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Netflix's Tig Notaro documentary is a deeply serious film about a deeply funny person

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Tig, which premiered Friday, July 17, on Netflix, is not a funny movie. I don't mean that as a criticism: It's a documentary about someone who contracted a brutal C. diff infection, who lost her mother, and who survived bilateral breast cancer after undergoing a double mastectomy. But it's also about Tig Notaro, one of the very best standup comedians currently working in the field, whose first set after her cancer diagnosis became an instant classic of gallows humor and comedic catharsis.

Notaro's standup is usually delivered in a disaffected monotone, with a healthy dose of ironic detachment. In Live (pronounced as in "live or die," not "live concert"), the post-diagnosis set, Notaro's tone is less morose than it is a straightforward description of how awful the summer of 2012 was for her. "The technician said, 'Oh my gosh, you have such a flat stomach! What is your secret?'" she recalls. "And I was like, 'Oh, I'm dying.'"

That same straightforwardness was present on her 2011 debut album, Good One, which features Notaro's most famous bit, a 12-minute story that lists the numerous times she's run into late '80s/early '90s pop star Taylor Dayne. These encounters are reported matter-of-factly and without any excitement: "You guys are not going to believe who was sitting there. Yeah, it was Taylor Dayne. That's exactly who it was."

What's so bracing about Tig, for Notaro fans, is that the monotone is gone. With the exception of filmed standup appearances, she is not, at any point, "on." The filmmakers enjoyed remarkable access to the comedian, not least because one of them, Kristina Goolsby, is a longtime friend of Notaro's. "I can't imagine if I didn't know the director that I would've done or revealed what I did," Notaro told me in a recent interview. As a result, the film boasts enough material to capture the full arc of her illness, her mother's passing, and her burgeoning relationship with now-fiancée Stephanie Allynne.

The resulting portrait is not of "Tig Notaro," the well-crafted public persona. It's of Tig Notaro the actual person, flung into an unbearably difficult situation. Nothing feels constructed or honed. When Notaro is being visited in the hospital by other comedian friends like Sarah Silverman and Todd Barry, the visitors' celebrity doesn't take you out of the film at all. They're just regular people doing what anyone would do for a friend in need.

Of course, upon the release of Live, Notaro the public persona became inextricably linked with Notaro herself, the actual person who got cancer. She's not unhappy about this, necessarily. "A lot of people would ask, 'What is it like to be known for cancer?' or [they say,] 'I liked you before cancer,'" she says. "It just doesn't bother me, because I do feel like first and foremost I was doing standup and it just happened to be about that topic."

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Notaro at a hospital appointment in a scene from Tig. (Netflix)

But if Live earned Notaro a broader audience, it brought with it new insecurities. One of the more powerful aspects of Tig is its tracing of how Notaro struggled to regain her confidence as a performer in light of her new notoriety, and how to incorporate material about her life into a standup set when that set has to be worked on over time, rather than delivered extemporaneously. What's more, the challenge was amplified because confessional comedy wasn't really her bailiwick before Live.

"I did have a moment, before I walked on stage in Iowa — it was one of my first big shows after Live came out, and I was backstage a little fearful that I would let people down with my new material because it wasn't heavy or 100 percent confessional," Notaro says. "I realized I had to really let go. Going through what I went through is a very firsthand experience of learning to let go, and just be like, 'I got through all that, I bet I can get through this set. I bet I can get through everyone's expectations. I bet life will go on."

Tig chronicles the evolution of one joke in particular, which Notaro eventually delivered fully formed on Conan, about whether her cancer was punishment from her breasts for years of jokes about how small they were:

By the end of the film, it's hysterically funny. But at the start it's just a germ of an idea that doesn't really work. Each retelling tweaks a phrase or adds a pause or otherwise tinkers with the joke to make it slightly better, until Notaro finally nails it. It's one of the best representations of the comedy-writing process I've seen on film, made all the more powerful because it's a perfect synthesis of the silliness of Notaro's early work and the emotional vulnerability of Live.

Notaro says her newest material continues to toe that line: "I went on stage last month with not a thought in my head and had a whole new half-hour of material that flew out of my head and face and mouth. I walked off stage going, 'Whoa, I didn't even know where that came from.' I didn't even notice that there was this theme in the material. All of the stories I was telling had to do with me blowing my cool in life. I've always identified with being really cool. That's how I saw myself, that's how people saw me. I'm just cool. And I revealed on stage very uncool moments in my life and told these stories that are really humiliating."

For those of us hankering to hear that new material, HBO will release Notaro's newest special on August 22. In the meantime, fans can look to Netflix's Tig for a remarkably personal, revealing, and serious exploration of what it takes to mine humor from tragedy.

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