In Tig, the new Netflix original documentary, we see one of life’s many circles unravel. Comedian Tig Notaro is about to step on stage at Largo, a comedy club in L.A., a year after the cancer diagnosis and standup set that put her in the national spotlight. But first, we have to go back.
Directors Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York zero in on a year of Notaro’s life, starting with her being diagnosed with C. diff, a bacterial infection that ravaged her intestinal tract, in early 2012. Shortly after her birthday, her mother died after a fall. In July 2012, Notaro found out she had breast cancer in both breasts.
Notaro decided to keep her regular Largo gig after learning about the cancer. On Aug. 3, 2012, she came on stage and opened with these now-famous words: “Hello, I have cancer. How are you?”
That set made Notaro a viral sensation, as news of her courageous set spread around the Internet. It put immense pressure on her as a performer to follow up that set, which was later released via Louis C.K.’s website. “My confidence was at an all-time low,” she explains in the film.
The directors give us a bit of her past for context: We learn that Notaro found solace in standup comedy when she started performing in the late ’90s, and she camped in her car in between gigs. Her humor, she says, “is directly tied to her mother’s sensibility.”
“When I lost my mother,” Notaro explains in the film, “I lost the person who truly understood me the most.”
Notaro excels in deadpan, absurd humor (one of her best-known sets involved her pushing a stool around on Conan), but here we see her vulnerable. It’s a very intimate look at life choices many of us would prefer to keep private, and Goolsby, who’s known Notaro for nearly 20 years, says she doesn’t think anyone anticipated it would become so intimate.
“I don’t think she thought that the vulnerability would be coming through as it did,” she told the Daily Dot. “Nor did she think we would end up being in such personal space with her. She said before that when the filming started, she thought she had been through the difficult times in her life and we’d just be hanging out with her and having fun. But once she let us [have] access, she really, truly gave us access to everything. And so in time, we were able to be present, and she was able to be vulnerable and honest, through many intimate situations.”
Aside from the intimate personal moments, the film gives us some insight into how a comedian tries to figure out how to perform again. A month after the 2012 Largo show, Notaro had a double mastectomy, and a video shows Notaro recovering in a hospital bed as she asks fellow comedians Todd Barry and Sarah Silverman do impromptu standup sets around her bed. Even after facing death, comedy was all Notaro wanted.
Goolsby started filming in 2013, around the time of Notaro’s return to the Largo for her one-year anniversary show, and illustrates how quickly fame came to her—ironically, because of cancer. “Her life was in such fast, fast motion,” Goolsby said. “It was incredible, everything she had on her plate.”
Before her illnesses, we learn Notaro was trying to have a child, and the film picks up that thread. We also see Notaro reconnect with In a World co-star Stephanie Allynne and, in essence, see their relationship evolve on screen, from friendship to love to parenthood and marriage. One of the most surreal scenes comes when Notaro is Skyping with a couple that she met via her podcast, who might carry her child. After meeting them in their home, the couple asks what would happen if she died while the surrogate is pregnant, and Notaro visibly struggles to process the situation.
“I’m trying to go about this in a reasonable… as reasonable and thorough as you can, getting a surrogate through a podcast,” she says to them.
Tig makes a few missteps that pivot the doc in an unnecessarily melodramatic direction, but the true core of the film is watching a circle within a circle: exploring how a comedian turns personal tragedy into material, becomes a star, and tries to figure out how to be a comedian again, while also trying to be a human.
Photo courtesy of Netflix