“Good evening, hello, I have cancer,” the blank-faced and dry Tig Notaro exclaimed at her now-legendary Largo stand-up set, revisited in the new documentary Tig, premiering on Netflix this Friday, July 17. “How are you?” Notaro wasn’t sure whether she could make comedy out of tragedy, feeling that her battle with a rare digestive tract disease and the death of her mother wouldn’t exactly translate into side-splitting laughs. Then she got breast cancer, and the monumentally awful year of her life that was 2012 became an epic night of stand-up comedy that went viral overnight and flung her into newfound success.
Of course, as are with documentaries, it wasn’t all happy endings. Tig transitions naturally between moments of extreme devastation and true belly laughs, mining the comedian’s tragic backstory for some truly genuine moments of euphoria — both emotional and humorous — just as Notaro herself did at the Largo theater. There’s undoubtedly a sense of self-importance in such an endeavor, but Notaro’s story is captivating and crazy enough that any degree of pretension melts away almost immediately. What’s left is a movie that feels strikingly bare-bones — entire segments are devoted to simple text scrolling across the screen when her stand-up wasn’t filmed — but, subsequently, refreshing and honest about everything from what it takes to be a stand-up comedian to being a parent.
The movie focuses on those three big moments of tragedy — the C-DIFF disease, death of her mother, and breast cancer — with fleeting mentions of further hardship from a big breakup during the same weeks. Directed by Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York, the documentary mostly uses Notaro herself to self-narrate the various backstories of her life, from her larger-than-life prankster of a mom to a visit back home to see her step-dad after her death. The movie’s structure — essentially detailing the year between which she performed at Largo and counting down to an anniversary show she’s planning to do at the same theater — provides an easy degree of engagement, which of course helps if you don’t know how it all turned out already.
The crew follow Notaro around to her hometown, with footage taken from friend’s cell phones of her hospital recovery room, and even a few tentative first dates with predominantly straight co-star from the film In a World…, Stephanie Allynne. Thankfully none of it feels staged or fake, and only a few random famous BFF’s of Notaro’s pop up as talking heads for a moment or two, and are just as quickly cut off by more of Notaro’s hilarious lines from the Largo show. The bare-bones presentation of those black-and-white text segments somehow heighten the nature of the material as well, presenting them with a no-frills sense of urgency that makes it impossible to prevent succumbing to.
And, honestly, as someone who only knew of the comedian in the periphery, even in snippets and cuts, the jokes and payoffs are genuinely guffaw-worthy. In one of the movie’s most powerful moments — imagine, again, a black screen with white text popping up for every spoken word — the comedian wonders aloud if maybe she should just return to her normal silly jokes and leave the doom-and-gloom nature of her real-life inspired material behind her. A sampling of actual responses: “Hell no!” “This is fucking amazing!” As a viewer, all we can do is listen for Notaro’s response, from which there are only stutters, the baked-in pauses she usually uses for emphasis in her stand-up turning on her in a moment of unexpected emotion from which she thought she’d have to shield her face from the crowd and cry.
But she’s anything but weak. In defiance to multiple doctors, Notaro decided to go ahead with a hormone therapy to try to be able to successfully allow a surrogate to carry her eggs and have a child, a procedure which could have brought back her cancer in full force. Her brazen sense of hope jives well with her irreverent attitude towards how ridiculous life can be. At one point during the process, she asks her childhood best friend to be the sperm donor for her child, and while they both sit waiting in the hospital room for the results, a nurse walks over and hands her friend a cup of coffee. As he takes a sip, Notaro looks over blankly and asks with absolute seriousness, “Is that your specimen?”
Endlessly astute with the ins-and-outs of the way comedy works, she spends entire scenes dissecting the reason why “some people can move past things easily,” and then other people can’t, with a big set piece moment structured around a particularly adroit Onion headline that’s been permanently stuck in her brain. Perhaps even more cleverly, she plays with the aspect of the troubled artist from a comedian’s angle, a big point of dramatic conflict coming from her inability to recreate that epic show at the Largo. She worries over jokes not landing, the overly repetitious material, and the trouble with creating something with a voice and a meaning, something which she did the first time completely by accident.
While that repetitious material can get wearisome as content for the documentary, it works as an example for the life stand-up comedians live. These jokes are new to the audience, but the people who say them have been hearing them for weeks on end. It’s an exhausting, uncomfortable position to be in, and Notaro puts that struggle front-and-center the closer she gets to her big anniversary show at the movie’s end.
But, thankfully, Tig doesn’t succumb to cliche in showcasing the comedian’s second Largo showcase in an overlong finale. Instead, it turns into something of a rom-com, putting more focus back on Notaro and Allynne’s relationship and — in the film’s big climax — the results of her attempts at surrogacy. Maybe Tig‘s biggest issue is its ultimate point: which is so broad and bland — something akin to: be hopeful, good times will come again — that it threatens to be a mawkish noose around the film’s otherwise svelte comedic delivery system.
But even with such a simple end-goal, Tig shines repeatedly. The actual tragedies underscore a deep scarring in Notaro, and the people around her. But her attempts at bouncing back from it all, through nose-to-the-grind work and surrounding herself with loved ones (never will you see a cuter text exchange this side of The Fault in Our Stars), showcase a resilience and blank-faced humor learned from her many days on stage. What I’m trying to say is this: over the course of Tig‘s sleek 95 minutes, I cried, and then I laughed the hardest I have all year.
Somewhat ordinary in both execution and ultimate meaning, Tig is effective in the end as a satisfying dramatic comedy because of one simple thing: these events happened, and this unassuming little woman dealt with them in stride.