On Aug. 3, 2012, standup comedian Tig Notaro scrapped the set she was planning to deliver at Los Angeles’ Largo theater and instead tried something more personal. “Hello, I have cancer,” she told the audience, launching into what has become a legendary performance. Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York’s warm, cable-ready “Tig” picks up where that evening left off, capitalizing on the newfound interest in a comedian who, while always funny, had only a modest following before that show went viral. While it doesn’t actually go much deeper than Tig already does onstage, this generous-minded docu should be amusing enough to watch while folding laundry.
When it comes to standups, the best comedy comes from a place of extreme candor and vulnerability. For the vast majority, that amounts to a lifetime of awkwardness and unease or hardships experienced in childhood, digested and served back up as jokes for the audience’s benefit. (As a point of contrast, consider another Sundance docu, “Call Me Lucky,” about Barry Crimmins, who was raped at age 4.)
In Notaro’s case, the universe compressed all of that hardship into a single month, during which the laconic lesbian comic split up with a girlfriend, lost her mother and was diagnosed with breast cancer. If she had ever experienced anything else remotely negative in her life, the film doesn’t say, going deep on the recent experience while leaving (nearly) everything else a mystery. (We do learn that “Tig” is short for Mathilde, and that the cat ate her GED.)
But anyone who’s heard Notaro’s “Live” album — whose survival-empowered title is pronounced with a short “I” — wants to know the details of what she went through, and “Tig” serves up the context with appropriate gravitas, going for the emotional tug, rather than the cathartic laughter delivered by her standup routine. Naturally, the film samples heavily from that show (of which no video record exists, only audio, per Largo policy), then transcribing her words in giant white text onscreen, just to be sure you don’t miss a thing she says.
Otherwise, the film amounts to a reality-TV-esque tagalong, shadowing Notaro for the better part of the year between her “I have cancer” show and the packed-house anniversary performance she’s preparing to give 12 months later at Largo. The film opens backstage, where Notaro hangs out with bestie Sarah Silverman, teasing where things are headed over the course of the film, although Notaro doesn’t generate new material at nearly the pace of other standups, and when the show finally does come, there’s only one new joke for us to enjoy — a follow-up on years of making “itty bitty titties” jokes (sampled via YouTube-grade videos) in which she figures her breasts conspired to kill their ungrateful host.
Meanwhile, there are no shortage of personal changes in Notaro’s life offstage. She had been taking the first steps toward getting pregnant just before being diagnosed with cancer, and though the logistics will be far more difficult after her double mastectomy — with no partner in her life and a significant risk that hormones could bring her cancer back — she moves forward with plans of parenthood. Plus, as luck would have it, a friendship with her ostensibly straight “In a World” co-star Stephanie Allynne starts to get serious, and the crew is there to observe several of the date-like outings that lead up to their big talk (though nearly all the intimate stuff is revealed in separate interviews with the candid couple). Will Notaro’s show go well? Will she have her baby? In keeping with the format, tune in to see how it all turns out.