Baring it all: The raw, subtle comedy of Tig Notaro

150716-tig-notaro-1024By JIM SABATASO

[A version of  this review appears in the Sept. 3, 2015, edition of the Rutland Reader.]

2012 wasn’t a great year for Tig Notaro. In short order, the up-and-coming standup comedian was diagnosed with C. diff. (a rare digestive disorder), her mother died, she went through a breakup, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a bilateral mastectomy. Not exactly fertile ground for comedy.

But Notaro found the humor in it all when she took the stage at L.A.’s Largo comedy club in August of 2012, just days after her cancer diagnosis. The result was one of the most powerful, raw and darkly funny sets in comedy history.

In the set — which Notaro starts off by blurting out, “Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you?” — she lays herself bare on stage as she candidly tells her heartbreaking story in her typical deadpan style. Unsure how to react, the audience’s uncomfortable titters give way to genuine laughs as the comedian invites them to laugh along with her.

Overnight the set became a viral sensation, getting a signal boost from Louis C.K. and other comedians in attendance that night. An album, Live (as in, “to live”), was subsequently released, and Notaro quickly became the most talked about comedian of the year.

A new Netflix documentary titled Tig finds Notaro in a much better place. With a clean bill of health and newfound fame, we follow the comedian as she works out material for a new hour, attempts to start a family, and find love.

Directed by Notaro’s friends Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York, the film is expectedly complimentary. That friendliness, however, does not keep the film from getting deeply personal with its subject. Notaro is willingly exposed here, putting her triumphs and disappointments on full display. At times, you feel like you shouldn’t be in the room, that things are getting too real. But clearly Notaro wants to share these moments with us.

Stylistically, Tig is a straightforward, unflashy doc. It is content to focus tightly on Notaro and let her tell her story with occasional comments from friends and family. Its presentation may be less than dynamic, but it largely succeeds because Notaro is just so enjoyable to be around.

Tig also does a great job of capturing the creative anxiety of an artist. We see Notaro’s fear of not being able to top Live. The set captured a moment born out of a confluence of unlikely (and unfortunate) circumstances. Expecting any artist to recreate such a thing is unreasonable. In Tig, you get the sense that Notaro is wrestling with being able to prove that she’s no one-trick pony — that she is worthy of all the praise audiences and critics had heaped upon her.

To that end, the film goes on the road with Notaro as she tries out new material and attempts to temper the expectations of crowds. If you enjoy seeing the creative process at work, these parts of Tig are fascinating.

In many ways, then, Boyish Girl Interrupted, Notaro’s new hour-long HBO special, serves as a sequel to Tig — or the completion of a trilogy began with Live. (If possible, I suggest watching them in that order.) We see the finished product of the material practiced in Tig as well as the satisfying resolution to the existential uncertainty of Live.

Aside from a couple small bits about her cancer, Notaro refrains from retreading old ground. A joke about her mastectomy, which we see being workshopped throughout Tig, is fully realized here and delivered here to big laughs. But for the most part Notaro smartly steers clear of her past traumas. Instead, we are treated to strong bits about everything from her family’s loose ties to Boston to her hellish week performing in Las Vegas.

Notaro’s laidback style and deadpan delivery makes her a pleasure to listen to — the hour feels more like a conversation with a friend than a standup set. Her humor is both subtle and awkward; punch lines sneak up on you and laughs come in unexpected places.

That awkwardness is expertly deployed about halfway through the set when Notaro removes her shirt to perform the rest of her set topless. Seeing Notaro bare-chested, her mastectomy scars fully on display, is a striking and powerful image. But rather than comment on her appearance, she forges ahead with the jokes. So engaging is Notaro you quickly forget her lack of clothing.

Notaro’s road to success has been a tumultuous one. Her ability to create art — especially humor — from such tragedy speaks to her strength, resilience, and skill as a comic. Boyish Girl Interrupted is a smart, confidently delivered hour of comedy that cements Notaro’s status as one of the best comedians currently in the business.