Overnight success in the Internet age is often equal parts skill, timing and luck. Or, in the case of comic Tig Notaro, really bad luck.
While well known in comedy circles, Notaro wasn’t a household name until life handed her a seemingly insurmountable bushel of lemons. In the span of four months in 2012, she was hospitalized with a life-threatening bacterial infection, her mother died from a freak fall, she broke up with her girlfriend and she was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts. It’s how she persevered and turned those tragedies into that proverbial lemonade that makes up the new documentary “Tig,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this January and lands on Netflix Friday.
For a project about the terrible, horrible, very bad, no good things that happen to one woman “Tig” has a decidedly light touch. While it focuses on those sad four months in 2012, it does not wallow. In fact, it only spends about 20 minutes setting up Notaro’s plight before getting to her instantly iconic stand-up set at LA’s Largo in August of that same year.
The set began with, “Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you?”
While in most situations that would be an instant conversation stopper, for Notaro it was the unlikely beginning of a blossoming for her professional and personal life. Word of mouth and praise from fellow comics like Louis CK, Bill Burr and Ed Helms made her show the stuff of legends, leading to an avalanche of praise and possibilities. Talk shows, a live album and more high-profile jobs followed.
Filmmakers Kristina Gooldsby and Ashley York started following Notaro a few months after that set and her double mastectomy. The longtime friends of the comic realized that Notaro’s success out of the depths of tragedy was a story begging to be told.
The women are relatively hands-off with their subject, which matters as they follow her from doctor’s appointments to hometown visits and fortuitous dates. They allow Notaro to talk directly to the camera at times, and at others use video or audio of her stand-up.
The comic’s deadpan, pause-filled style drives the narrative, which goes from crippling adversity to sudden sensation to unexpected romance. Notaro’s sexuality also permeates the picture, but refreshingly not as yet another obstacle. Instead, the out comic’s personal life is handled in a matter-of-fact way that never once mentions the word “lesbian.”
Yet her orientation, like her unshakeable drive to persevere, is clear to everyone immediately.
One of the most pleasant surprises is the surprising love story at the heart of “Tig.” During the course of the documentary, the audience gets to watch Notaro’s friendship turn to something so much more with actress Stephanie Allynne. The two starred together in the film “In a World” right before Notaro’s world began to spiral. They reconnected afterward and, because Allynne had only dated men before, their relationship caught them both off guard. The couple is now engaged and continues to pursue a family.
While the documentary deals with the most private parts of Notaro’s life — her mom’s death, her health, her love life, her yearning for a child — we get precious little backstory on the comic herself. Other than learning from a brief glimpse of her GED diploma that her full first name is Mathilde, we are left to guess about Notaro’s life before the turmoil that rocked her world.
“Tig” instead chooses to focus on what it took for her to make it through the worst period of her life. And we’re left inspired by the talent, mindset and — dare we say it — luck that it took for her to get there.