Tig Notaro had breast cancer. She underwent a double mastectomy. Spoiler alert: she survived.
In the last three years, Notaro has become one of the comedy world’s most revered and beloved stand-up artists. On July 17, Netflix released a documentary about her, simply called, Tig. It’s the story of one woman’s battle with one of life’s most unfair and unexpected demons. But it is also much more than that.
The 41-year-old comedian was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer in 2012, shortly after she suffered a life-threatening bacterial infection that had landed her in the hospital for weeks, and shortly after her mother died unexpectedly from a fall.
At that point, Notaro’s career was rising steadily with a regular gig at the Los Angeles comedy club Largo. She was scheduled to do a show just days after she was diagnosed. She decided to go on stage despite her fresh hardship. The set, by Largo’s rules — like those at many comedy clubs — was not video-recorded. But it was audio-recorded, at Notaro’s request. As her fellow comedians looked on (including Louis C.K., Bill Burr and Ed Helms), she — in her classic, hilarious deadpan — stepped on stage and stated simply, “Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you?”
In the recording, the cheering audience falters, unsure of how to react. As jokes about things that would be entirely unfunny in another context keep rolling, they settle in, recognizing that, as Ed Helms notes in the film, something historic was happening. Notaro performed an earth-shakingly candid set, where she talked about her cancer and other illnesses, the loss of her mother, the recent loss of a relationship and the simply unbelievable bad hand she had been dealt in the preceding months.
Even in the absence of video, the raw novelty of the show went viral, turning her into a star overnight. Louis C.K. helped her release the audio as an album, which sold tens of thousands of copies. The following month, she underwent a double mastectomy and was declared cancer free.
The Netflix original documentary Tig follows Notaro from the Largo show that made her famous through the year following her diagnosis. In typical documentary fashion, it combines candid behind the scenes footage and interviews with live comedy videos, photos and audio recordings overlayed with text from her recorded sets.
Cancer only looms as the Big Bad for the first 30 minutes of the 90-minute documentary. The remainder of the film explores a range of other subjects, large and small, and the way that this extraordinary woman approaches them: with incomparable, and frankly unfathomable, positivity.
Hoping to start a family, but unable to carry a child because of the cancer, Notaro begins the process of harvesting her eggs and finding a surrogate. The film explores the complexity, awkwardness and somewhat anesthetizing nature of in vitro fertilization and surrogacy, from injecting hormones and harvesting eggs to choosing a surrogate and hoping it “takes.”
In the meantime, she falls in love. The many kinds of loving relationships and friendships in Notaro’s life make this a heartwarming film to watch — and not in saccharine, sappy sort of way. The way she falls in love with her girlfriend is simple and beautiful. Her friends (including Louis, Sarah Silverman, Zach Galfianakis and other faces familiar) love her simply and fully. The scenes of them giving comedy performances to each other in her hospital room are lovely and real in a way that is often lost if a documentary camera is too imposing or tries to capture subject matter this complex. But Tig never feels staged. It always feels captured. True.
Woven throughout the film is a theme of not making a big thick, tragic deal of things. It’s strange how, for a story ostensibly about cancer, this one is so light. It’s not flip or callous with the subject of cancer. It’s grounded and real and tragic and horrifying without any high drama. The message seems to be that sometimes these things are bad enough without a big hunk of sadness on top. Sometimes the best way to get through them is actually just to get through them, and try to rediscover the joy on the other side.
One of the film’s many joys is the return of Notaro’s smile and laughter over the course of the film. Despite being a comedian, the tragedies that wracked Notaro’s life reduced her to a shell — not empty, but lost. We get to see her rebuild her sense of self. By the end, we’re left with a sense that the big, scary things in life are actually quite simple: they happen, and we get through them. Then they happen again, and we get through them again. If you can find a way to laugh, then any big, scary life event — cancer, loss, death, birth, change of any kind — suddenly becomes an opportunity to recalibrate your senses and rediscover who you are.