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Sundance Review: Tig Notaro Tells Her Unlikely Survival Story in Moving Doc ‘Tig’

Sundance Review: Tig Notaro Tells Her Unlikely Survival Story in Moving Doc 'Tig'

Deep sadness and easygoing laughter are generally two very disparate emotions, but in Tig Notaro’s standup comedy, both of those emotions find a home where they can peacefully coexist. The experiences that she uses for her material are heavy, but her delivery is somehow hilariously deadpan and unflinchingly real, without minimizing her problems. “Tig” follows Notaro as she recounts her relationship with her mother, her rise to fame in the comedy world, and her shocking recovery from breast cancer.

A Grammy Award–nominated comedian, writer, and podcast host (“Professor Blastoff”), Notaro dealt with her struggles in a uniquely publish fashion. Within the span of four months in 2012, Notaro contracted pneumonia, deadly bacterial infection C. diff, suffered the death of her mother, endured a break-up of a long-term relationship, and received the dreaded diagnosis of stage II breast cancer. These life events are harrowing enough taken separately — let alone compounded in such a devastating series of circumstances — but Notaro turned the crippling nature of these affairs into comedy material, deftly utilizing painful subjects to her advantage and setting her apart from other, more impersonal comedians.

On a now-famous performance in August 2012, Notaro went onstage for a 30-minute stand-up set at Largo, a popular comedy-hosting club in Los Angeles. Her audacious opening line was, “Hi. I have cancer.” She went on to expose the tender subjects of her disease and her mother’s death to the subjection of the audience’s laughter, and the reception to her set quickly went viral. Friend and colleague Louis C.K., watching in the eaves, blasted news to the corners of the internet, which ultimately led to the publication of an album based on her set. From there, Notaro’s comedic rise was meteoric.

Notaro’s story is a brave and fascinating one, because of the sheer perseverance and raw humor with which she applied her adversities to something as pure and fulfilling as comedy. It’s worth marveling at the fact that she spent so little time wallowing in the tragedy of her life’s developments, instead jumping into the deep end with her stand-up tactics and coming out of the other side with the grace and maturity to better inform herself and her work.

“Tig” follows the events in Notaro’s life from the death of her mother in 2012 leading up to her one-year anniversary show at Largo. This provides a natural arc to the narrative. “Tig” only falters in its focus on the various tragedies of her life, hitting all the right emotional markers and setting itself up to be a one-note inspirational story about someone overcoming traumatic obstacles in their life. It’s a method that seeks sympathy and understanding from the audience in a fairly manipulative fashion from the start. But it’s not unearned: “Tig” is an overwhelmingly human portrait of a comedian held dearly beloved — one that feels loyal to Notaro, by offering hilarity and depth in equal doses.

Grade: A-

“Tig” premiered last weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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