At the start of 2012, things were going great for Tig Notaro. Her comedy career was on the upswing, she was in a relationship, and she was ready to start a family. But then, within a matter of months, as fans of the comedian know, she was hit with one devastating setback after another.
First, Notaro dropped 20 pounds from her small frame after she fell ill with a dangerous bacterial infection that took over her intestinal tract. Then, as she was regaining her health, Notaro’s mother, the person she says understood her like no one else, took a fall and died suddenly. And, to top off a horrific few months, Tig was subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer. Oh, and her relationship ended.
Just days after her breast cancer diagnosis, Notaro would turn her misfortune into comedy gold, taking the stage at the Largo comedy club in Los Angeles and greeting the crowd with a simple: “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?” She then went on to perform a brilliant, brutally honest set that, thankfully, was recorded. Louis CK, who was there that night, was so impressed that he released the audio recording via his website. (FYI: That recording, billed as Tig Notaro: Live, is now available on iTunes.)
The set was immediately labeled legendary, and Notaro was getting book offers and fielding interviews while facing a fight for her life, and just a month after that career-making show at Largo, she had a double mastectomy.
While Notaro was open about her struggles at the time both on stage and with the press, she goes deeper into her personal story in the documentary Tig, revealing how she coped with so much loss and illness and allowing co-directors Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York to follow along as she continues her quest to have a child and pursues a relationship with actress Stephanie Allynne, with whom she co-starred in the 2013 film In A World.
Notaro also talks about feeling overwhelmed by the amount of unexpected interest and fame that came as a result of that pivotal Largo gig and how she lost her confidence as a comedian after the success of the Tig Notaro: Live album, fearing she could never top that performance. By many accounts, she created another landmark stand-up special, Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted, which will appear on HBO August 22.
Here, Notaro, who is now cancer-free, talks to Co.Create about why she agreed to be the subject of the documentary, which debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival,and will be available on Netflix beginning July 17, how she had to put her trust in the filmmakers and what she learned about herself from seeing her life story play out onscreen.
Co.Create: How did it come to be that you made this film?
Notaro: One of my close friends—Kristina Goolsby—was one of the directors, and she’s the one who approached me about doing the film. A part of me thought that it maybe wouldn’t happen just because so many projects start and stop and never see the light of day, and I also didn’t know that I would ultimately become more well-known to the degree that I did. My album had come out, and I knew my album was popular, and it was number one around the world, but I also thought it was kind of a fleeting thing.
So I just said yes to it just thinking we would be making a little project together. It’s nothing against Kristina, but I just didn’t think the film would do anything. I didn’t think producers would get behind it, and it would screen at Sundance.
You’ve been very open about all that you went through, sharing your story on stage and in interviews with the press, but making a documentary and allowing a camera crew to follow you around is another level of sharing. Were you at all afraid?
It could have only happened, I think, with me knowing the director so well. It was her first film, and we were kind of fumbling through it together, and it just felt like friends going through something together.
I’ve talked to people who have made films about comedians, and they have said it can be difficult because a lot of comedians tend to be “on” all the time and always want to be funny. While you are certainly funny in this film, you aren’t “being funny” all the time. You seem like someone who has no problem just being yourself and being vulnerable. Was that always the case with you, or were you cracked open after all the curveballs that life threw at you?
Well, yeah. I think that I couldn’t help but be cracked open to a much deeper level after everything that I went through. But I also think I’ve never had a problem with being serious, or knowing when the time is right to be joking around. I like having real and serious and heavy conversations. I get a really great amount of comedy in my life, and I’m surrounded by, no doubt, the funniest people in the world, every which way you look. I have friends that are funny and crazy. But I feel like I also have the luxury of knowing people, myself included, who know when it’s time to act that way and when to kind of reel it in.
Besides sharing your life, did you play a role in making this documentary as one of the executive producers? Were you involved in the writing or editing?
Very minimally. I was so busy shooting the thing for Showtime [Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro] and writing my book and touring and doing my podcasts.
They would send me versions of what they had cut together, and I would email notes in from viewings. But I saw it maybe four times and gave them my notes, and they took them when they felt that it was worth taking, and then if they didn’t agree, they gave an argument of why something shouldn’t be put in, or shouldn’t be taken out. I would say 90%, 95% of the time I was like, “Wow. Yeah. Okay. I agree.”
I sat in the editing bay probably twice, and it was really for just an hour or two each time. It’s really their project, the filmmakers, and even though I’m an executive producer, there’s a little bit of distance there. Yeah, I was pretty hands off.
You sound like the ideal documentary subject. Is it because you are a creative person that you understand the need to let filmmakers do their thing?
Well, yeah. It’s something I kind of signed up and agreed to in the beginning. They did tell me that they did want my opinion and my input, and I certainly gave it, and I did feel heard, and there were certainly moments that got frustrating or tense, and that was fine. But everything was manageable. I also didn’t really have the time to get that involved, and I think that ended up being kind of a good thing. I think I just also got really lucky that they really did a great job and knew how to tell the story and involve all the different aspects.
There was a writer that was hired, Jennifer Arnold, that did additional directing as well, and there were so many storylines to follow, and she came in and just streamlined the whole thing. She is so talented.
You were seeing cuts of Tig all along the way, but when did you see the finished film for the first time, and what was that experience like for you?
I got a message saying that they were going to do a screening for friends and family and for me to invite people. It was a pretty big screening, and I felt very vulnerable because I hadn’t seen a cut that I felt 100% confident with, and Stephanie and I were driving to the screening, and we were like, “Oh my God. What have we gotten ourselves into? Our friends and family are now coming to see this cut, and we don’t feel 100% like it’s there yet!”
We got there, and we were watching the film, and I turned to Stephanie, and I said, “I think this might be really good,” and she said, “Yeah, it’s amazing!” Then we both just settled in and watched the movie, and I was blown away with what they had finally pulled together. It was all there. It’s very authentic to what happened.
Do you find that the process of making a documentary is similar to what you do as someone who writes and performs comedy? Making a documentary is so much about fine-tuning and editing, and as we see in the film, you are constantly getting onstage to test and hone material.
Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s all it is. You have a general idea. That’s what it’s like for myself. I’ll have a general idea of what I want to do, and then I’ll just keep going on stage and redoing it over and over until it really feels like it’s ready to be revealed in some way, whether it’s on a late-night show, or an album, or an hour special. It’s an ongoing process, and even still, you’ll record something, and then after you record it you’re like, “Oh, I thought of the best punch line.” It’s always a work-in-progress.
What I thought was so inspiring as I watched this documentary is that you suffered but you never really shut down. It would have been understandable if you did, of course. People in your position might have been crushed, defeated by life, and maybe not had it in them to get back on stage. It’s not like what you do as a comedian is easy even in the best of circumstances.
Well, it wasn’t. After I did that Largo show, and after my album came out, I had so much attention and so much press, so many people interested in my story and my health and my comedy, and my head was spinning, not having the secure footing of my health and not having my mother and not having a primary relationship and kind of not knowing what I had to say. I was in such a very, very weird place because I lived, and I was having this acclaim, but I just didn’t know who I was really.
What do you think you got out of making this film and sharing your experiences?
You know what I got most of out of it? I had a realization about myself that might have been obvious to other people that knew me, but I guess I had to see my life play out in a film for me to realize that I am a risk taker. I didn’t really realize that. From trying to get pregnant, to pursuing Stephanie, to revealing that I had cancer, to making a documentary, to so many things—I didn’t know that I took so many risks. As I’m looking back at all the different risks that I’ve taken, every one—even if they don’t pay off—moved me forward in some way.