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In 2012, stand-up comedian Tig Notaro was diagnosed with breast cancer. This was the exclamation point at the end of a long line of personal adversities she’d been through leading up to that point, and suddenly, the mortality which had surrounded her was suddenly assigned to her. So she did what artists sometimes do: plied her craft in order to cope with it. She took the stage for her planned set the night of the diagnosis, when she was sharing a bill with Louis C.K., and proceeded to riff on her diagnosis, the idea of being a cancer patient, the possibility of death, and her shit-poor luck, in what rapidly became one of the most acclaimed stand-up sets in years. Word spread like wildfire, C.K. released Live (pronounced as in the concept of being alive) on his website, and suddenly, the long-tenured Notaro was a household name in the comedy world.
As a documentary, Tig isn’t exactly groundbreaking. It’s more of a well-organized vlog at times than a documentary, but what makes the film work in spite of its episodic simplicity is Notaro. She’s a fascinating subject, a woman who was browbeaten by life rather viciously and came out triumphant. Before the cancer appeared, she was also diagnosed with C-Diff, a form of intestinal bacteria that can be lethal if left untreated, which put Notaro through no shortage of agony. And then she went through a breakup, which the film noticeably leaves unmentioned. And then she lost her mother, with whom she was exceedingly close. And then she found the lump.
The doc’s best moments are those in which Notaro can simply be herself. Her stand-up, so strong because of the unassuming, pause-heavy nature of her onstage delivery, is a clear extension of her real-life personality, one that’s sarcastic but warm. A good portion of the film is focused on her efforts to get pregnant, which was an active goal of hers pre-cancer and continued to be after, even as the dangers of hormone treatment were dramatically increased. There’s a warmth to her that suggests she’s both perfect for and truly desirous of motherhood one day. It extends to her stage presence, which she sees as the beginning of the stand-up performance as a communal space. Part of why she considers the “cancer set” so powerful is because of how invested the audience was in her, and she in them, and ultimately, they in one another.
Tig would have benefitted from letting the camera linger on the interviews with her throughout, because when it expands outward, there’s the strange sense that directors Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York (friends of Notaro’s, the film notes) are building a narrative out of what would probably have worked best as a series of commentaries on comedy, tragedy, and the ways in which life is informed by both of those things. While there’s a sweetness to both Notaro’s hunt for a surrogate mother and her tentative courtship with a previous co-star (in the Lake Bell vehicle In a World…), the proceedings are so perfectly rendered that one can’t help but be a bit suspicious of how it all came about.
When the film works, though, it’s a capable document of a comic attempting to maintain her artistic integrity in the face of newfound success. One of the downsides of that famous performance is that it had to be topped, eventually, and the attention lavished upon it paradoxically left Notaro with her confidence “at an all-time low.” While the many comedian interviews on display here convey just how respected she is in those circles, Notaro pressures herself to not simply rely on her suffering for material, to keep pushing the boundaries of her style and beyond, to keep the spot that she achieved through no shortage of suffering. And if there’s any comedian out there who could answer such a call, she’s it. Tig may be slight as documentaries go, but Tig Notaro’s body of work is anything but.
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