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Tig Notaro: Drawn (2021)

One of the pleasures of writing for a site like this over the years is that we have been introduced to all the original and varied ways that animation is used. Mainly we see it in the form of traditional animated films and TV and of course in video games. But it's also used increasingly in documentaries, adding some visual flair to what might otherwise be dry and nothing but talking heads. Now we also have HBO's new special Tig Notaro: Drawn, which is reported to be the world's first animated stand-up special.

Your familiarity with Tig Notaro may depend on how much you are into the American comedy scene. A fixture of the live circuit since the late 90s, Notaro has previously put out several comedy albums, a couple of conventional stand-up specials, a semi-autobiographical Amazon series One Mississippi and a memoir and co-hosted popular podcast Professor Blastoff. Known for being one of comedy's sharpest minds, her deadpan delivery and master storytelling have seen her grow and grow in popularity. She also acts, appearing in The Sarah Silverman Program, Star Trek Discovery and most recently Army of The Dead and voicing guest roles in Bob's Burgers, Clarance and Tuca & Bertie. Notaro really gained widespread attention and acclaim with her show Live in which she disclosed that she had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer (which came shortly after a near-fatal brush with C Diff and the sudden death of her mother). To everyone's relief, Notaro beat cancer just as she has survived every other awful thing life has thrown at her.

Tig Notaro: Drawn is written and performed by Tig Notaro and directed by Greg Franklin. The animation is primarily produced by Six Point Harness (Hair Love, Lazer Wulf).

If you are even a casual follower of comedy you have probably seen the occasional stand-up special. Capturing on camera the live comedy experience, the form has long been a staple of HBO, although these days it's probably Netflix who produces more than anybody else.

Entertaining as they can be, they're not known for being exactly visually dynamic. One comedian, a microphone, an audience and a camera or two are all that is needed. How exactly could an animated stand-up special work? The audio is taken from existing live performances from Tig, compiling material from shows recorded between one and a half to four years ago. The director and the comedian worked together to determine which material to use,  reviewing more than 48 hours worth of recordings. The basic framing device is the same as it would have been in reality- an animated Notaro is on stage in front of an equally animated audience, performing her new set. Just as with any other special, we occasionally cut to the audience, to show them laughing. There is also some audience interaction and good-natured heckling, that leads to some back and forth.

Even if it was the funniest show ever recorded, if that's all there was to it, it could quickly become boring to look at. This is where the inspired part comes in. The special uses the same technique used by the earlier HBO production The Ricky Gervais Show, based on the popular podcasts featuring conversation between Gervias, comedy partner Steven Merchant and former producer Karl Pilkington. Entertaining visuals (with a distinctly UPN flavour) illustrated Pilkington's various bizarre ideas, anecdotes and theories. 

Such a set-up works brilliantly with a storyteller comedian like Notaro. As she recounts stories from her life or riffs on the Kool-Aid Man, we get cutaways that illustrate what she is talking about, returning to the theatre at regular intervals. It also creates quite an entertaining contrast- Notaro's an extremely relaxed, laid-back performer, which is quite the opposite of the larger than life nature of most mainstream US animation. 

Where it differs from (and I would argue improves upon) the Gervais Show is that each different cutaway sequence (ie each story) is animated in a different style.

There are several different styles of 2D animation- from a sort of 90s Cartoon Network sort of look to a psychedelic trippy style to a much more artistic indie aesthetic, as well as some stop-motion and even 3D CG. Each sequence looks highly distinct from each other, but they all look brilliant. In these segments, Six Point Harness worked with several other animation houses to ensure that they genuinely each have a look of their own.

Tig's tales vary in subject from the innocence of her youth to touching on her personal tragedies. But her warmth, her down-to-earth manner (and frankly her incredible strength in the face of more adversity than anyone should have to face in a lifetime) mean it never gets depressing and remains funny throughout.

Notaro's recounting of a story following an unfortunate incident following the removal of her wisdom teeth sees the narration and visuals working best together. Using some clever shot choices to show things from different angles and 'rewinding' it to subsequently show events from a whole new perspective works brilliantly.

Any review of comedy might as well come with a disclaimer that acknowledges that there is no guarantee that the reviewer and you will have the same idea of just what is (and what isn't) funny. Stand-up comedy in particular becomes pretty pointless if the performer doesn't amuse you. There are few things more subjective. There's the possibility here at least you may appreciate the animation enough either way but ultimately if you're not tickled by Tig, Drawn is not for you.

With that said, for fans of her work or more widely of stand-up in general, this is a consistently entertaining watch. As a proof of concept, it proves that animated stand-up shows can work and be more than a curiosity. If you're a Notaro newbie, it serves as a pretty great introduction, particularly as it functions as something of a 'best of' collection of some of her strongest material. Ardent fans (especially if you've been lucky enough to catch her live) might have heard some of  (if not all) the material before, but it's a great way to revisit- and believe me, you've never seen it like this before.

Tig Notaro: Drawn Debuts on HBO MAX on July 24, 2021, AT 10PM



IN A NUTSHELL: An inspired Animated treat that brings new life to the stand-up special. If you're a fan of Tig, it's a must,