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Tig Notaro is frank and unadorned, a hero for our time, in Netflix documentary 'Tig'

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

If the Bill Cosby scandal has caused many to reexamine the dangers of fame and fandom, the documentary "Tig," which begins streaming Friday on Netflix, offers most welcome proof that not every revelation by or about a famous person need be scandalous.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

Though a longtime notable on the stand-up circuit, Tig Notaro became famous in 2012 after she gave a performance at Largo in which she discussed an epic series of misfortunes: Weeks after Notaro contracted a life-threatening intestinal disease, her mother died; a month after that, Notaro was diagnosed with breast cancer.

When Louis C.K. and others began tweeting about the deadpan, brutally honest show, it went viral, putting Notaro in the strange position of being suddenly famous and fighting for her life.

Mercifully, a double mastectomy followed by hormone-blocking treatments left her cancer-free with an excellent prognosis. When a friend asked if she might make a documentary about her, Notaro said yes.

Directed by Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York, "Tig" is a 90-minute look at what happened and, more important, what happened next. Which includes many things: recovering her health, grieving her mother, attempting to have a child, falling in love and regaining her balance as a comedian.

Like most of Notaro's comedy, "Tig" is served straight up, no chaser, save the bartender's cool and patient stare. With her shock of dark hair, wiry frame and midlife attachment to T-shirts and hoodies, Notaro has long been a resolutely anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a performer as creative with silence as she is with words.

But Notaro's comedic pauses are not so much about discomfort as they are humanity, a willingness to give everyone time to catch up, to the joke and the communal nature of comedy.

Last year, Notaro famously followed a joke about how confused many people felt about her increased androgyny — she did not get surgical reconstruction after her mastectomies — by performing the second half of her set topless.

For the opposite of shock value, to prove how normal the "abnormal" is, once we actually sit with it for a while without fanfare or apology.

"Tig" is like that too, a frank look at the many things that make a life, that change a life, without embroidery or quick-hit editing.

Indeed, one of the best things about "Tig" is that it shows the work that goes into sudden fame and how exhausting it can be. After her Largo set went viral, Notaro was, literally, everywhere; watching her face while a stylist fidgets her hair over and over tells you all you need to know about the double-edged blade of fame.

Even more effective is the portrayal of the person inside the fame. Her fear of returning to comedy — she went viral with cancer; what happens now that she's cancer-free? — her desire for a family and her deepening love for Stephanie Allynne, whom she met while filming the 2013 film "In a World."

As the fall of Bill Cosby has proved, admiration too often leads to idolatry, and that is a dangerous pursuit. "Tig" is something of a seduction, a film carefully constructed to tell a story about a performer who survived several very difficult years and triumphed.

But it's also such a good story about such a remarkable performer. No matter how many times we get burned, we still need heroes, and truth-telling has never seemed more heroic than it does now.

It's tough not to fall hard for "Tig."

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Tig'

Where: Netflix

When: Anytime, Friday

Rating: Not rated

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