Skip to story Notaro performs at one of the shows featured in Knock, Knock, It's Tig Notaro. Showtime
In the years since her stunningly honest breakthrough standup album Live, Tig Notaro has been busy. The veteran comic has been a guest star on Transparent and a writer on Inside Amy Schumer. A documentary on her life since being diagnosed with breast cancer—the very news that sparked the performance that became Live—premiered at Sundance, and she’s got an hour-long HBO comedy special coming later this year. But between the acutely personal documentary and the victory-lap performance, she’s got one more trick up her sleeve, and it’s a hybrid of the two: Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro, which follows Notaro and fellow standup Jon Dore on a weeklong tour and airs on Showtime tonight.
Instead of touring comedy clubs in major cities, Notaro solicited fan suggestions to host shows in non-traditional venues, ultimately narrowing her itinerary down from more than 1,000 submissions: A geodome in Topanga, California; a lake house in rual Indiana; an abandoned warehouse in East Nashville, Tennessee; a flatbed trailer in Pluto, Mississippi, a town with a permanent population of fewer than 10 people. At the outset of the special, when perusing video submissions with Nick Kroll, Notaro recounts a few of the places she’s performed over her 17 years in standup—from a barn to a barbecue with a crowd of seven. “In front of a bunch of gators?” Kroll asks. “No,” Notaro deadpans, “I’ve only been performing for 17 years.”
Exit the Stage, Enter the Spontaneity
It’s a tour model Notaro has used before, in part because it gives rise to encounters that she calls “endlessly amusing.” Without the artifice of a theater or even a designated stage, a far more intimate connection arises between performer and audience, something that fascinates Notaro. And the feeling of spontaneity that permeates every bit of standup featured in Knock Knock wasn’t just born of the tour setup. After the rigors of cancer treatment, Notaro didn’t have enough material prepared for an entire set, but found that supplementing the routine with crowd work had two benefits: “it was a way to search for new material, and also make each experience special.”
The approach makes the show less about the jokes themselves, and more about how Notaro and Dore interact with each specific audience—like Notaro zeroing in on a woman in Indiana who can’t stop laughing at her impression of a clown horn. That’s markedly different from standup’s prevailing sensibility, in which the performer treats anyone making comments as hecklers. Notaro doesn’t snap at anyone who engages, but instead actively encourages the interaction, leading to moments like one during the Topanga performance when a woman offers a suggestion for a punchline, and Notaro deftly demonstrates its inferiority, milking laughs from the backyard audience throughout. Comics like Aziz Ansari have experimented with breaking the fourth wall in a similar way, but while Ansari does it for raw material, Notaro uses it because she’s trying to create a comfortable atmosphere. “I consider the fact that people have saved up money for a babysitter,” she says, ” or that they had a rotten day or they drove three states to see the show.” In her perfect world, everyone goes home happy.
At times, Knock Knock mirrors the well-worn structure of other tour documentaries like Kings of Comedy or Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedian: Notaro and Dore stage arguments in the car as they drive through the country; they poker-face their way through a joke about turning the the documentary into something vastly more serious; basically, they joke about being jokers. But Notaro insists that Knock Knock and Tig couldn’t be more different: “One is about my life over the past two years, and one was filmed on a tour for a week.”
Yet, despite Notaro’s insistence that the Showtime special is far more lighthearted, there are moments of darkness, especially when her illness pokes through the veneer. During her run at Second City’s UP! Theater in Chicago, Notaro was hospitalized, leading to Dore stepping in as the headliner. He adapts with aplomb, and a subsequent scene in Notaro’s hotel room after her hospital stint glosses over the scare, but the very real threat of severe illness lingers.
And the best scene in the entire special has almost nothing to do with standup. At Sutton’s Monuments, a combination fireworks stand and granite monument company in Notaro’s birth state of Mississippi, she and Dore browse a selection of headstones. So close to Notaro’s hospital scare, it’s a breathtaking moment of tragicomedy, as the two bicker about whether a plain flat stone would be enough, or if they should splurge on something more visible.
When Louis C.K. first debuted the recording of Notaro’s Live on his website, he said that Notaro “took us to a scary place and made us laugh there.” Though it’s not the central idea in her comedy, it has been her trademark response in the face of paralyzing tragedy. And that willingness to wade through those difficult topics with disarming goofiness has made her all the more endearing. Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro might not be on the same level as her breakthrough album, or as essential as the documentary that cataloged her life since that point, but it’s yet another demonstration of her unique talents as a comedian: daring enough to take her craft outside of comedy’s comfort zone, and into the lives of everyday people in order to connect with them.