MJ: In the wake of your diagnosis, you managed to work your own personal hell into your routine, and the Professor Blastoff series as well.
TN: Up until then I didn't really understand the power of the podcast. Our listeners were so supportive and touched and helpful during that time that it just really blew my mind. I knew people were listening, but I couldn't really grasp it—I'm just sitting in a room with my friends talking. I had this weekly obligation to release this podcast, and I couldn't just show up and be like, "Hey, so yeah it's crazy I got a new dishwasher this week, and, you know…" when I'm sitting there devastated, like just gutted and hollowed out and, "Am I dying?" And my mother had just died. I felt like such a shell of a human. I don't want to be annoying to people. I don't want people to think I'm milking something, or that I can't move on, but I'm still recovering. It hasn't been a year since my life started to fall apart.
"I'm still recovering. It hasn't been a year since my life started to fall apart."
MJ: Plus, I guess your opening line at the Largo was just too good to pass up.
TN: It's just so jarring to go out waving to the audience, "Hello, I have cancer, how are you? How's your night going? Just diagnosed with cancer, just diagnosed, how are you doing?" trying to make it sound like I'm saying, "Are there any birthdays tonight, what are you celebrating?" but saying something really horrifying. That contradiction really amused me. I really went back and forth about whether or not I should do it and I'm so glad I did.
MJ: It reminds me a bit of your routine with the stool.
TN: There's definitely a similarity. Because people weren't laughing—then laughing.
MJ: How have women with breast cancer responded all of this? Are there any particular letters or emails or conversations that stand out?
"What is not helpful was when I expressed what I was going through and people kind of plowed over me with positivity."
TN: There are so many, and it's not just women with breast cancer. Maybe a week ago I heard from a 34-year-old guy that has stage IV pancreatic cancer, and I think he's been given a year or so to live, and his sensibility and sense of humor is very dark and he felt like people didn't understand him. Listening to my Live album, it touched on so many things that he felt and he just feels validated, you know? I read everything, but I unfortunately don't have the time to respond because I wouldn't be able to live my life or create my art or write. It would be a full-time job.
MJ: What did people say that you found helpful—or not helpful?
TN: What is not helpful was when I expressed what I was going through and people kind of plowed over me with pure and utter positivity. It was very isolating and it didn't validate my concerns or fears. Not that I needed somebody saying, "Oh yeah. You're screwed. You're gonna die." It was just, let me express my concerns and my fears and say that you hear me and you understand. I struggled the most when somebody would be like, "Listen, you're gonna be fine. Cancer has come a long way." I didn't find myself going, "Oh, phew, okay. Now I'll be able to sleep tonight." It was so much more helpful when people would say, "I can't imagine" or "That sounds scary" or "What are you thinking?"—just kind of exploring those moments with me. When you're told that you have an invasive tumor that could have possibly spread and you won't know until surgery, you don't go, "Eh, you know what? Cancer, it's come a long way!"
MJ: Do you now sort of view yourself as the comic who grapples with dark material?
"If something's dark, I'll do it. If it's a sock puppet, I'll do it. There's no preconceived idea of who I think I might be now."
TN: Not at all. I am wanting to kind of clear the slate and start over. I'm always going to do whatever I think is funniest. If something's dark, I'll do it. If it's a sock puppet, if it's a stool, I'll do it. There's no preconceived idea of who I think I might be now.
MJ: Speaking of which, how's your book coming?
TN: Good. I turned in my first chapter and my editor wrote back saying that it was exquisite.
MJ: What's going to be the most difficult part to write?
TN: The stuff with my mother. I start crying when certain things come up, certain memories, certain feelings, and it's intense. But I think it's good for me—and therapeutic.