Tig Notaro on recreating real life on “One Mississippi”

One Mississippi is the somewhat fictionalized retelling of one of the worst parts of Tig Notaro‘s life.

It begins after she’s dealt with an intestinal disease that ravaged her insides, a cancer diagnosis that ended with a mastectomy, and a freak accident in which her mother tragically died after tripping and bumping her head. Most people wouldn’t choose to relive these events, nor play them over anywhere outside of their own brains or journals or with people close to them. But part of Tig’s catharsis, as a stand-up comic and a writer and actor, is her new six-part Amazon series about that harrowing time in which she felt, in her own words, “unattractive and damaged and sad.”

Premiere Of Amazon Instant Video's "One Mississippi" - Red CarpetPhoto by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

As outsiders, we have been able to share in Tig’s story in different ways–a stand-up set at Largo that went viral, a This American Life episode, a stand-up special, a documentary, a memoir–but it’s in watching One Mississippi that we won’t just hear her talk about what happened to her; we will experience it. We can see how she reacts in the moment without pause to reflect; to see the horror and the humor that is grieving, and how those moments have also been able to strengthen her to become as successful as she is now–married to wife Stephanie Allynne, mother to two new baby boys, and creator and star of her own television series, like the Ellens and Roseannes before her.

We spoke with Tig about the very personal nature of One Mississippi, including the women she was entertaining while trying to distract herself from all the darkness around her.

AfterEllen.com: How did you put together your writers’ room and how much input did you have into each episode?

Tig Notaro: Kate Robin, who is the showrunner, she and I met with writers that I presented and then writers that she presented and then we both made a list of who we thought would be right and we kind of had to negotiate from there. So I would say I had a good amount of input, and I was in the writers’ room through the whole process. So we basically all met up and I gave them some different chunks of information and ideas and storylines, real or fictional, and characters and then they brought elements to the story as well. And then we just outlined the season and outlined each episode and then everybody was given an episode to write.

I wrote one episode with my wife, Stephanie. She was a writer and actress on the show. So that’s how it went, but I was involved I would say through every part of the show. It got a little harder once the babies got here. I had to kind of put my faith in everybody that was hired to deal with the post-production element more closely than I could do.


AE: Were there things that came up that you would say no to, or you’d have to nix?

TN: Yeah, that definitely came up, or little nuanced aspects to the story or my character or characters around me where I would be like, “Yeah, I just…” The whole process is a lot of negotiating, and there were some things that I didn’t really want and everybody else, including Stephanie maybe, thought would be good that I would have to reconsider. And I think that is good for me and good for the show. But things that I absolutely couldn’t or didn’t budge on, they allowed me that, and there were definitely moments where I was like “There is no WAY I would say. There is no WAY that is part of the world that I come from or would ever be in.” But everybody is crazy talented that worked on the show, and so it was always, even if I didn’t agree, a lot of the debates that came up in the room about personality and reaction and story—it was just fascinating to listen to.


AE: You have mostly women in your writers’ room and behind the camera—was that intentional or did it just shake out that way?

TN: I think it’s probably both. I met with men and women for writing positions and directors. I’m certainly all about women empowerment, but I am also really into who I’m connecting with. It didn’t even dawn on me that almost the entire crew was all female and writers, and somebody mentioned it when they were on set—that the video village area where all the writers and producers and directors sit. Somebody was like, “God, I’ve never seen one hundred percent female video village.” I was like, ‘Oh, yeah I guess it is!” It didn’t even dawn on me.

I don’t know. Even in stand-up when people are like arguing for more women or women are funnier than men—that whole argument, I usually just stay out of because I think men are funny, I think women are funny, and then if you ask me to put my top five comedians in order, it’s all women. But I don’t even think about that until I’m put to it. I don’t know. Across the board, I was surrounded by so many tremendous people it was an embarrassment of riches.


AE: Some of the things that you go through, like finding your mother’s blood on the chair she died in, seem like they would be really emotional to relive. What was it look shooting scenes like that?

TN: I think it was—I think the most emotional moment, even though that’s a real thing from my life was dealing with the chair that my mother’s blood was in, that real moment was utterly devastating to me, and then ultimately something I became comfortable approaching or touching. On set, I was OK with that. I think it was more the moments that the actress, Rya [Kihlstedt], who plays my mother, when she was in scenes with me—or actually, any scene. She absolutely blew my mind and I felt emotional every time I was around her because I think that she just did a tremendous job. I feel like she is my mother. It’s really crazy how much she was her. 

I think somebody said something at one point like, “Oh, that’s so terrible. Why couldn’t they hire an actor more age-appropriate that would have been her mother’s age?” It’s like the idea behind—this is just a side note—but the idea behind having an actress at that age represent how I see my mother in my head, and I think that when you lose a parent, there is a time period that they’re frozen in your head, and we just kind of went with that; that my mother was maybe 35 through the series and whenever you saw her, she just was always that age in a flashback or a dream sequence and it really was all based around finding this perfect actress, which we did.


AE: It must be so strange to hear personal critiques about something that is actually from your life.

TN: Well yeah, it’s like, in my head whenever I picture my mother, no matter what, I always picture her standing in the same position, in the same place in the house, and when I think of her, that’s the moment I think of her and it’s not the age that she was when she died. It was probably 50 years before she died, and it was not an age or discriminatory decision. When Rya walked in the room, I was like, “Jesus Christ, that’s my mother.”


AE: Did you have a say in all of the casting?

TN: Oh yeah. I mean, for sure. And I, for the most part, had a lot of freedom in that. John Rothman and Noah [Harpster], Casey Wilson—everybody was pretty undeniable. I did want to steer clear of—I don’t like stunt casting. I don’t like cramming projects with famous faces. These are all working actors that have a lot of success, but I think the role of my mother, there was a lot of—I think everyone wanted a very big name in that role and I was open to that, but I also think you can get more lost in the story when it’s not a glaringly famous person. Even though I was open to a gigantic name in that role, you just couldn’t deny, after I met with and auditioned Rya. [laughs] “This is my mother so I don’t know what we’re looking for.” And then when they saw her, everybody was just floored. She’s so tremendous, it’s really exciting. Because I was scared I was going to just hate the show if I had to cast somebody that didn’t even slightly resemble my mother’s vibe and her power and beauty.


AE: You have three love interests during this period—how is Tig, the character, able to invite that kind of love into her life while she’s grieving and going through so many other things?

TN: In my real life, the real life Tig, I was going through a breakup and at the same time, I had run into this actress I had worked with on a previous project and always had a thing for her, and it was kind of the perfect distraction in the middle of the hell I was going through because she really made me feel attractive and cool and took my mind off of all of that. Even though I knew she wasn’t a long-term person, she was exactly what I needed at that time. And then on top of that, I also had met somebody that I thought had the potential for a real lifetime relationship and it all just kind of overlapped in this crazy way. There were discussions with the network and studio of [laughs], “Is this too much?” I’m like, “You know what? That was really happening! I don’t know what to say.”

And it’s especially interesting because it was a time period where I felt the most unattractive and damaged and sad and it was—everything kind of served it’s purpose and handed me off to the next point in my life. So that part is based in truth and, you know, if I’m totally honest, there was even another girl. [laughs] I mean, it’s like, if that seems like a lot and I’m completely honest, there was one other one that we didn’t even bring up. But to feel that damaged and be that scared that nobody was going to be into me or be a little scared of the hell I was going through, I think there’s something to get out of each connection that I have in the show and I think it’s realistic and believable because it’s true.

Stream Season 1 of One Mississippi Friday, September 9 on Amazon.