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Tig Notaro on romance, topless comedy, and her new Netflix doc

It’s 2012, and Tig Notaro is overwhelmed by the attention she’s receiving from the mainstream media. She’s grieving the loss of her mother, and still physically recuperating from undergoing a life-threatening bacterial illness and a double mastectomy in short order. On top of that, she has to figure out who she is as a comedian—how do you top a set like Live, her now-legendary gig at the Largo on August 3, 2012? There are also her plans to start a family, as a suddenly single Notaro would have to undergo hormone treatments (to do IVF with a surrogate) that could be deadly for a breast cancer survivor. At the same time, Notaro and her In A World… co-star Stephanie Allynne are getting closer and closer. Is it love?

Tig, the Netflix documentary directed by Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York, offers an intimate look at Notaro’s life during those rocky few months. The doc begins with Notaro prepping for the one-year anniversary of the Largo show, along with pals Sarah Silverman and Zach Galifianakis, and then circles back to show the private stuff behind all the glossy magazine features. Notaro spoke to The A.V. Club during Sundance about returning to Park City with her now-fiancée Allynne, why her topless set was totally a stunt, and when she knew the directors had nailed it. Tig premieres on Netflix on Friday, July 17.

The A.V. Club: What kind of boundaries did you set up for filming?

Tig Notaro: Kristina told me that if there was anything I was very uncomfortable with to let her know. But once you start and you see what it could be, the hard and the exciting, happy moments that you want to be private, you don’t want to say no, because they’re what’s going to make the film beautiful or moving or inspiring or funny. So I could say no at any point, but I didn’t. There are plenty of things, obviously, that didn’t make it in—very, very heavy stuff, very funny stuff. God, there was so much!

AVC: You’re bringing Tig to Sundance, and you and Stephanie met on In A World... There’s footage of that cast appearing at Sundance together, before you were together. There’s something really satisfying about that.

TN: Yeah. I didn’t notice it, and Stephanie didn’t notice it, my manager didn’t notice it, but somebody said the other day, “The audience is just going to love that it’s full circle with Sundance.”

We talk about it all the time. We were at the In A World… premiere at Sundance, and that’s where our relationship began two years ago, but we didn’t fully connect that we were premiering [Tig here]. When we were walking down the street the other day, I said to Stephanie, “I was like, what would you have done if somebody had told you, during the In A World… premiere, that two years later we would be here together and you’d have an engagement ring on…?” We were just beside ourselves.

AVC: In the beginning of the documentary, you were facing what to do after your “Hello, I have cancer” set. Have you come to terms with that—figuring out what your new voice will be?

TN: I think what I’ve come to terms with is not worrying about it. I had some stress about what people wanted from me and were expecting. My first couple of shows, I had the nerves of, ugh, [what] if they just want intense, heavy stuff? And at heart, I have a silliness to me… It’s a mock seriousness and silliness combined. It’s in me, and it didn’t go away, but I want to allow myself to always grow and evolve.

I started out doing deadpan one-liners, and then I did three-minute jokes, and then I did a 15-minute story, and then I pushed a stool around onstage, and then I told very personal things about having cancer. Each of those things pushed me to a new level, and if I had told myself, “That’s not your style. You don’t do 15-minute stories. You don’t do physical humor. You don’t truth tell in your comedy,” I wouldn’t be where I am. And I would always tell people, you should do what you feel like doing, and so that’s where I always am. I just want to do what feels real and true, and I can’t worry at all about what people want or expect.

AVC: How did the topless sets fit into that spectrum of doing what feels right and truth-telling?

TN: It reminded me very much of my opening of, “Hello, good evening. I have cancer,” because I delivered that line similarly. My point was to deliver that line as though I was saying, “Hey, how’s everyone doing? Everyone partying tonight? Any birthdays?” You know, how typical comedy shows open, but I wanted to deliver very heavy news in that way. It’s a “whoa” moment.

When I came out of surgery, I had this moment—my friend Lake Bell was over at my house right after—and I said, “You know what, I have this overwhelming feeling of wanting to do a stand-up show topless.” And she’s like, “You have to.” To me, it’s as awkward and funny as saying you have cancer in a lighthearted tone. I kind of got over thinking about that and thinking I was going to do it, and then the last few months, when I got out on the road and I was touring, it just came in my head, like, “I could just take my shirt off and freak everybody out…”

I told a handful of people that I was thinking of doing this, and everybody was like, “Oh my God, that’s amazing. You have to.” And then one friend said, “You know, I’m concerned that you’re not going to be able to get the audience back,” and I was like, “I feel like I could.” And then somebody else said, “My concern is that it’s going to come across as a stunt,” and I was like, “Make no mistake. It’s a stunt. It’s definitely a stunt.”

I want people to talk about my comedy, about cancer, about body issues, about scars, because cancer, it’s a big deal, but scars are not a big deal. My skin healed. Relax, you know? That’s all it is. My skin healed… When [I’ve been] told, “Gosh, you had a platform to make statements as a woman or as a cancer survivor,” and my point is, I am though. Through my actions. I don’t need to sit here in my film and plug in all the right statements, and I’m allowing myself in the progression of my career to make statements, but also not just for shock value. It’s funny. It was funny to take my shirt off and not acknowledge it. And just take my shirt off and go, “So, anyway, when I was traveling…” And people were like, [Stares]. If somebody came to me and said, “I’m thinking of taking my shirt off and not acknowledging it,” I’d be like, “If you don’t do that, you’re an idiot.”

AVC: It’s also incredibly subversive, because the body—the surviving body, the scars—all of these things are so taboo and such a source of shame for so many people. “Brave” sounds trite, but it’s hard.

TN: Yeah, I mean, I wasn’t just all casual about it. I was like, “Whew.” I could feel the nerves. Because I knew halfway through my set that I was going to take my shirt off, and they went nuts. And the feedback I got from men and women—people were just like, “My head exploded when your shirt came off. And then 30 seconds later, I didn’t even notice. I was just listening to the show.” I was like, well, that’s my whole point. If I had a scar on my face, nobody would ask me to put a bag over my head. My skin healed, so truly, just relax. It’s good news.

AVC: You hadn’t seen the really final version until a month ago, when you felt like it had really come together. Were you concerned how it would turn out, or did you just have to let go?

TN: It was both, but it was massive concern over how it would turn out, because I saw several different versions of it. I was too busy to be in the editing room regularly, but I probably saw five or six versions of it. Until a month ago, it just wasn’t really hitting the mark for me, because each edit I would see a glimpse of something intense or moving, and then the next edit, it would be different or gone, and then I’d see something really funny, and then that would be gone in the next one. It was nerve-wracking, because I thought it had the potential to be very touching and emotional and funny and inspiring, and I hadn’t seen a cut where it was hitting all of those in a serious way, all together.

Then one of the filmmakers called me right before that screening a month ago and said, “I think you’re going to be happy.” When I saw it, I turned to Stephanie, and I said, “I feel like this might be really good.” And she said, “It is amazing.” I feel like that they nailed it. I am tremendously happy and proud of it.

AVC: You’re also working on a memoir.

TN: It comes out in 2016, and it’s very in-depth. It touches on moments from those four months, but also goes back to my childhood and my family. I really explain who everyone is and who my mother was. There are other people I dated before Stephanie and I got serious, so it’s very up to date and detailed. But I didn’t want to feel like I had to punch up all the sadness.

AVC: Around the time you got your diagnosis and lost your mother, you ended a relationship. Have you heard from that person?

TN: That person, we don’t talk. You know, we were not meant to be together, and we didn’t have a strong enough foundation, and everything was falling apart, and I think it became tremendously awkward when we broke up and then my story blew up… It really separated us. I reached out to her a year and a half ago and just was like, “I know this is very awkward that this story is up,” and people have made her [out] to be a villain, and she’s not. We weren’t meant to be together, and it was weird timing, but it was just also another thing on the stack. I just tried to explain, “I don’t ever say anything bad about you. I never would.” But I don’t think she’s very open to me. I know she’s not, actually. [Awkward laughter.] I’ve heard she’s been here in town, during the festival, but I didn’t see her.