Directed by: Kristina Goolsby & Ashley York
Written by: Jennifer Arnold
I love Tig Notaro. I became a fan in March 2011, when I saw her perform as an opening act for Sarah Silverman at The FIllmore in Detroit. She did an extended bit about the Spanish phrase “no moleste,” and sold t-shirts in the lobby that said that after the show. More keenly than her act, though, I remember how she wound through the audience during the Q&A period with Silverman that ended the night. Even then, her distinct deadpan did not relent, and the way she said “Yeah, I have another question,” before she allowed the audience member to speak, as if she were disdainful of the entire concept, made me laugh almost as much as her set.
Just over a year later, Notaro’s comedy exploded back into my life. I saw Louis C.K. tweet out that she had performed one of the handful of masterful routines he’d seen in his life at the Largo in Los Angeles; I remembered her name and sought it out. There were articles and ecstatic reviews, but no video (the Largo doesn’t allow photos or video). Thankfully, audio of the set was recorded and C.K. eventually made it available to buy on his website.
“Good evening. Hello. I have cancer,” Notaro says as she walks on the stage, and the 30-ish minutes that follow are jaw-droppingly bleak and utterly hilarious. She recalls the horrific few weeks she’s experienced, where she had C-DIFF, went through a break-up, lost her mother and was then diagnosed with breast cancer. As she explains in Tig, the new documentary from directors Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York, it wasn’t until that final, potentially fatal diagnosis that she saw the humor in it all and developed new material about it.
After that set, her career exploded, but she wonders: will I be alive to reap the rewards? She is, obviously, and Tig follows the comic from that indescribable low to what becomes the happiest, most stable she’s ever been. She beats cancer, falls in love, regains her confidence to perform, tries to have a baby through a surrogate mother and, when that doesn’t work out, decides she and her girlfriend will adopt. It’s an onslaught of major life events that Notaro is visibly weirded out about experiencing (let alone describing) on camera.
Unfortunately, the documentary itself is unworthy of its subject, a jumbled mess of talking head interviews, stand-up routines and life moments that are forced into a false narrative leading up to Notaro’s one-year anniversary performance back at the Largo. The moments that do connect seem to do so on accident, like an amateurishly shot sequence where she bounces a new joke off of a friend and fellow comedian over dinner. It’s shot from a distance, with very poor lighting that gives the image a grainy, cell-phone quality, but I was so desperate for a moment that felt genuine that seeing Notaro laugh and interact with someone without feeling like she had to restrain herself for the camera was almost thrilling.
The documentary’s biggest failure is its inability to grapple with Notaro’s persona; having her explain major events on camera that are about to happen or that just happened just doesn’t work. In fact, the filmmaking works against her at every step, with talking head interviews that try to goad on-camera emotion out of someone who transforms personal tragedy into laughter. Notaro talks frankly about what happens to her, but the movie is rarely more engaging than her jokes. In fact, it often rehashes what she talks about on stage instead of building off of it rather than getting at the method of Notaro’s art. It shows the evolution of a single joke as she performs parts of it on stage a few times, but the filmmakers couldn’t be less interested in process. Instead, Goolsby and York wait for a cheap cry-zoom shot that never comes, and their attempts at genuine observation rarely work.