‘Tig Notaro: Drawn’ Review: Tig’s Animated Standup Special Brilliantly Colors Outside the Lines

·4 min read

Since galvanizing standup comedy with the arrestingly personal 2012 album “Live,” Tig Notaro has been a trusted source of joy for those who prefer their chuckles with a side of achingly real musings on life’s unavoidable hardships. The improvised half-hour, which famously begins with “Hi, I have cancer…” and proceeds to imagine God musing, “I think she can take a little more,” set a new high bar for vulnerability in comedy.

From “Nanette” to “Inside” to mental health jokes proliferating on sweaty basement stages, vulnerability is the new comedic currency. Lest traditionalists be dissuaded, Notaro is first and foremost a comedian, and a very funny one at that. All “Live” did was elevate her brand of dry observational comedy on mundane topics — from ‘80s singer Taylor Dayne to the spelling of “diarrhea” — to the near-divine.

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The comedian’s latest special, “Tig Notaro: Drawn,” may not reach as holy heights (a person only has so much unspeakable trauma to mine for laughs), but it continues the Notaro tradition of pushing standup norms to ever more creative ends. Sidestepping the visual constraints of the lone comic pacing a stage with a microphone, “Drawn” is entirely animated. Though it may sound gimmicky, the conceit works surprisingly well, and is especially suited to Notaro’s style of seemingly benign personal anecdotes that always catch you off guard. With the help of animation studio Six Point Harness (“Hair Love,” “Waffles+Mochi”) and director Greg Franklin, “Drawn” cycles through multiple animation styles that differentiate each section, providing visual cues that underscore Notaro’s unique writing style.

Onstage, Notaro’s animated avatar wears her signature vintage wool cardigan — a riff on the Pendleton Westerley sweater donned by The Dude in “The Big Lebowski.” The special opens with a jaunty pink spider settling in for the show, a recurring character who later descends with a splash to help wrap things up. The standard cutaways to the laughing crowd are animated, too, giving new meaning to the term “crowd work.” Notaro is an expert at capitalizing on an unexpected gift (see: the spider), and her gentle ribbing of the crowd takes on new possibilities when the person can be caricatured cartoon-style. Notaro spins gold from an unusual cackle (“someone’s trying out a new laugh tonight”), a sudden outburst, or even the theoretical presence of someone in the crowd who’s unfamiliar with the Kool-Aid Man.

The Kool-Aid “Man” - Credit: HBO Max / Screenshot
The Kool-Aid “Man” - Credit: HBO Max / Screenshot

HBO Max / Screenshot

Speaking of the Kool-Aid Man, Notaro opens with a brilliant bit about the sugary mascot, delving into the particulars of how he knows when someone is about to drink Kool-Aid, where he hides before breaking down their fence or brick wall, and why he’s considered a man when all he has between his legs is a “round front bottom.” It’s easy to imagine how this bit lends itself to animation: We see the Kool-Aid Man waking up early to troll the neighborhood, or waiting patiently in the neighbor’s yard surrounded by a pile of cigarettes and discarded beer cans.

The next section forgoes cartoon brights for a more painterly palette, illustrating a bittersweet story about unrequited love and a harrowing wisdom teeth removal. The hilarious reveal in this story gets an extra charge with a well-placed rewind, which flips the perspective to reveal a previously fine Notaro now gushing blood in front of an apathetic neighbor.

Whatever may be lost in of Notaro’s expressions or physical flourishes is gained back twofold by such delightfully unexpected twists. Judging from the spider’s guest appearance and the inspired crowd work, “Drawn” was presumably filmed during a single live show, most likely before the pandemic. Whether Notaro suddenly had extra time to noodle with the form or planned the animation from the beginning, it works. A note to fans promoting “Drawn” seems to imply she wanted the special to be kid-friendly, or at least appeal to a wider audience.

“If you think you’re too old or mature for such a thing, this is where you are so terribly mistaken,” writes Notaro. “Let your kids watch this because one of their favorite things is animation. More importantly, there’s no bad words — something your Nana really appreciates too.”

Maybe Notaro’s newish parenthood had something to do with the decision to market “Drawn” this way, or it could be the presence of a certain A-list comedian on the roster of executive producers: Ellen DeGeneres. Recent allegations of a toxic workplace aside, DeGeneres is the original clean comedian. Could she be handing the reins to Notaro, indicating a possible successor? With “Drawn” as evidence, Notaro is one of the most consistently solid standup comedians working today: Always funny, poignant, and pushing the form creatively. Here’s to coloring outside the lines.

Grade: A-

“Tig Notaro: Drawn” premieres on HBO Max on Saturday, July 24.

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