By Douglas Gosse (Toronto, ON, CAN)


TIG brings empathy to COMEDY

This was the opening night screening of TIG at Hot Docs 2015. An interesting choice. Comedian Tig Notaro, is in her forties. This film charts her turbulent life having tried and failed at every job she ever had, losing her mother, breaking up with her partner, being diagnosed with cancer, and then an unsuccessful attempt at surrogacy, all over a period of a few years. Tig begins by saying that she failed three grades in school, and never graduated, though she did eventually earn a GED, that her cat ate. Tig finds her niche as a comedian, highlighting these life events. One can certainly relate to her losses, heartbreak, and illness, and her comedic spin had the audience laughing and empathizing at the same time. She brought these experiences, especially the cancer, into the Los Angeles club Largo, which resulted in numerous radio gigs, talk shows, and even an album, with spoofs of affirmations of her bewilderment and humility. The Foucauldian phenomenon in so much American culture of baring all in public confessions or testimonials, is well illustrated in her act, and in this doc. Success finally comes as a comedian, until she reaches an even darker period of their life, cured of cancer, but with no new material for her act.

It’s a strange world that Tig inhabits in this documentary, a far cry from the diversity of multicultural Toronto; almost everyone appear to be Caucasian and straight. My gaydar was ringing off the wall from the first scene with Tig, and later in the film when her best friend is briefly introduced as the sperm donor, for a child she wishes to have. It isn’t until after the 1st half that she casually mentions how she brought girlfriends to her mother’s home when she was younger. This was perhaps a conscious and strategic choice. Presenting herself as a woman who had breast cancer, and not upfront as lesbian or gay (I really don’t know how she self-identifies), may encourage the audience to see her in a more heteronormative light. Being a woman with a history of financial, relationship, and career woes, can elicit a different response than being a “lesbian” with aforesaid monikers. This may even be seen as progress. Why should she parade her sexual orientation or gender identity upfront?

While Tig relates the importance of family, she is paradoxically presented in the documentary as a rather solitary soul in many ways. She misses her departed mother whom she describes as a free spirit. Scenes related to her beloved mother, show a young beautiful version of her mom, where mom is scantily dressed and posing, flirtatious, and clearly a wife and mother—with shots of Tig and her brother playing. Tig also aspires to also have a family and child, her ultimate dream. Scarce mention is made of biological dad, step-father, brother, or the sperm donor.

Heteronormativity is further affirmed with the Texan cousins she visits, and their growing brood, at the quintessential American BBQ. There are no explicit allusions to being LGBTQ, LGBTQ friends, flags, or emblems. Was this a conscious choice for heteronormativity, a marketing ploy to reach as broad an audience as possible? Perhaps this aspect of her life is secondary. Her identity and life are seen as akin to that of “regular folks’ with a huge dash of Gumpism and Little America.

She repeated a joke at least three times about being flat chested, and her breasts overhearing, and taking revenge (she developed breast cancer, had a double mastectomy, and says she is now cured—bravo), to the laughter of audiences in the clips, and in the Bloor Cinema, although the 3rd or 4th time, I detected a look of consternation on many faces. We got it! Is there more material? As Tig herself says several times, since the cancer was cured, she’s working on more material.

Despite her oncologist’s dire warning that the cancer may return and would likely be fatal if she were to undergo hormone therapy, Tig opts to undergo a cycle of hormones, so that some of her eggs may be harvested and implanted in a surrogate she meets via a pod cast, having sent out an unconventional call for volunteers. She seems flattered and surprised when he tells her several of the harvested eggs are as healthy as that of a woman between 30-35. The sperm donor seems barely, if at all, involved in the decision-making process surrounding the making of a will, or parental responsibility, should she die while the surrogate is pregnant, and Tig herself appears startled at this mention by the surrogate.

She meets Stephanie Allynne around this time, also a high school dropout working in showbiz. Stephanie appears to be the all American girl, wholesome and athletic. The two become best friends. After incessant texting with Stephanie, even live on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, Tig subsequently admits that she has never felt love like this for anyone before. Stephanie admits trepidation about her feelings for Tig, since the thought had never really crossed her mind before to be with a woman. Nevertheless, after a break apart, their simpatico is so strong, that the couple settles down together, buys a house, and explores adopting children, after the egg implantation of the surrogate fails. Stephanie discusses the possibility of becoming pregnant, herself; they want several children, and a diverse family.

The American Dream seems fulfilled (or potentially), albeit with all of its carnival underpinnings. Tig is planning new material for her acts. Will there be a reality show in the future, around their life together in Middle America, the forthcoming children, and juggling of daily life amidst comedy touring and their hectic show biz careers, often on the road? Methinks this is the inevitable plan. Tig refers to Mary Tyler Moore in the doc. Will Tig become the 21st century progression of this cultural icon? Why not.

Overall rating (3.5/5): This was a moderately interesting documentary, largely based on the ‘victim, G-d is punishing me, life is so unfair, woe be me, now listen to my story!’ factor, with a tangible, desperate air. However, often the role of a clown, like a comedian, is to bring to light human suffering and alleviate it via laughter, and hopefully some enduring reflection. Tig accomplishes this. She is a likeable character with a feckless side. Read gumpism.

Gumpism factor (5/5): I first discovered this term used by Mark Kingwell (1996), and it also appears in pop or urban discourse. It is related to the NA obsession with the mundane and sometimes tragic, and elevation thereof. We can all relate to the universal themes of struggles with life, work, relationships, death and illness. Not everyone can work these realities into an entertaining show that leads to empathy. Tig accomplishes this tight wire act.

Queer factor (3/5): Tig’s story is queer all right, in the sense that it reflects a sense of transgression and parody, a queering of normalcy (Bryson & Castell, 1993). However, the documentary falls under a pretext of what seems to be carefully orchestrated heteronormativity. Most everyone appears white and heterosexual, or within that guise. On the one hand, her story has universal elements, such as the need for belonging, to procreate, to embrace romance, to attain some sort of fiscal stability, and to confront death. On the other hand, to belong, does one have to embrace the longstanding life plot of married with children in suburbia, which she strongly pursues, or be miserable? Can the NA public embrace a story that is less clichéd? Are there other options that the audience could potentially identity with? Now that would be an act.


Viewed Thursday, April 23, 2015 at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Director(s): Kristina Goolsby, Ashley York
Producer(s): Michael B. Clark, Alex Turtletaub, Kristina Goolsby, Ashley York
Editor(s): Scott Evans, Mary Manhardt
Executive Producer(s): Leah Holzer, Tig Notaro, Hunter Seidman Writer(s): Jennifer Arnold
Cinematographer(s): Huy Truong
Composer(s): Ryan Miller
Sound: Derek Vanderhorst

Bryson, M., & Castell, S. d. (1993). Queer pedagogy makes (Im)perfect. Canadian Journal of Education, 18(3), 285-305.
Kingwell, M. (1996). Dreams of Millennium: Report From A Culture On The Brink. Toronto: Penguin Books Canada


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