Before August 2012, Tig Notaro was an accomplished comedian with a touring act, a few screen roles, and a popular podcast. After August 2012, however, she’s best known as the stand-up who walked into L.A.’s Largo club, announced she had cancer, and launched into a set praised by Louis C.K. as one of the best he’d ever seen.
Netflix’s Tig, streaming today, chronicles the build-up to and fallout from the now-iconic performance, which C.K. sold on his website under the name Live. (At 75,000 copies in a few months, the special technically outsold that year’s Kiss album.) Clocking in at 90 minutes to Live‘s airtight thirty-one, though, Tig necessarily has a very different rhythm: where Live piles Notaro’s hardships onto the audience in rapid succession and shocks them into laughter, Tig slowly guides the viewer through the entertainer’s ups and downs. The effect is, unsurprisingly, less cathartic, resulting in a mellow companion piece to the comedian’s masterwork.
Tig is structured around Notaro’s “anniversary show,” an hourlong Largo set delivered a year to the day after Live. After Tig works through some greenroom jitters with Zach Galifianakis and Sarah Silverman, the film loops back to 2012, when Notaro first became sick while filming Lake Bell’s feature film In a World… The illness turns out to be not cancer, but a potentially deadly bacteria known as C. diff. It’s the first of many trials Notaro endures before her diagnosis with bilateral breast cancer.
Shortly afterward, Notaro’s mother sustains a head injury and loses all brain activity. In Live, the event is one calamity among many, but Tig takes the opportunity to craft an extended tribute to Mathilde “Susie” Cusack (she shares a first name with Notaro — “Tig” is, shockingly, not her birth name), to whom Notaro ascribes her comic sensibility. There are home videos and testimonials and stories about pranking Tig’s friends with blue mashed potatoes, and Notaro communicates the magnitude of Susie’s passing, which continues to influence her decision-making throughout the film.
In the middle of all this, Notaro takes part in a live show she organized with This American Life‘s Ira Glass, who suggests she might want to incorporate her recent experiences into her act. Because this is a story, albeit a true one, the comedian is reluctant, even offended. And then she gets cancer.
Even though Live comes only a third of the way through the film, it serves as the emotional climax. Notaro wrote the material last minute, after deciding to go through with her regular show at Largo, and Tig conveys in a way even Live does not that there was a real possibility the set could have been her last. “I came onstage not knowing if I was going to live or die,” she admits. “Because my life had fallen apart so quickly, I kind of assumed I was going to die.”
From there, the film follows Notaro’s personal and professional lives in the wake of her sudden viral fame. Tig conveys the important truth that Live‘s success didn’t erase its painful source material; Notaro describes feeling profound loneliness even as her fanbase grows bigger than ever, and her decision to pursue having kids is deeply affected by her mother’s death. But since real life rarely follows the neat arc of a screenplay, or even a stand-up set, Tig‘s personal segments have an open-ended feel that can’t quite match the crescendo of Live‘s origin story.
The footage dealing with Notaro’s career, and her career anxieties, is much more compelling. After undergoing a double mastectomy, Notaro didn’t perform stand-up for a full six months post-Live‘s recording. Tig intersperses audio from the set (illustrated with graphics, since Largo doesn’t allow filming or photography inside the venue) with Notaro’s tentative attempts to craft new material that lives up to the hype Live created.
Co-directors Ashley York and Kristina Goolsby use a single joke as shorthand for Notaro’s creative frustrations. The decision is a smart one, offering the sort of peek into the creative process that makes comedy nerds in the podcast era, this one included, go nuts. Notaro fans who’ve seen the “let’s kill her” bit in its late-night ready form will watch the joke mature on club stages and over margaritas with Kyle Dunnigan; newbies might be more pleasantly surprised when the joke finally comes together during her Largo anniversary set, thereby bringing the film full circle.
Tig is not the essential work of comedy that is Live, but neither is it meant to be. Instead, the documentary contextualizes a vital piece of the comedy canon by profiling its performer, whose career, and life, kept going after she walked offstage.