I wrote down a lot of questions for Tig Notaro before the comedian, the subject and executive producer of a new Netflix documentary, called me on Wednesday. But shortly before my phone rang, I realized there was one I absolutely had to ask first. “I was hoping,” I told her after I started taping our conversation, “we could start off by talking a little bit more about your mother.”
I asked, because “Tig,” which is available on Netflix today, is something rather more than the story of the stand-up comedy set that radically changed Notaro’s profile. That performance at the Largo, a Los Angeles comedy club, was about a series of calamities that had befallen Notaro: a bout of Clostridium difficile, or C. diff, an infection that ate away at her digestive system; her mother’s death after a fall; and her diagnosis of breast cancer, which prompted her to have a double mastectomy. Cancer became something of the headline on the now-famous Largo set — Notaro followed it up with a topless performance — in part Notaro swept away the preciousness and sanctimony that so often surround the pink ribbon-festooned disease.
But “Tig” focuses more closely on Mathilde Cusack’s death. “I can adjust to my body being different and I can adjust to eating different,” Notaro says in the film. “That’s fine. Losing my mother, that’s not fine.” It’s a lovely movie about the sort of subject that’s often dismissed as not dramatic enough to generate real stakes: the desire to become a parent because of how wonderful it was to be someone’s child.
“My mother was a very, very free-spirited, wild, gregarious, funny person. She was born in New Orleans and grew up in southern Mississippi and raised in a pretty structured, conservative environment,” Notaro told me. “And she was an artist, she was a painter and a dancer, and very creative, funny person. And she really encouraged me to be who I was and do what I wanted to do. She didn’t like putting restrictions on me in any way, really. And all of that’s really wonderful. But she and I also had a very up-and-down relationship. I think it’s kind of a typical story of having the cool, pretty funny mother that everyone loves, and then there’s conflict, where, you know, sometimes you just want a more normal, structured environment as a kid. So yeah, but we were very close and understood each other … She was at home with us. And her social life was around her dance classes, and the painting she did was on her own. She used the back of our house as her canvas and painted all over the outside. It was mainly for us, when we were little kids, just animals, and a clown, and I remember at our birthday parties, we could actually pin the tail on a donkey that she painted.”
In “Tig,” Notaro suggests that “My mother” — seen in photographs mugging with a pair of wig stands or striking a goofy pose with a beer, and the perpetrator of a very funny prank involving blue mashed potatoes — “was very comfortable when things were uncomfortable, and my humor is directly tied to her sensibility.” When she’s acting in shows such as “Community,” “Transparent,” or “Inside Amy Schumer,” or films such as “In a World,” Notaro often plays dour and observant characters, whose good sense and gimlet eye drive other characters to extremes. And her stand-up comedy includes long silences that become punchlines, filled with laughter that’s both anxious and cathartic.
“It’s really interesting, because I haven’t thought much about my comedy until I’ve been pushed more into the limelight and people are dissecting and analyzing me, and where does that come from, and my mother, because she was that way. I’m working on a script right now about the dynamic between my mother and my stepfather and how reserved and removed he was, and how she was constantly trying to push a reaction out of him. And she always got it. But I’m sure that is a very direct influence on me,” Notaro told me when I asked her about those pauses.”They were polar opposites, and people would be just kind of shocked when they met my mother and my stepfather. He was in my life since I was 2. I think that she needed him to keep her in line. And I think he needed her to bring him out.”
“Tig” explains that Cusack’s death and Notaro’s illnesses came at a crucial moment: She was about to start trying to get pregnant. “When my mother died, I switched into this mode of not wanting kids. Because I thought my mother can’t meet my kids, it seems pointless,” Notaro reflects in the film. But while a friend reminded her that she might be able to see Cusack in her children, and that she could keep her mother’s memory alive by teaching her children about the grandmother they’d lost, Notaro’s cancer treatments meant that she couldn’t carry a pregnancy herself. And the hormones she would have to take for her eggs to be extracted carried a risk: They could spur the growth of dormant cancer cells and spark a recurrence of her cancer that wouldn’t be treatable. Watching Notaro learn this on screen is one of several very painful moments in “Tig,” and the movie is wise enough not to overplay them.
The frankness of “Tig” on these subjects is in keeping with the blunt and funny way the “Live” album, the recording of Notaro’s Largo set about her disastrous year, addressed cancer without the sanctimony and showiness that so often accompany discussions of breast cancer.
“I personally don’t like to get caught up in anything that just feels robotic, and this is what you do, and you wear a pink ribbon, and you donate to this charity, and you go on this walk,” she told me. “I like to really check things out and see how I actually feel, and if something resonates with me, and I want to know what’s behind the different curtains. It goes back to feeling very lucky that I have stand-up, because I do always wonder how people get through things … I do feel lucky that I could go outside of that, and rather than just be diagnosed and go to the typical Web site to follow that exact path, to kind of figure my own way out that ends up including so many other people.”
But the movie doesn’t make the mistake of fetishizing suffering, either. One of the beautiful threads shot through “Tig” is Notaro’s developing relationship with her now-fiancee, Stephanie Allynne. The two met on the set of “In a World” and developed a strong friendship before deciding to be together. Watching them going through an attempt at surrogacy, discussing the prospect of adoption and joking about subscribing to Parenting magazine, it’s clear why Notaro feels, as she puts it, “I wish my mother could be here to see what Stephanie and I are building together. I wish that I could share Stephanie with my mother.”