comedy review

Tig Notaro Makes the Perfect Cartoon Comedian

Tig Notaro’s Drawn. Photo: HBO

Drawn, Tig Notaro’s new stand-up special for HBO, was conceived and green-lit before the coronavirus pandemic, but its conceit is unexpectedly fitting for a special released in the summer of 2021. It is pieced together from audio of material Notaro recorded at Largo in Los Angeles over the past few years that has been edited into an hour-long special and then animated in a variety of styles. A cartoon Notaro walks into a cartoon theater at the start of the show, expressions and outfit like a distillation of the real-life comedian — short, swooping brown hair; oversize cardigan; body rendered in long, straight lines; mouth a simple curve that tilts down skeptically when an audience member interrupts. The audience members are animated too, all exaggerated eyebrows and silly facial features. And when Notaro launches into a story (about her childhood or a gruesome health crisis or the Kool-Aid Man), the animation pulls us along. We are no longer in the cartoon theater. We are crouched behind a fence next to the Kool-Aid Man, waiting for the cue to bust in and yell “Oh yeah!”

Notaro isn’t the first comedian to animate their work: Kyle Kinane released an animated short of one of his jokes on his YouTube channel in July 2020, and a decade ago, excerpts from Ricky Gervais’s podcast became The Ricky Gervais Show, a three-season animated HBO series. But it’s not a well-populated genre, and especially because Drawn is built from material written and performed before March 2020, it’s perhaps even more welcome, and more formally noteworthy, than it would have been at another time.

Some stand-up specials have been released in 2021, but it’s a scant few compared with the robust catalogue of the past several years. Those that have been released are formally weird, or they’re from comedy shot pre-pandemic that’s only now being made available, or they’re records of comedy made post–spring 2020 that have trouble achieving escape velocity from the black hole of topical pandemic jokes. Drawn hits both of the first two categories — it’s an atypical formal experiment for a stand-up special, and the jokes were written years ago. That combination is beguiling. Older material is unburdened by the exhausting necessity of talking about Now, while the transformative effect of the animation makes Drawn feel cared for, fresh, a treasured piece that’s not just a collection of scraps left lying around in a drawer somewhere. It’s that thing you always tell yourself will happen but so rarely does: Leftovers from several meals pulled from the fridge somehow combine into a dish that’s even better than its constituent parts.

Notaro works in anecdotes, full-paragraph ideas that unspool gradually and escalate abruptly while building on what has come before. They are often embodied narratives, told as long memories or fantasies, with herself as either the central character or the presumed witness to whatever’s happening in the joke. When the special moves from the theater to a scene from one of Notaro’s jokes — say, a story about getting her wisdom teeth removed — it works because the joke about the wisdom teeth is already its own entire world. Notaro tells it with clear scene changes and character voices, its perspective shifts more than once, and its stakes are well defined and surprising. There is a sense of time passing in her material, of buried cues that come back later, lively images that form quickly and then accrue more definition and weight with each new line. A Notaro joke turned into its own little animated scene works so well because the animation amplifies elements that are already present in her work. So often she is the cool, removed narrator puppeteering an imagined, sweaty, and desperate joke version of herself through some bizarre experience. The frazzled, imaginary joke Notaro is already so visible in the mind’s eye. Why not go the next step and give her swirling, frightened spiral eyes and frantic, twisting cartoon fingers?

So many of Notaro’s jokes in Drawn are about her body, which is key to the special’s power. Notaro has been seriously ill several times over the past decade, and some of the material comes from those experiences. There’s an incredibly funny joke about an extended, perpetually delayed attempt to have tea with the comedian Jenny Slate and another about Notaro choosing a painful health crisis as the best opportunity to have a romantic moment with her partner. It goes beyond that recent history, though. The wisdom-teeth joke is a scene of bodily incapacitation from many years ago, and there’s another about bed-wetting from when she was little. Cartoon Notaro’s body betrays her constantly, and the animation both escalates and softens all that bloody, messy awfulness.

It’s one of the few ways I regret the loss of the in-person Tig; she has figured out how to leverage her physical restraint and deadpan delivery against the body-horror comedy to incredible effect. The discomfort of seeing her body onstage as she describes all the ways that same body has fallen apart fuels the intensity of that material. But in most sequences, the animation compensates for what has been lost. The animated Notaro can be bloody and terrifying, driven to hilarious extremes, and the animation can give Notaro’s material more characters and more perspectives, especially because the animation team uses new art styles for different jokes. Her Jenny Slate joke is stronger because the animation represents her experience as well as Slate’s, with split screens and the Slate character’s Claymation-style mouth gaping open in rubbery horror.

Notaro’s writing works in an animated context in a way that wouldn’t be true for every comedian. Drawn is delightful, but this is not an invitation for a new surge of animated comedy specials. Few comedians write well enough, with a restrained style and a distinctive voice that can make something like this shine. The animation is decorative, a flourish, a feature that adds to the humor. That happens only because it can build from the foundation Notaro already provides: measured, rock-solid, patient jokes; a satisfying union of chaos and control.

Tig Notaro Makes the Perfect Cartoon Comedian