treatment going to be like? What’s surgery going to be like? What is chemotherapy? What’s radiation? How’s this going to affect my home life? How does this affect my professional life? It very quickly becomes a massive, scary list of questions.
And nobody can ask, let alone, answer those questions in 24 hours, right?
Nobody is prepared for that, unless they’ve been through it before and it’s a secondary cancer or relapse. You can’t process it that quickly. That’s something we’re really working hard on at Livestrong–to empower people as quickly as possible. When I was diagnosed in 1996 you had no way to really know what to expect. Fortunately, I got some great advice early on, right away, like to bank sperm so you can have kids later. Back then the process of learning about the disease took a long time. Still does.
I think it’s debatable whether this is truly a comedy album, but it raises the bigger issue of comedy and cancer. Can it be done? Especially for someone with a reputation for intensity, you’ve always seemed able to make light of your situation.
Sixteen years later, we try to have fun with it. In my situation, it’s easy to look at me and say, ‘Oh man, dude has testicular cancer and has one ball.’ Who f-cking cares? It hasn’t affected my life at all to have one ball. Sure, it might be a punch line for some people. But I’ve tried to take it and say, ‘Let’s have fun with it.’ I have a coffee shop called Juan Pelota. And at speaking engagements, I regularly tell the story of the birth of the yellow wristband. Nike initially made the bands years before and called them Ballers. The day they came to us and said they had an idea to ‘take a Baller…’, I stopped the conversation and jokingly said, ‘Wait. That’s not f-cking funny.’ People always laugh at that story. They’re like, ‘All right, this guy is cool with it. It’s not a unspeakable thing.’ Shit. I’d rather be alive with one than dead with two.
The album has a couple of funny lines. But generally she’s just telling