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Comedian Tig Notaro To Be Honored At Governor's Arts Awards

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Notaro in a publicity photo for her new series.

Mississippi native Tig Notaro  will receive a Governor's Arts Award for Artist Achievement at a ceremony tomorrow evening. MPB's Evelina Burnett shares her story.

The Mississippi Arts Commission calls Tig Notaro "one of the most sought-after comedians of the modern era." She’s appeared on just about every late night talk show and recently starred in her own HBO special. Notaro's star has been on the rise over the past several years, but she's been a working stand-up comic for almost two decades.

But Notaro’s career trajectory took a number of unexpected turns in 2012. She had been having a solid year, career-wise, when she became ill with a life-threatening intestinal infection. A short time later, her mother died unexpectedly. And then, a few weeks after that, this happened:

"Hello, good evening, hello ... I have cancer, how are you ... hi, how are you, is everyone having a good time, I have cancer ...."

That’s Notaro on stage just a few days after her diagnosis. The show was already booked, and instead of canceling or doing her usual set, Notaro took the stage to share the news about her diagnosis and other recent troubles in a performance that was funny, poignant, intimate and unforgettable. Fellow comedian Louis CK called it one of the truly great standup sets he had seen in his life.

An audio recording of the show was released later that year, called "Tig Notaro Live." It sold 100,000 copies in six weeks and was nominated for a Grammy in 2013.

Notaro says she remembers that night clearly but didn’t immediately realize the impact it would have on her life.

“I just more than anything thought, oh, that went better than anything I thought," she said in an interview with MPB News. "I thought it was going to be awkward and uncomfortable, and even though it was at times, I thought it would be way more.”

Notaro had a double mastectomy and got a positive prognosis from her doctors. Her journey in the year after her cancer diagnosis was captured in a documentary last year called "Tig."

In it, she also visits Mississippi to see her extended family. Robin Rafferty of Pass Christian is one of her many cousins on the gulf coast. He says Notaro has always been very funny, even as a child. He says even her troubles haven’t changed who she fundamentally is…

"I don't find Tig any different than she ever was," he says. "I think she's probably wiser than she was, but she seemed to get through it very, very well. I hope all of us can get through this kind of trauma in our lives the way that she did."

Notaro was born in Jackson but moved to Pass Christian as a young child. Her family moved to Texas when she was 5, but she spent summers and vacations on the Mississippi coast, and still calls it home.

Notaro says she's thrilled to be receiving the Governor's Arts Award and appreciates the recognition - in part, because she's had a hard time getting booked as a stand-up comedian in Mississippi.

"I've only been booked one time and it was in the past, I don't know, six months," she says. "So it was kind of nice to be recognized because I'm from there, my family's from there, and I have fond memories and experiences."

She says  her family and experiences in Mississippi are integral to who she has become as a performer.

"I have a fondness towards the state and my times there, and my family," she says. "I feel like I come from some interesting people and interesting places, and I think it can't help be a part of everything I do."

Notaro says she sometimes gets negative reactions when she says she’s from Mississippi, so she's tried to show other facets of the state in her work. She recently starred, co-wrote and produced a pilot called "One Mississippi," set in the fictional Mississippi coast town of Bay Saint Lucille.

"I definitely heard from a lot of people from Mississippi, just thanking me for putting that out there and it not just being cliched people and situations," she says.

Notaro's family, including cousin Donald Rafferty, plan to drive up from the coast to be with her at the ceremony in Jackson tomorrow evening.

"The way she can make fun, in a very positive manner, about Mississippi, this lady deserves the award she's getting, because it's never a kick in the shins - it's, look, let me tell you about this and that," he says. "We're just glad to be a part of it."

Notaro remains busy, with a book coming out this summer, and five more episodes of “One Mississippi” after the series was picked up by Amazon Prime. She got married in Pass Christian last year to fellow actress Stephanie Allynne. They recently announced they're expecting twins.

The Governor's Arts Awards can be heard live Thursday evening at 6 p.m. on MPB Think Radio.