The genius of comedian Tig Notaro lies in her confident command of the room. She’s a cool operator; her masterful use of long pauses in her standup provides space for organic audience reaction while also dictating the precise times at which the crowd laughs and the duration of their laughter. It’s as if she’s saying: “Laugh right now, but not for too long.” It allows the comedian and her audience to enter into a symbiotic relationship, propelling the comedic narrative forward through subtle fits and starts. The comic and audience become so intertwined that they begin to resemble a single organism.
All of this is carefully calculated by Notaro—a master observer and deadpan delivery-woman. But as an audience member you’d never guess it, because everything that comes out of her mouth is so damn hilarious. This connection Notaro fosters from the stage has quickly cemented her reputation as one of the great contemporary standups. But a new Netflix documentary reveals that what’s perhaps more incredible than Notaro’s control is the way she conducted herself during her complete loss of it.
Tig, which premieres July 17 on Netflix, follows Notaro for one year following her career-defining performance on August 3, 2012, at Los Angeles’s Largo nightclub. She’d received a breast cancer diagnosis just days earlier. Just a few months before this, Notaro had lost her mother and was hospitalized with a life-threatening infection known as C. diff. “Good evening,” she began. “Hello. I have cancer.”
The set brought fellow performer Louis C.K. to tears, and after some hesitation by Notaro, she agreed to let him release it as a download on his website. The next year indie label Secretly Canadian released it physically as LIVE (pronounced liv, not lahyv), which ushered in unprecedented accolades (including a well-deserved Grammy nomination), media attention—and as the film illustrates, an identity crisis.
“I can adjust to my body being different. I can adjust to eating different. That’s all fine. It’s just…losing my mother isn’t fine.”
“I can adjust to my body being different. I can adjust to eating different. That’s all fine,” the comedian says in a sequence that depicts her on the road to her hometown of Pass Christian, Mississippi. “It’s just…losing my mother isn’t fine,” she laments. It’s in this narrative arc, as she considers life without her mother, that Notaro reveals the deeply affecting pangs of loss that weren’t readily apparent in the blaze of media attention she received after her cancer diagnosis.
Despite having throngs of semi-to-actually-famous friends, she spirals downward into loneliness and uncertainty as she attempts to reconcile the gaping hole in her family. As she navigates what’s next, after giving what is regarded as the best performance of her career, her confidence plummets and she struggles to write new material. Family photos show that Notaro’s mother was a hilarious nonconformist and her comedic muse, not to mention the person who knew her best. The loss of her mother directly correlated to the loss of herself. She can live without her breasts, but not without her heart.
After her mother’s passing, Notaro navigates more harrowing terrain in an attempt to begin a family of her own through the use of a surrogate. These scenes inject hope into this portion of the narrative but prove to be some of the most difficult to watch. Her bravery in the face of cancer is eclipsed only by the raw vulnerability that unfolds in her quest for a new family identity. All of these moments are presented authentically, with clemency and—in rare instances—comedy. Her courtship with fiancée Stephanie Allynne, whom she met on the set of Lake Bell’s film In a World…, is the stuff that the best rom-coms are made of. Think the charming, quirky wooing of When Harry Met Sally… but with hilarious text messages and without the sexist stereotypes.
She can live without her breasts, but not without her heart.
The 95-minute doc, which combines live footage with mixed media elements, acts as a lens into what was at once the best and worst year of Notaro’s life. Like that iconic monologue given at Largo in 2012, Notaro puts it all out there—this time, though, with a tenderness not found in her standup. Though the film often relies on reality TV tropes such as close up confessionals, it captures enough raw emotion to forgive some of the stylistic banality. There’s even a window into Notaro’s comedic process, as a joke evolves from “meh” to gut-buster over the course of a few gigs. Like a solid standup performance, the compelling content can forgive a shaky setting. Tears shed during Tig are not from laughter, however, but from the palpable despair and joy delivered between the lines. FL