Tig Notaro’s ‘Drawn’ Explores Strange New Worlds: Animated Ones

One day during the production of her new, animated stand-up special, Tig Notaro was presented with a rough illustrated version of an ane...


One day during the production of her new, animated stand-up special, Tig Notaro was presented with a rough illustrated version of an anecdote about her double mastectomy. In the bit, Notaro ponders what her doctors might have done with her discarded breasts after the surgery she underwent following a 2012 cancer diagnosis. What if, she asks, the remains had been tossed in a Hollywood dumpster? Might they have been left for rodents to play tug of war with?

The rough animation added an irreverent detail of its own: A car speeding by the dumpster in the night, thoughtlessly flattening Notaro’s forgotten flesh.

“They had drawn a tire track going over my boob,” Notaro said.

She loved it. But perhaps, she told her director, Greg Franklin, the image could use one more detail to take it from good to great. She had an idea.

“I was like, ‘What if there’s a little milk that comes out when it’s run over?’”

The animators added some lactose.

“Tig Notaro: Drawn,” available on HBO and HBO Max on Saturday, is new territory for Notaro. It does not contain a single live-action frame. Instead, it’s a fully animated 55-minute special. The audio comes from sets that were recorded, but not filmed, at the Largo comedy club in Los Angeles from 2015 to 2020. While it’s far from the first stand-up project to prominently feature animation — the mid-2000s Comedy Central series “Shorties Watchin’ Shorties” was built around animated stand-up bits, and the comedian David Huntsberger’s more recent special “One-Headed Beast” incorporated animation, too — it’s certainly novel, particularly given its length.

Notaro, 50, is known for her gallows humor. The 2012 stand-up set that made her a star focused on her cancer diagnosis, and her work since then has included the Amazon series “One Mississippi,” a comedy about grief. (She’s taken some more serious film and TV roles recently, too, including parts in “Star Trek: Discovery” and the Zack Snyder movie “Army of the Dead.”)

In some ways, Notaro’s deadpan style might seem like an odd fit for animation. (Indeed, “deadpan” and “animated” are nearly antonyms.) But Notaro saw the illustrated approach as a tool to help viewers digest her personal, sometimes deliberately uncomfortable anecdotes. The visuals do some of the same work that a club or theater setting does, easing audiences into a state of mind that allows them to laugh at a detail that, in different circumstances, would make them recoil.

“The animation really elevates it to this fun — obviously cartoon — version of what really happened,” Notaro said. “I think it’ll help make people not feel as sensitive to the material.”

The animation can cut the other way, too.

As Franklin, the director, said, “Seeing a cute cartoon character going through a tragedy is something that you can empathize with almost to a ridiculous degree.”

Franklin came to the project with years of experience animating stand-up, albeit in shorter forms. In 2010, he was hired by the comedian Kyle Kinane for a three-minute bit about a pair of bunnies having sex. (“Visually, I thought there was some fun that could be had with that,” Franklin noted.) Short animated videos for other comics, including Wyatt Cenac and Jackie Kashian, came next. Notaro saw the Kashian video and admired the way Franklin was able to insert his own humor without stepping on Kashian’s delivery.

“I loved the comedy that he put between the jokes — he found his own joke,” Notaro said. “And it didn’t feel like too much, or like it was taking away. It felt like it was all adding to these bits.”

While “Drawn” has the flavor of a Covid-era idea — no audiences were harmed in the animating of this special — it was actually set in motion before the pandemic started. When they first talked of collaborating, Notaro’s now-famous 2012 set hadn’t happened yet, and she had no network or studio to pay for such a project. She hired Franklin years later, in late 2019, and handed him about 48 hours of recorded performances to consider for the special.

The approach they settled on involved a constantly changing style so that each bit gets its own look. An anecdote about “Jurassic Park,” for example, uses claymation. The visuals for a story about wisdom teeth removal were inspired by magazine illustrations from the 1960s and ’70s. And a bit involving Eddie Van Halen recalls vibrant contemporary animated TV shows like “Steven Universe.”

The idea, Franklin explained, was to “visually delight and surprise you throughout the 55 minutes.”

“Doing the entire thing in a singular style would exhaust an audience,” he added.

Incorporating many styles was a practical decision, too — they could more easily divide the labor among different artists. (The Los Angeles studio Six Point Harness, where Franklin is a creative director, took the lead. The studio worked with professionals around the globe, including artists in Australia, Nepal, India and Mexico.)

The result is a special in which each new bit has a distinct visual energy, mirroring the way comics might adjust their own energy and pacing bit to bit. The transitions, though, are sometimes quicker than they would be in real life — a result of one of Franklin’s more counterintuitive decisions.

“The audience was laughing so long that I had to cut down some of the laughing,” Franklin said. “Tig kind of bristled at that. She’s like, ‘I’m not used to removing laughter from my work.’”

Animation allowed Franklin and Notaro the flexibility to splice in material from different sets. That included the finale, when Notaro tells a story in which she imagines herself and two friends dying in a car crash. (The punchline involves Dolly Parton and a car stereo.) That section was the hardest, Franklin said, in part because of the Pixar-like style he chose. This was born out of a conversation he had with Notaro about Pixar being “kind of an uncanny valley situation.”

If you look at some of the characters in “Coco,” Franklin said, they look like cartoons but have human skin with pores and reflect light the way skin does “in a way that, ultimately, is kind of odd.” He and Notaro got to talking about it, he said: “I was kind of curious about seeing a Pixar character bleed to death.”

By the time the cartoon Notaro and friends die in the car crash, several likenesses of her in mortal distress have already appeared, including one who has pneumonia, then develops a gastrointestinal disease, then is diagnosed with cancer.

That visual gag goes a step past Notaro’s actual words. In the bit, Notaro describes her situation getting “worse and worse and worse and worse,” with the animation growing more dire on each beat. With the final “worse,” an urn with an image of Notaro appears. She didn’t know beforehand about that detail. But she was comfortable with it.

“I think because I feel so connected to that reality, it almost felt good and right for that to be in there,” Notaro said. “If anyone wants to know, I want to be cremated,” she added. “So the artists were right on.”

Notaro was more directly involved in the development of the animated images of herself, which went through many rough iterations.

“It’s a long process of saying, ‘I like this one, but I like the nose on this one better, and maybe throw in option No. 3’s hair,’” Notaro said.

She gave notes, but also asked her wife, Stephanie Allynne, to weigh in with an outside perspective on the accuracy.

“It’s hard to fully see yourself,” Notaro explained, “whether you’re animated or not.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Tig Notaro’s ‘Drawn’ Explores Strange New Worlds: Animated Ones
Tig Notaro’s ‘Drawn’ Explores Strange New Worlds: Animated Ones
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