Documentary Feature

Tig Review: A Documentary of Relief

Friday, July 31, 2015 Rob Samuelson


Directors: Kristina Goolsby, Ashley York
Writer: Jennifer Arnold
Featuring: Tig Notaro, Stephanie Allynne, Sarah Silverman
Rating: Three and a half stars out of five.
Available now on Netflix.

Tig Notaro's 2012 comedy album, Live (pronounced like the verb "to live," not an adjective like in "live from New York"), crashed the zeitgeist in ways no comic's work had since maybe as far back as Eddie Murphy's heyday with Delirious and Raw, at least in terms of column inches -- no comics' albums get this kind of attention in the current era. But unlike Murphy's outbursts of "look at me" outrageousness, albeit "look at me" outrageousness full of generational charisma -- just ask Bill Simmons, who will tell you all about it for thousands of words -- Notaro's album hit with the weight of a train because of its sincerity.

That's because Notaro's set that night in August 2012 at the Largo in Los Angeles was the culmination of the worst year of her life, and, in the moment, could have signaled the end of her life. She had already been hospitalized with an intestinal infection earlier in the year, followed a week later by her mother's death, and on top of it, breast cancer hit. At the time she took the stage to audience applause and said, "How are you? I have cancer," she did not know she would survive.

That is the heart of Tig, the new documentary about Notaro's life during that harrowing year and what she has been up to since getting out of the woods, health-wise, thanks to a double mastectomy. The road since has been perhaps a little less dire, but no less nerve wracking for the storytelling comic.

The most striking thing about Tig is the way directors Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York get their subjects to remove their layers of detachment. Comics can sometimes remain "on" when they are interviewed, even about serious subjects. But with Tig, everyone is open and relaxed, from Notaro herself to her partner Stephanie Allynne to Zach Galafianakis, all members of the upper echelon of the modern comedy scene. Nobody is doing a bit. They tell anecdotes about funny things that may have been said or may have occurred to them, but mostly the interviews indicate a sense of relief, a collective wiping of the brow and saying, "Whew, I'm glad that's over."

For all the talk of Notaro's cancer, her attempts to hold onto or create a family make up the backbone of the documentary. She is frank about how, years later, she is still reeling from the shocking loss of her mother, who had been a perfectly healthy person before a fall. Notaro says her mother was the person who understood her most in the world, the person who gifted her all the comedic chops she has. She can talk about happy memories with a smile, but overall there's a palpable sense of depression, not even melancholy. But it's a strange kind of depression, a resolute one that spurs Notaro to look for other ways to boost her family membership.

Notaro's decision to try for a baby, in her 40s, after a brush with cancer and, at the time, without a significant other, might seem like a fool's errand and might lead one to judge her decision making. But Tig never looks down on her for doing something to nurture life and, as she says, to have one last blood connection to her mother. The process of getting a donor, fertilizing the eggs, finding a surrogate, and more is forged with a kind of grand hopeful ominousness. That she finds love with a former costar during this time is a sweet thing, relaxing Notaro and giving her something tangible during a time of maybes.

Notaro's brief discussions of the difficulty she has upon returning to the stage after her surgery are enlightening and professional, almost the way a dancer gets frustrated when a foot is at a slightly wrong angle. But there's not enough of it. Seeing the evolution of a joke told a few different ways, with the first attempts being humorous but largely falling flat before the "Eureka!" reveal at the end doesn't have the proper amount of power to it because it's so sparsely part of the overall film. It's the right instinct to put the audience in the moment of joke creation, but there's not enough of it. There is talk of Notaro of Notaro's writing process before the big "cancer show," which involves her tossing ideas off with a pen on napkins. Where are the collections of napkin jokes? Piles of half-formed notebook ideas? She cares a lot about her craft and the way her words work with each other, and it would improve an already solid documentary to have one of the primary things Notaro uses to define herself fit into a movie about her.

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