One thing we don’t lack for in TV land: stand-up comedy specials. I feel as if I spend a significant chunk of my day tossing DVD copies of upcoming stand-up specials into a special drawer — and deleting press releases that tout still more of them on the way. If you’re a comedian and some channel has not yet shown your stand-up special, then I think you might be dead.
But, as some readers may possibly know, the 44-year-old comedian Tig Notaro is alive. Breast cancer tried to claim her (as did other ailments), but she fought back, in part by incorporating her sickness into her comedy act. A 2012 performance in Los Angeles, in which Notaro talked at length and with smart humor about having cancer, has become the stuff of legend — Louis C.K. reportedly called it the finest stand-up comedy performance he’d ever seen. Notaro is one of those comedians whose biggest fans are other comedians.
In “Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro” (airing Friday on Showtime), cancer is rarely mentioned, though it does shadow both her life and her work. Notaro, whose personality and stage presence give added meaning to the word “deadpan,” decided to take her act on the road last summer and invited her fans to propose unconventional venues in which she could perform.
They responded enthusiastically, inviting her to their back yards, barns, geodesic-dome houses, farm fields and abandoned churches. She picks a few (in a hilarious but brief consult with her comedian friend Nick Kroll) and heads out on the open road with a film crew, joined by John Dore, an oafishly adorable comedian who serves as both her driver and opening act. Watching their conversations in the car could be its own comedy special.
It’s difficult to describe (or, in fact, transcribe) Notaro’s act, at least from what we see in this quasi-documentary; in another era she might have been called a monologist. After all, what is there to convey about a comedian whose best bit is simply an uproarious impression of a clown horn? (“Fur-hee,” Notaro calmly honks while her small audience, at a lakeside cabin in Indiana, quakes with laughter. “Fur-hee, fur-hee.” The more she does it — “fur-hee” — the more intense their conniptions.)
What’s most striking about “Knock Knock” is how easily (or perhaps carefully) Notaro finds just the right doors to knock on, far away from the urban core. Even in rural Pluto, Miss., she attracts a certain stripe of crowd — mainly white, Gen-X hipsters (horn-rimmed glasses, tattooed shoulders, free-range kids) for whom the public radio show “This American Life” (where Notaro’s work has been heard) is very much about their American lives.
It wasn’t so long ago that a quietly offbeat lesbian performer in cutoff jeans might traverse the flyover territories and find that most straight people wouldn’t have given her the time of day, much less come see her comedy show in large numbers. In “Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro,” there’s a sweet, subtle awareness that there are pockets of cool people almost anywhere you go now, and that their doors are always open.
(80 minutes) airs Friday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.