Stand-up comedian Tig Notaro continues to laugh at cancer in new Sundance documentary

First Published      Last Updated Jan 25 2015 09:23 am

Film » A lovely, intimate documentary about the deadpan comedian whose career (and life) was rocked by a set about her diagnosis.

In 2012, comic Tig Notaro was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. In a four-month stretch, she was weakened by an intestinal disease that nearly killed her, followed by the news of her mother's sudden death and a breakup. After that, she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

The night of her diagnosis, she went onstage to perform her regular monthly set at a small Los Angeles club, and she opened with what has become a viral sensation: "Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you?"

It was the cancer report heard 'round the world, after friend and fellow performer Louis C.K. sent out a tweet: "In 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great, masterful stand-up sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo."

"The show was an amazing example of what comedy can be," he wrote on his website. "A way to visit your worst fears and laugh at them. Tig took us to a scary place and made us laugh there. Not by distracting us from the terror but by looking right at it and just turning to us and saying, 'Wow. Right?' She proved that everything is funny. And has to be. And she could only do this by giving us her own death as an example. So generous."

Louis C.K. sold a recording of the set on his website; Notaro later released it through iTunes. "Live" went on to sell 75,000 copies, or as Notaro says: "More records than KISS."

That backstory is the starting point for "Tig," a beautifully quiet film screening in the Sundance Film Festival's Documentary Premieres category. And even before the festival began on Thursday, the documentary was generating buzz as it was named to "must see" lists by Rolling Stone and Huffington Post.

In a movie season filled with headlines about Hollywood sexism, "Tig" underscores the strength of independent film in the way it focuses the camera on a strong, sensitive female character.

What's remarkable about the film is its intimacy, as the comic known for her deadpan wit and endless pauses faces what it means to be truly alive. Despite the honesty of her comedy, "she's an incredibly private person," says filmmaker and longtime friend Kristina Goolsby. "I think there are things in the film that will shock the people who know her."

Notaro doesn't make political statements in her comedy or on-camera interviews. Instead, "by being herself, she sort of does," Goolsby says. "Her forum is her personality, the way she handles and moves through the world. She is political by doing, not necessarily by joining."

The idea for the documentary was pitched by Goolsby, a senior producer for A&E's "Intervention," making her directorial debut with this Sundance film. Notaro agreed to the idea of being filmed as she rebuilt her life, but she wasn't sure if the project would really get off the ground. "I just felt open to seeing what could be," Notaro says.

"I couldn't believe all these things had happened to her," says Goolsby, who signed up Ashley York, a filmmaker and producer who is also a lecturer at USC, to co-direct the project. "I thought this is the precipice of the most extraordinary change in the world."

The documentary follows Notaro after a mastectomy, as she deals with the unexpected attention to "Live" and works to develop new comedy material for a one-year anniversary show. Cancer and death weren't exactly Notaro's normal comedy material, Goolsby says, underscoring how the set redefined her comedic approach, from more distant and observational to more personal. "The delivery was Tig, but the content was very different."

As cameras roll, Notaro reconnects with Stephanie Allynne, an actor she met on the set of the 2013 Sundance feature "In a World," and considers her options to start a family.

Since the documentary wrapped, Notaro has continued to new opportunities for honesty in her stand-up set, most notably performing some of her material topless — that is, exposing her mastectomy scars — in two recent shows.

She says the idea for a comedy bit that would be as jarring as announcing her cancer diagnosis came to her several years ago. "I love both of them being delivered as though it's no big deal," she says. "I mean, it really is a big deal, but scars are just signs that your skin has healed. It's funny to me that that is so taboo, to reveal that I had a deadly illness that is removed from my body and now I have scars. If you have a scar on your face, nobody is asking you to put a bag on your head."

After dealing with so much tragedy, this Sundance season marks the ongoing resurgence in the comedian's life. She and Allynne, who recently got engaged, are back at the festival, with Allynne starring in "People, Places, Things," a feature film screening in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.

Notaro, who will host Sundance's feature-film awards ceremony Jan. 31, has continued to tour, while she also tapes a weekly podcast, "Professor Blastoff." She is writing a memoir for HarperCollins imprint Ecco, and her comedy is the subject of a Showtime documentary, which will air in April.

Notaro is experiencing the kind of overnight success that took 18 years of hard work, Goolsby says.

Adds Notaro: "All of this hit in my life when I was ready for it, luckily."



‘Tig’ at Sundance

Monday, 5:30 p.m. » The MARC, Park City

Wednesday, 9 p.m. » Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City

Thursday, 3:45 p.m. » Broadway Centre Cinema 3, Salt Lake City

Sunday, Feb. 1, 1 p.m. » Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City, Park City