Norm MacDonald: Nothing Special is actually kind of special. In essence, it’s webcam footage of a man doing a stand-up routine like he was reading an audiobook. And in the same vein, this ‘review’ is in essence, more like an obituary than an analysis of a work. There’s a reason for this, however; you have to understand how this ‘old chunk of coal’ is wired.
Stand-up comedy without an audience isn’t stand-up comedy. But the circumstances in which this Netflix special came to be are rather extraordinary as well. MacDonald recorded it the day before he went for surgery for cancer, knowing full well he might not live out the year. I suspect that part of the reason why this footage – almost shorn of any production value – was released at all was plain and simple. It’s Norm MacDonald after all. It’s a bit like finding the last recorded studio outtakes of Jimi Hendrix’s playing in a basement cupboard. It’s a historical event, warts and all.
The usual reaction from most people would be, Norm who? For someone who’s unknown in the wider world, you might find it shocking to know that MacDonald is considered a comedian’s comedian, such that the likes of David Letterman, Dave Chapelle, Molly Shannon, Conan O’Brien, Adam Sandler and David Spade would gather to pay tribute to the man and add some context to the footage.
I’ll be honest. Most people who watch this will go, why would anyone find this funny – this guy is a hack! And that’s the difficult bit about all of this: explaining and justifying why Norm MacDonald is comedy royalty, especially with his last known recorded work. Part of MacDonald’s charm lies in the journey, not the destination. He operates on a different channel compared to everyone else and this special is not the best choice of work to experience his genius for the first time. But perhaps it is the best one to get a conversation going.
You see, MacDonald is the kind of guy who isn’t funny because of his material. It sounds like hyperbole to say that the material is… immaterial… but that’s what he’s all about. He says whatever he thinks is funny and the game is to play off your reaction. You can imagine, then, that he was a nightmare for television networks as there was nothing he would stop at to get a rise from the audience or fellow guests. Perhaps that’s part of the psychology of a man who was known to have a gambling problem; a seemingly limitless appetite for taking risks. It would eventually cost him his job on Saturday Night Live after his relentless mocking of OJ Simpson at the height of the notoriety surrounding the murder of Nicole Simpson in the 90s. He feared no one: Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton – he roasted them all.
Of his appearances on TV, late-night host Conan o’ Brien would be the most indulging, and his appearances often devolve into zany affairs that went everywhere and nowhere. It’s also where you’ll probably find some of the finest examples of his mastery of the shaggy dog story – an unnecessarily long-winded anecdote with complicated setups that end anti-climatically. And therein lies his genius; the ability to misdirect the audience like a sleight of hand artist. The audience, in turn, is the willing accomplice, complicit in indulging his brand of absurdism, which he perpetuates with nihilistic glee. Andy Richter once described it as such: “It’s like somebody saying I gotta show you something and then they take you on a four-mile hike to show you a dog turd.” The joke? The fact that he had the gall to make you take that four-mile hike.
MacDonald once said that his idea of the perfect joke is that the setup is almost the same as the punchline. He never got there but came close with a couple, along the lines of “Christine Brinkley told reporters this week that her marriage to Billy Joel was over long before their divorce. The key moment, she said, came when she realised that she was Christine Brinkley and that she was married to Billy Joel.”
He loves his jokes more than his audience ever will, and it’s a known fact that he will tell jokes that will clearly bomb and revel in the fact that he’s faced with complete silence. It’s clear that he is a man who doesn’t give a crap what you think.
And for that matter, none of his friends in the comedy business knows what he’s thinking either – his humour reveals almost nothing about himself. No one knew about his terminal illness until it was too late.
In that sense, perhaps, Nothing Special is the perfect send-off for a genius who will never be fully appreciated for his unique brand of humour. Stripped of his partner-in-crime that is the audience, it plays out exactly like how he probably intended it to be; as an audio tape containing the ramblings of a man, knowing full well that his days are numbered, doing what he does best as a form of catharsis and defiance that ill-health will not deny him a reason for being. It’s a voice message for those who would come to know of his demise and listen to it like a son who stumbles upon a letter that his father intended him to read after the funeral. This is Norm MacDonald’s final love letter to comedy.