In 2012, Tig Notaro turned the worst year of her life into the best set of her career. Live—as in, “to live a life”—is almost a decade old, and to many comedy fans, its arc is well known. In just a few months, Notaro experienced a break-up, suffered a severe bacterial infection, lost her mother, and was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. It’s this final development that broke Notaro’s emotional dam, unleashing a torrent of acerbic, reflective, despondent feelings. “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer,” she began, observing that if comedy equals tragedy plus time, “I am just at tragedy right now.”
Notaro, now 50, has persevered to the point where Live no longer defines her. In the years since, she’s gotten married, had children, released two more specials, and starred in One Mississippi, an autobiographical dramedy Notaro cocreated with Diablo Cody that aired for two seasons on Amazon Prime. But the success of Live still colors Notaro’s reputation, to the point where it can overshadow what her stand-up sets are like when she isn’t working through a series of crises. Notaro’s signature deadpan delivery has always acted as a Trojan Horse for the off-the-wall absurdism of what she’s actually saying or doing; one of the more memorable bits from Boyish Girl Interrupted, the 2015 special in which Notaro briefly goes shirtless to reveal her mastectomy scars, features Notaro avidly licking an imaginary ice cream cone. Notaro’s status quo is less confessional than wryly amused, deploying a calm monotone to sneak up on the audience with the inanities of modern life.
The pandemic put most stand-up on pause; Notaro used that time to shape a delivery device that plays up her sillier side. As the name implies, Tig Notaro: Drawn is an animated stand-up special, a format that’s not as abrupt a break from convention as an hour of cartoon comedy initially seems. Stand-up sets are often released in the form of an album, the actual jokes already separate from the admittedly bland image of a single person on a stage. Last year, The Midnight Gospel—aptly released by Netflix on April 20—set unscripted conversations to animated sequences with unrelated plots. Essentially a podcast with psychedelic visuals, The Midnight Gospel wasn’t comedy per se, but paired animation with an unorthodox soundtrack. Meanwhile, Notaro’s fellow stand-ups, most famously Bo Burnham, have found their own ways to keep working under severe constraints.
Aired on HBO and produced in partnership with studio Six Point Harness, Drawn eliminates the need for an in-person audience, the primary obstacle to performing stand-up safely during the pandemic. But instead of doing away with laughs entirely, Notaro uses Six Point’s contribution to breathe new life into older material. Drawn’s voice-over of sorts is stitched together from years’ worth of Notaro performances at Los Angeles venue Largo, the very same space where Live took place in 2012. (Largo regulars will recognize the institution from Drawn’s riff on the traditional opening sequence for a stand-up special, with cartoon crowds milling around the lobby of what’s simply called La Venue.) Notaro’s avatar can still rely on staples like crowd work; the figures she’s bouncing off of just aren’t flesh and blood.
The ability to pick and choose which bits to include lets Notaro select the bits that benefit most from the animation treatment. (Most of Drawn’s source material was originally performed between 2015 and pre-lockdown 2020.) Rather than separate interludes out into tracks on an album, Drawn divides itself into different styles of animation, one for every story Notaro tells. The not-Largo club where ’toon Tig performs is blocky and bright-colored; the opening diverges from a standard introduction when one audience member is a cutesy spider, a reference to a real-life arachnid who once joined Notaro onstage. Other scenes look almost hand-painted, or three-dimensional, or rounded and soft.
Notaro opens with a story about an apathetic ex-girlfriend who refused to drive her home from oral surgery. It’s a standard gag, the kind 30 Rock once made into a memorable subplot. But in addition to miming her stoned former self stumbling around an apartment complex in search of her neighbor, Notaro can actually show us—plus a bystander’s shocked expression when a numb, bleeding Notaro accosts her by the pool. The animations add both detail and density. A later scene illustrates the pain of internal bleeding with a bunch of tiny demons wreaking havoc in Notaro’s stomach; a third envisions Eddie Van Halen as a young Tig’s imaginary friend. The added elements aren’t entirely visual. The imaginary Van Halen does a series of showy guitar riffs, and the special’s closer hinges on a looped recording of Dolly Parton’s “Two Doors Down.”
Drawn is obviously a response to the pandemic, even if the material it uses predates and (blessedly) never mentions it. But in augmenting Notaro’s monologue, the special also brings out the lighter side of a performer largely known for some of the darkest experiences a person can have. Here, the events of Live are mostly background noise: Notaro mentions that the internal bleeding is the worst pain she’s ever felt, “and I’ve felt some pain,” while another story makes actress Jenny Slate a supporting player in Notaro’s Live-era misery, accidentally getting “caught up in my swirling hell” via poorly timed check-ins. Notaro also forgoes any recent updates on marriage or parenthood, perhaps to avoid giving away the special’s scrambled chronology. The comedian’s biography instead acts as context for the hard questions that truly interest her: Why are they called “pigs” and not “bigs”?
Thanks to its remote-friendly nature, animation has taken off in the past year, leading to a spike not just in TV shows and movies that forgo live action but also commercials, music videos, and now, comedy specials. Drawn is pragmatic in origin, and decidedly on trend. Yet it also plays up a lesser-seen side of the stand-up it spotlights. Like most comedy specials, Drawn is a way to burnish and evolve a comic’s persona—helping fans get to know them better, even when they can’t actually see them.