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Comic Tig Notaro: This hot property is more than the sum of her bad luck

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

Comedian Tig Notaro lives in an old house on a curving street in the Hollywood Hills with a Takamine acoustic guitar on a stand in the living room and a sign in the kitchen that reads "Take chances, abolish all the rules, ditch the recipe." As in cooking, so in life.

We were sitting on a porch off the kitchen as hummingbirds flew up from the garden to attack a bright red feeder, making electric hummingbird noises.

"Aren't they the best?" Notaro asked. "We have so many, and they're so aggressive, it's hilarious. And when the feeder is empty — and I'm really good at keeping it full — but when it's empty, I am not kidding you, they will … ." And here she imitated a hungry, angry hummingbird getting in her face. "It's really something else."

A hot property at 44, Notaro is the subject of a new documentary, "Tig," which premieres on Netflix July 17. It will open the Outfest Los Angeles film festival on July 9. It arrives between the recent Showtime documentary "Knock Knock, It's Tig Notaro" — which followed her on a fan-hosted tour whose venues ranged from a living room to a flatbed truck in a Mississippi field — and the concert special "Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted," taped in May at Boston's Wilbur Theater and debuting Aug. 22 on HBO.

So it's working out to be a good year for Notaro, who, as "Tig" artfully relates and is comedy-world common knowledge, has known the other sort.

Directed by Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York and written by Jennifer Arnold, the film — which is funny and moving in unexpected ways among the expected ones — begins as she prepares to go onstage at Largo, the Los Angeles theater where a year earlier, in August 2012, a performance changed her life.

"Good evening, hello," that set began. "I have cancer. How are you?"

Cancer was only the third element in a kind of hellish hat trick, following quickly upon the sudden death of her mother, which followed quickly upon a life-threatening intestinal infection that put her in the hospital and stripped 20 pounds from her already slender frame. When she went onstage at Largo, days after being diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer, she had an imperfect idea of her future, which is to say, whether she would even have one.

All this informed her set, the mere fact of which was turned viral by admiring tweets from the comics she had invited to accompany her that night: Louis C.K., Ed Helms, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Bill Burr. Later, after some reluctance on Notaro's part, C.K. would release the performance itself as a download from his website.

But Notaro is more than the sum of her bad luck. She's as accomplished, assured and interesting a person as I've seen onstage. Slight but steely, she has a remarkable control of a crowd, its tenor, its temperature, and for a person who says she hates school — indeed, a high school dropout — she knows how to run a classroom. She'll shape the way the audience claps for her (once, in unison) and will sometimes close her show by demanding silence, which becomes a kind of hilarious game that Notaro will wait around to win.

"I really feel connected to the whole room," she told me. "Even if I can't see everybody, I just have an awareness, so even though it's my show and I'm running the party, I want it to be a group experience, with everyone left feeling like they felt involved and that we did it together."

Her comedy is difficult to label; it isn't observational per se or philosophical or surrealist. It's somehow conceptual and personal at once, brainy but not bookish, goofy but not dumb, and though her delivery can be as dry as the desert floor, she is never disconnected. She will ask reasonable questions of a mad world or just tell you about something that happened and let the silences and stresses and repeated motifs carry the comedy. Or she will honk like a clown horn or scrape a stool across the stage just to see how long you can take it and how much you'll laugh.

I wondered how much of a part Largo — as her home venue, where she irregularly headlines an evening of comedy called Tig Has Friends — played in her decision to perform so soon after her diagnosis.

"So much," she said. "I feel really at home there and supported there. Every night, every show, every performance always feels special there, really. A lot of times I do other venues, it just feels like, 'Oh, I'm going into a club and I'm going to do my set and head out.' And at Largo I have the freedom to do 15 minutes or two hours. But even though I felt safe in the room, what I was going to be sharing was not safe.

"Up until that point I was so private in my life and I hadn't even told my friends that were on the show what was going on. And it was odd that I would be sharing it onstage; it was very ... atypical. And when I walked offstage they were all stunned and tearful. They were passing me around and hugging me; it was really intense."

It was a breakthrough but also for a while an impasse.

"When I did that show at Largo, I didn't feel like it would be authentic or that it would feel good at all to do any of my older material," Notaro said. "I couldn't possibly go onstage and act like I was having normal days and observing life from a distance. And after that Largo show, I didn't feel I could do any of the Largo material or any of my old material, and then I just, I felt very kind of lost after that, I didn't understand who I was anymore."

Eventually she "just made the decision to have faith that I'm funny and whatever brought people to me, whether it was old material or the Largo set, that they would enjoy the show whatever it is now. And that's kind of how I have been ever since.

"Every step along the way, when I wanted to do something different, all it's ever translated to is people saying, 'You seem more confident on stage.' I've done one-liners, I've done jokes, I've done long stories, I've done physical things, I've done confessional comedy and storytelling — and it's all going back to the idea of not restricting myself."

"Even though there's an excitement and risk to stand-up, there's no mistake as to why your show ends up being called a routine. There was probably a point I reached where I started needing a little more — it's probably good I'm not a drug addict, I'd be the biggest junkie in the world — more taking risks onstage. And then when I watched the finished documentary, it was like, 'I'm a risk-taker. I had no idea.'" (On a few occasions, including a much-reported appearance at New York's Town Hall in November and at the HBO-taped Wilbur Theater show, she has performed part of her set topless to reveal her mastectomy scars, but otherwise carrying on as normal.)

"Tig" portrays other sorts of risks than professional ones, as Notaro attempts to start a family. ("I always saw myself as a parent," she told me of her youthful vision of her adulthood. "As a single parent, and I think that's 'cause I didn't know I was gay.") And then, unexpectedly, the film becomes something of a romantic comedy as she comes to terms with her feelings for Stephanie Allynne, a comic-actress she met in 2012 while filming Lake Bell's "In a World."

Their friendship turned to courtship — Allynne had never been in and was not interested in a same-sex relationship — which unrolls in the film in text messages and a scene of telephonic improv on "Conan." They got engaged in January and had just returned from visiting Notaro's family in Mississippi.

"Her family came out too," Notaro said. "And they were just charmed and blown away; my family is so gregarious and loud and just very welcoming. They're Deep South, conservative, military background, religious but so loving and open. And no judgments. They love me, they love Stephanie. They want our wedding announcement in the papers; they want everything out there.

"I love it here," she said, seeming to take in the garden, the hills and the city. "I love my life. But I didn't move here to make it, and so there's a part of me that doesn't quite compute with this town. When people are, like, 'What's your next big project?' — it's building a family. And birdwatching. Truly. I don't want to wish my career or work away, that's not how I feel. But that's not my focus."

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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