Published Apr 23, 2015It's a story that has found its place in the hallowed halls of comedy legend; in 2012, Tig Notaro had the best/worst year of her life. In a four-month span, she contracted a deadly bacterial infection, lost her mother in a freak accident, her relationship dissolved and then she received the final hammer in this series of unimaginable events: her doctor told her she had cancer in both breasts. After the diagnosis, Notaro took the stage at her weekly hosting gig at the Largo comedy club in L.A., and without much pre-planning, began talking about her cancer — and joking about it — with a disarming frankness. The set floored the audience, many of whom wept. Louis C.K. deemed the set "masterful" on Twitter and begged Notaro to let him release the audio version as a download on his website. Interest in Notaro had already built to a fever pitch via social media, and after the set — titled Live — was widely released, it exploded; she gave interviews in countless magazines, on talk shows, was tapped to write a memoir and agreed to participate in a film about her life.
The resulting documentary, Tig, directed by Notaro's friends Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York, gives us the requisite rundown of Notaro's Very Bad Year and its ensuing triumphs through interviews, film and audio clips. More compellingly, though, it's a deeply intimate portrayal of an artist struggling to rebuild her professional and personal life after both tragedy and massive, overwhelming acclaim.
One of the many obstacles that Notaro faced following her year in the spotlight is returning to the life of a working comedian. After an insane period of non-stand-up related appearances, she worried about her substantial dearth of material following "the cancer set," and the film follows her closely as she writes, tests and re-works jokes to slowly build a set. It's a jarring and telling experience seeing footage of Notaro trying out new jokes to a tepid room, especially in contrast to Live's rapturous reception, and I think it's pretty remarkable that she allowed Goolsby and York this much access to her process. These are rare glimpses that re-affirm that comedy is hard, gruelling and endlessly humbling, even if you're a pro. (It also gives Notaro's topless performance topless performance an even more badass and groundbreaking resonance.)
As with the evolution of Notaro's jokes, Tig follows each narrative thread in a way that feels naturalistic and unforced. In addition to maintaining her career's momentum, Notaro is determined to have a baby, even as her doctors warn of health risks; she also finds love in a unexpected place, but the relationship doesn't come easy. Each story has its share of tension and surprises — no small feat when you consider how well documented Notaro's life has been over the past year.
At Tig's core is, of course, Notaro herself, sweet, emphatic and self-deprecating, but with a fierce streak of ambition and comedic acumen. Rooting for her is a no-brainer; empathizing with her recovery of her body, her career and her sense of self requires something more from us as viewers. As a documentary, Tig succeeds in helping us understand this person as she works to find balance in the face of extraordinary circumstances; not through good luck or magical thinking, but through strength, intelligence and perseverance, and the unwavering belief that she simply has to. (Beachside Films)