‘Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special’ was released on Netflix a couple of weeks ago and, to the uninitiated, it will seem just so. A lockdown comedy special released in 2022 – hadn’t we moved beyond that?
The background is tragically simple. Norm Macdonald died in September 2021 following a secretive nine years of illness. Before a procedure at the height of lockdown, he recorded some upcoming material, “in case things went south”. He was never able to perform it live, but Nothing Special is certainly a treat for fans feeling his absence, rich in the beloved childishness and enthusiasm of Norm.
Norm, as an alum of Saturday Night Live and a prolific guest on America’s late-night talk shows, was well-known in North America, though his delight in contravening convention curtailed a chance at true superstardom. As a comic, he’s hard to define accurately. An anti-comedian? No. Surrealist? No. Meta? No. All at once? Sometimes, but often something entirely undefinable.
In Nothing Special, his comedy gears are whirring again. Norm is effortlessly funny here, and his ease is the appearance, but also the illusion. Norm was like a magician, selling a deception while rotating its intricacies behind his back with practiced legerdemain. The audience was two years away from him in Nothing Special, but he anticipates their spaces, their rhythm.
He meanders through the set with the docility of a grandfather while hitting his marks with crafted precision, moving seamlessly from insights into his gambling addiction all the way to advice for cannibals. It’s not inoffensive, but never is it mean, never condescending, always endowed with a disarming insincerity.
The routine is discussed in postscript by six of his esteemed colleagues, including Adam Sandler, Conan O’Brien and Dave Chappelle. They look around regretfully, share a joke, share a story – it’s sweet. What shines is their appreciation for and of Norm. “When he smiles, I can picture him as a child”, says Chappelle. Sometimes he was a child, sometimes an old man, embodying both in spirit and in practice. He once admitted to only having read six books, but was actually a reverent student of Russian literature, once turning the classic ‘moth/light’ joke into a Dostoevsky-inspired tale of fate and existentialism, though deflected his genius by crediting the joke to his limo driver.
To Larry King, he explained his decision to “Play the dumb guy. Play the everyman. Nobody likes a guy smarter than them” which, by all accounts, he was. Conan O’Brien once compared his bizarre lexicon and digressive lyricism to that of a civil war general, though other times it was as fluid as a Walt Whitman poem. Andy Richter, O’Brien’s sidekick, said listening to a Norm Macdonald joke was like being taken on a four-mile hike, only to be shown a dog turd.
“Comedy is surprises, so if you’re intending to make somebody laugh and they don’t laugh, that’s funny” he once opined. He deliberately bombed at the Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget, dissing him with hack jokes from the ‘50s, protesting: “Saget, I can’t say mean things about you, you’re my friend.”
This was his transcendent quality. Beyond the magic act, the mischief, the mastery of the craft was an elemental purity and intrinsic kindness. There is no crescendo or triumphant conclusory flourish to the special, but that would never be the right way with Norm Macdonald, not in this final meeting. He delivers a clinical, killer punchline to a meandering five-minute yarn, then: “Stay safe folks. I love you. I’d drop the mic but I paid for it.” See you around, Norm.
He was the stand-up on David Letterman’s final show, concluding with a similar, teary-eyed tribute to the host, while other colleagues recall analogous endings to their last meeting with Norm. It seems that his final tour was not of theatres or comedy clubs, but of his loved ones. Even posthumously, he brought his material to the people. Comedy was a part of his anatomy. He had funny bones and twinkling eyes, which is an overused expression, but true of Norm.
Alas, it is the last we will see of him. It’s not the ending he deserved, nor is it a fitting conclusion to a truly unique career. Nevertheless, his enduring ability to, in his words, “make the audience make a specific noise at a specific time” has never been more remarkably effective. Even in his absence, we’re still laughing, all together, on the beat.