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The Grief of Tig Notaro

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No one enjoys talking about grief. Although suffering has inspired much that is beautiful, and although we will all encounter pain and loss, sorrow is simply not a topic of polite conversation. We spend time, energy, and money trying to ignore the crushing weight of grief that is always one late-night phone call away. But Tig, a documentary now available for streaming on Netflix, tells the story of Tig Notaro, a comedian who discovered the best way to cope with suffering is to talk about it.

“Hello, I have cancer,” Notaro told a stunned audience during a 2012 stand-up set. She forwent her usual jokes and instead spent thirty minutes detailing the horrific, Job-like series of tragedies that had plagued her during the previous four months. It all started with a rare and aggressive bacterial infection that attacked her intestines. Days after leaving the hospital, her mother died in a freak accident. Then, her long-term relationship ended. As a grand finale, she found a lump in her breast and was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer, with the doctor warning the disease had probably spread to her lymph nodes.

A day after the diagnosis, she got on stage and turned her tragedy into comedy: hilarious, heartbreaking comedy. “You can always rest assured that God never gives you more than you can handle,” Notaro says, mocking the evangelical aphorism she probably heard growing up in Pass Christian, Mississippi. “I just keep picturing God going, ‘You know what? I think she can take a little more.’” The set immediately became the stuff of legend.

“In 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great masterful standup sets,” comedian Louis C.K. tweeted the following day. “One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.” The next morning, Notaro woke up to an inbox full of book deals and interview requests.

Tig, directed by Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York, uses that storied night at Largo as a jumping off point, but most of the film is devoted to answering one important question: What now? Thanks to a double mastectomy, Notaro was deemed cancer free. But instead of settling to be a triumphant documentary about a well-loved comedian beating cancer, Tig is an intimate, and often heartbreaking, exploration of one person’s journey through grief and loss—as well as unexpected fame.

In a time when public personas are meticulously crafted and every fleeting status update or Instagram post is meant to highlight just how happy our lives are, Notaro’s story resonates because of the naked vulnerability of it all. Her suffering, while truly devastating, is certainly not unique; it’s universal. Our inability to exert control over our lives is a profound source of anxiety. Each morning we wake up without the promise of making it safely back to our beds in the evening. By bringing her grief out of the darkness and into the light, Notaro touched a nerve. She proved how important it is to simply talk about the uncomfortable realities of life. In a way, Tig is a Trojan Horse: I expected to laugh for 90 minutes straight; instead I cried and contemplated the heaviness of a world in which my wife could wake up tomorrow and be diagnosed with the disease that will eventually take her from me.

Tig often feels like reading your sister’s diary. The vulnerability is at times so intense it’s difficult to watch. Notaro desperately wants to be a mother, but cancer robbed her of the ability to give birth. However, she finds a surrogate willing to carry her child. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Notaro sits by the phone waiting to hear from the doctor whether or not the procedure worked. I wanted the music to swell and the phone to ring and a smile to break across her face. But then the phone rings, she answers, and the smile never comes. A lifetime of hopes and dreams, stolen by a phone call. It’s absolutely crushing.

Notaro’s legendary stand-up routine connected with so many people because there was a community-building aspect to the evening. She was trusting the crowd with a private, painful part of her life, and in return they offered support, encouragement, and in a very real way, community and acceptance. By sharing her scars, Notaro let people see her for who she truly was—and that’s something we’re more hungry for now than ever.

Tig reminds us that the pain too heavy to bear on our own is made lighter by the healing power of friendship—and not hollow friendships that come from clicking “accept,” but thick friendships, the kind rooted in shared sorrow and made unbreakable by the binding power of grief. Seeing Notaro’s famous comedian friends surround her hospital bed, telling jokes trying to make her laugh, is a testament to the simple yet profound power of simply showing up. While they can’t heal her or bring her mother back to life, they’re holding her up, they’re helping her carry the burden.

Today Notaro is cancer free. She’s engaged and in the process of adopting a child. Her new comedy special is now out on HBO, and at the moment, it seems, her life is happily void of tragedy. Her mother is still gone, but Notaro is anything but alone. “I guess God was right,” she says to a cheering crowd at the end of that iconic night in 2012. “I can handle this.”

Cort Gatliff

Cort Gatliff is a copywriter living in Birmingham. He studied journalism and English literature at the University of Tennessee. You can follow him on Twitter @cortgatliff.