Much like Notaro’s comedy, Tig is sparse, deliberately paced, and irresistible.
There are few bells and whistles to speak of in the ninety-minute Netflix Original documentary but a story like Tig Notaro’s doesn’t require embellishment. In the span of three years, Notaro has been through a C. diff infection, the death of her mother, a breast cancer diagnosis, a double mastectomy, and a failed attempt to bear a child through in vitro fertilization and surrogacy. Whew.
In that same time frame, Notaro has also skyrocketed to fame on the heels of her famous 2012 set at Largo in which she revealed—and joked about—her cancer diagnosis and fallen in love with her In A World… co-star Stephanie Allynne. The film also documents Notaro’s warm relationships with her family and with comedy colleagues like Kyle Dunnigan, Sarah Silverman and Zach Galifianakis.
In its finer moments, Tig is a reminder that the saying “when it rains, it pours” can cut both ways: Life’s tragedies and blessings tend to come in bursts and they are often intertwined. While any window into Notaro’s personal story would be worth watching, the particular art of Tig is that it manages to send this message without venturing into saccharine greeting card territory. Directors Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York seem to know they have a heartwarming tale on their hands and so, like Notaro, they let silence and spacing do the work.
Besides, too much adornment would get in the way of an already refreshingly unvarnished subject. Early in the film, during a glimpse at some of Notaro’s 90s stand-up, she jokes, “In high school, I was voted ‘Least Likely,’ and then she leaves one of her characteristic long pauses. Just “least likely,” that’s it. It’s an appropriate introduction not only for someone who went on to survive breast cancer but for a comedian who has always said a lot with a little.
Tig doesn’t peel away Notaro’s sometimes aloof stage persona to reveal the raw emotion underneath so much as it shows us how her brand of comedy and her survival work together. In one of the documentary’s most personal moments, we watch Notaro as her doctor implants her embryo into a surrogate and she says, wryly, “Is there any way to put in a request that you try even harder than you’ve ever tried?” Then she cheers on the embryo—which she has named “Jack Notaro”—chuckling at both herself and the situation.
The film also revisits Notaro’s brilliant 2013 Conan appearance in which she lectured the host about “remaining present” while simultaneously fielding texts and a phone call. What seemed like a clever bit at the time is still that—Notaro’s deadpan delivery bounces perfectly off of O’Brien —but we also learn that the bit was an outgrowth of her effervescent friendship with now-fiancée Allynne, a relationship that seems to have sustained her during the aftermath of her medical crises.
In lieu of tearful confessions, Notaro provides earnest expressions of pain alongside plenty of thoughtful commentary on her work, on her struggle to find her comedic identity after the 2012 Largo performance, and the way in which the media consumes stories like hers. During one photoshoot, as she hams it up for the camera, she announces, “Hi. My name is Tig Notaro. I had cancer and now people take my picture a lot.” Once you become The Comedian Who Did a Set About Cancer, it can be hard to live up to your own legend and, indeed, most of the film follows Notaro as she tries to regain her confidence behind the microphone.
At one performance during this period of uncertainty, Notaro opens with, “I was walking in, umm, New York,” delivered at an almost too leisurely pace.
“I’ll work this out on my own time,” she promises, to laughter.
That’s always been the fun of watching Notaro. She takes her time. You want to start laughing before she gets to the punchline because she lets you feel like you got there first and she’s only just now catching up to you even though she’s actually been ahead of you the whole time.
Tig is similarly unhurried. And like listening to a good Notaro routine, it can be momentarily frustrating in the same sorts of ways. You might say “Where are you going with this?” —or, more bluntly, “Get to the point”—as the film puts all of its many pieces in place and meanders its way through Notaro’s timeline. But give it time to unfold and Tig slowly comes into focus as an exceptional, if a little prosaic, portrait of an unlikely comedian.
May Saunders is a professional dog walker living in Minneapolis and an occasional freelance writer. In her spare time, she enjoys hanging out with her cat, who does not need to be walked. Follow her on Twitter.