Killing, Dying. Bombing. Stand-up comedians spend a lot of time fixating on their mortality—or that of their material, which is often, more or less, the same thing. In July 2012, comedian Tig Notaro learned that she had breast cancer. Within days, she began her set at Largo, a Los Angeles comedy club, with the words, “Hello. Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?”
Before that 2012 set, Notaro had already achieved the markers of a successful stand-up career—a hit podcast, a regular night at a respected comedy club, cool comedian friends, appearances on late-night talk shows—but afterward, she moved into a different category. The show, and the recording of it that became known as Tig Notaro Live, took her fame beyond the confines of the comedy world.
Cancer was just the latest in a series of hideous events: In the months before her diagnosis, she’d been hospitalized by a life-threatening intestinal infection, broken up with her girlfriend, and lost her mother. The documentary Tig, which premieres Friday on Netflix, points a camera at Notaro while she figures out how to recover from all that.
Notaro did badly in school and found work miserable until she discovered stand-up. “You’re treated like nothing … making no money,” she says of her early days in the business. Then after a pause, “I had never been so happy and fulfilled in my life.” Finally she connected with the world—performing meant being in a room full of people whose laughter communicated, “I get you.” But judging from the documentary, the acclaim she received for the Largo set somehow upset that balance—even when her album was No. 1, her confidence was at an all-time low. And comedy is a world where attitude matters; some of Notaro’s early attempts to find the right way to talk to an audience about her bilateral mastectomy are painful to watch.
Tig is a peculiar documentary. There’s a lot of talk about a comedy set that we don’t see (no video exists of the now famous Largo gig) and a lot of buildup to another show, scheduled for the one-year anniversary, that isn’t going to be part of the film. Fortunately, directors Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York make one joke serve as a proxy for the entire performance. We see Notaro trying out the line at venues around the country—it may bomb in Kansas City, but if it gets a laugh at Largo, it will mean Notaro has her comedy groove back.
Of course, when it comes to recovering from grief and illness, love helps. Notaro, a don’t-give-a-damn butch who laughs when members of her loving Texas family tell her she looks like Top Gun-era Tom Cruise, found a new girlfriend in the year the cameras followed her. The courtship between Notaro and actress Stephanie Allynne is all the more charming because at first Allynne says she’s “only interested in men.” By the end of the documentary, they’re moving in together. After such an extraordinary year for Tig Notaro, this seems completely, refreshingly ordinary.