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SUNDANCE 2015: Capone reviews two docs about resilient stand-up comics: Bobcat Goldthwait's CALL ME LUCKY and Tig Notaro in TIG!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago. I still have a few titles left to review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Here are a couple of great docs I saw in Park City about two comedians who also happen to be survivors. Enjoy…

There is a great deal revealed during the course of director Bobcat Goldthwait’s latest effort that I don’t want to disclose here because his documentary on the career and life of comedian Barry Crimmins has some elements that are so genuinely shocking that to reveal them would be tantamount to ruining the experience you’ll have seeing the film. CALL ME LUCKY is far more than the sum total of its shocking moments, to be sure, but when the film takes the unexpected turn into Crimmins' dark, pre-comedy history, it elevates the movie to such a degree that you feel like you’re watching the most vivid confessional ever committed to film.

But perhaps the strangest part of experiencing CALL ME LUCKY, especially for long-time fans of Goldthwait’s work as a filmmaker, is that it fits very nicely into his filmography of work that frequently combines borderline unspeakable acts with jet-black humor, the combination of which brings the audience to a cathartic place where we realize we are capable of dealing with a lot more than we previously believed…or we aren’t. As much as this is Crimmins angry, brutal story, it also reveals itself to be Goldthwait’s most personal effort, since the subject is not only a friend but he’s a man that steered him down a certain professional path that he is very much still traveling.

Not being the deep-seated in all avenue of comedy nerdity, I walked into CALL ME LUCKY largely unaware of who Barry Crimmins was as a stand-up comedian. But after seeing a few clips of him on stage, I had a vague recollections of spotting him on stand-up comedy specials in the 1980s. The films makes clear the Crimmins was essentially the architect of the Boston comedy scene, which birthed acts such as Lenny Clark, Tom Kenny, Denis Leary, Steven Wright, and a host of other harder-edged, war-torn acts (including Goldthwait himself), some of whom made it big in the rest of the country and led the stand-up sensation in the ’80s. But Crimmins was down and dirtier than all the rest, pounding away at religion, politics, and a host of other hot-button topics with brass knuckles made of barbed wire. Bill Hicks got more popular doing the same thing later on, but Crimmins did it first and with far more vitriol.

But it was also crucial to him to help out younger, up-and-coming comics when he could, and it was that generous spirit that separated the work from the man. There are a great number of terrific interviews in this film of comics and friends that Crimmins helped out, and there are almost as many more contemporary performers (Patton Oswalt, Marc Maron, David Cross, Margaret Cho) who discuss first being turned onto Crimmins’ unique, searing brand of comedy. But no testimonials quite prepare you for just how perfectly devious he could get then seeing him on stage or hosting a local cable access show.

But that’s just the beginning of CALL ME LUCKY, and if that’s all it had been, that’s still pretty great. But on a faithful night at a seemingly random comedy club (I believe it was in Ohio), Crimmins let loose with a monologue that changed the course of his live and made clearer the things in his life that, from that point forward, were going to matter the most. He became an advocate, activist, testified before Congress as an expert witness, and challenged demons from his past head on, without blinking—all in the name of saving others from going through what he did. During the course of the film, you’ll go from being slightly scared of the man to wanting to hug the stuffing out of him.

To label CALL ME LUCKY as “inspiring” doesn’t begin to explain how good it is or how stirring Crimmins’ journey has been (and still is). The film received a double standing ovation (rightfully so) at Sundance, and I have continued to roll over certain aspects of it in my mind on an almost daily basis. In a just, sensible world Crimmins would have statues erected to him and his own national holiday; he would hate that, of course, but at the very least, do what you can to see this remarkable film as it inevitably travels the festival circuit and is hopefully released later this year.

It seems like more than a strange coincidence that I saw the Bobcat Goldthwait doc on Barry Crimmins CALL ME LUCKY immediately after I saw the film TIG, which more conventionally chronicles the life and career of stand-up comedian Tig Notaro, who a couple of years back had a series of terrible medical and personal crises hit her in rapid succession. Both Notaro and Crimmins had a singular stand-up show that redefined how they were perceived from that point forward. In the case of Notaro, she chose to speak quite publicly about her troubles (including two health scares and the death of her mother) in a 30-minute set at the Largo in Los Angeles three years ago, and suddenly she became immensely popular, being interviewed by every publication and news organization in existence.

TIG dutifully chronicles her stage II breast cancer diagnosis and her immense grief at losing her mother and pretty much everything that led to that brave stand-up routine, as you’d expect it would. But the far more interesting parts of the movie have to do with life after cancer—and the strange kind of fame it brought her. Realizing she could quickly be known forever as the “cancer comic,” Notaro had to completely reinvent herself as a comic and come up with new material that combined the engaging personal elements that made her Largo set some interesting with her post-cancer life experiences. Not an easy task for a comedian who, prior to having cancer, was doing funny, but fairly standard-issue sets.

Thankfully, a great deal of TIG deals with Notaro crafting new jokes and getting other aspects of her life in order, including a new relationship with actress Stephanie Allynne (her co-star in the Lake Bell-written/directed film IN A WORLD…). Even that pairing is a struggle for Notaro since Allynne had never been involved with a woman prior to meeting Notaro. The most emotional component of Notaro’s post-cancer life was her desire and attempts to be a mother (via a surrogate), a process that his heart-wrenching under the best of circumstances.

Co-directed by Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York, TIG is at its most interesting when we see Notaro struggling to regain her footing as a comedian. There’s one joke we see told several times as she works out her new act involving a theory of hers that she developed breast cancer because her breasts rebelled against her after she told too many jokes about being flat chested. The bit doesn’t seem to click with the crowd during any of her warm-up gigs, leading up to a big headlining show she does to celebrate the one-year anniversary of her now-legendary Largo show. But she shifts the tone of the jokes, changes it up a bit, and by the time the anniversary show is upon us, we hear the finished bit, and it kills.

TIG is an honest, impressive effort showing us a person putting their life back together and trying to learn from tragedy and a near-death experience. Notaro seems like a genuinely sweet, giving person, with a sharp, biting sense of humor that she uses as both a defense mechanism against sadness and a way of self-healing. It may not be a healing process that everyone can use, but that doesn’t take away from it’s inspirational aspects.

An interesting side note: there’s another NOTARO-related doc about to world premiere at SXSW in March called KNOCK KNOCK, IT’S TIG NOTARO, in which she travels across the states, putting on a series of performances in the homes, back yards, barns, and basements of her most loyal fans. I can’t wait to see how her act has evolved since TIG--the two might make for a great double-feature in the not-to-distant future.

-- Steve Prokopy
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