One of our least animated comedians is now our most animated. Tig Notaro, known for her low-key, deadpan charm, is not a particularly active performer. She tends to stand fairly still, rarely raising her voice, as her words and the stories they tell carry most of the comic load. As Notaro herself says in her new special, she’s very self-consciously cool, and on stage that manifests as being almost preternaturally laidback. That’s what makes Notaro such an inspired choice for a fully animated stand-up special.
You won’t see the real Notaro once in Drawn, which is now streaming on HBO Max. Instead you’ll see several different animated versions of Notaro in various stylish shorts based on her stand-up. When Notaro opens with a deep rumination upon the daily life of the Kool Aid Man, we see that old commercial mascot in action, lurking behind walls and fences while waiting for somebody, anybody, to pour a glass of Kool Aid. The animation isn’t just part of the special’s intro, or used to break up different segments within; the animation is the special.
Despite what you might think, Drawn is not a response to the pandemic. Notaro is performing in front of an audience, and even does a fair bit of crowd work. This project has been in the works for years, with Notaro’s performance assembled from various stand-up sets recorded over a five-year span. The audio recordings were handed off to animator Greg Franklin and his studio Six Point Harness, who animated it into a stylistic mixtape with about a dozen distinct aesthetics. It’s a bit like watching one of those old alternative animation compilation films that used to tour art houses in the ‘90s, or shows like MTV’s Liquid Television or Netflix’s Love, Death & Robots—just a jumble of different animation styles—only with a single consistent throughline of Tig Notaro’s stand-up.
A show-closing bit about Dolly Parton has the big eyes and glossy sheen of a sub-Pixar CGI kids’ movie. A lengthy story about staying with a friend’s elderly great aunt during a road trip looks like something out of Ren and Stimpy. A sweet tale about young Tig’s imaginary relationship with Eddie Van Halen becomes a psychedelic fantasia of shredding and soccer. Drawn churns through so many different styles and techniques during its 50-plus minutes, with Notaro’s hilarious stories grounding the whole project.
The real power of using animation is best illustrated by a recurring bit involving a spider. We actually meet the spider at the very start of the show, during the credits, but it’s not until about halfway through the hour that we learn why this spider is noteworthy. During one of the stand-up sets that were recorded for Drawn, a spider apparently lowered itself onto the stage from the rafters in the theater. Notaro reacts to it honestly, ad libbing some spider material. Franklin and his team took Notaro’s impromptu reaction to this unexpected spider and turned it into a charming little animated short that could exist on its own, outside the context of Drawn. The spider becomes a fully realized character with just a couple of lines from Notaro and a few minutes of animation from Six Point Harness. Animation turns the kind of moment that would probably have been edited out of a normal stand-up special or album into one of the special’s most adorable highlights.
The animation definitely adds a visual flair to the proceedings, along with humor of its own, often expanding on Notaro’s observations with sight gags and cartoon logic. It also covers up part of what makes Notaro such a charming performer, though; her deadpan tone is accentuated by her minimal body language and facial expressions, and although the animation tries to capture some of that, it can’t match the subtlety or naturalism of Notaro’s physical performance. The smallest gesture or motion can be an exclamation point for Notaro, and that’s lost when you can’t actually see her perform.
That’s a minor beef, though. It’s worth that small sacrifice to get something as unique and unforgettable as Drawn. Hilarious and beautifully animated, Drawn is a fascinating experiment that all fans of comedy or animation should experience.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.