“Prison rapes are delicious!” exclaims Norm Macdonald, reading a joke off a blue index card seven episodes into his new Netflix talk show, Norm Macdonald Has a Show, as this particular episode’s guest, M. Night Shyamalan, looks on in alarm. “Prison rapes? Oh, sorry. I’m sorry. Prison crepes.” Big laugh. My apologies for just throwing you in the deep end, but it’s what Macdonald would want, what he still wants, what he has always wanted. He thrives on your discomfort. Yes, your discomfort specifically. Meaning, absolutely everyone’s. Even—and maybe especially—his own.
Norm Macdonald Has a Show arrived Friday after a press tour so disastrous you’d think he’d recorded seven songs with Kanye West. In the course of explaining to The Hollywood Reporter why this new program wouldn’t get too political, Macdonald conceded that “I’m happy the #MeToo movement had slowed down a little bit,” lamented that Chris Hardwick “got the blunt end of the stick,” and fiercely defended his friends and colleagues Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr. “There are very few people that have gone through what they have, losing everything in a day,” he explained. “Of course, people will go, ‘What about the victims?’ But you know what? The victims didn’t have to go through that.”
In response, Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show canceled Macdonald’s scheduled appearance. Chastened, Macdonald went on The Howard Stern Show to clarify, “You’d have to have Down syndrome” not to feel sorry for the survivors who inspired the #MeToo movement. Which naturally required another clarification, this one during his spectacularly awkward appearance on The View: “I realized at that moment I said something unforgivable. … The remark I made about people with Down syndrome is terrible.” This all happened last week.
Roseanne and Louis have both been very good friends of mine for many years. They both made terrible mistakes and I would never defend their actions. If my words sounded like I was minimizing the pain that their victims feel to this day, I am deeply sorry.— Norm Macdonald (@normmacdonald) September 11, 2018
Amid these misadventures came far less catastrophic interviews that bolstered Macdonald’s cred as a comedian’s comedian, a lonesome warrior too principled in his rawness and recklessness to garner the lavish mainstream success he has long deserved. “Over the last two decades, he has grown more devoted to the pure joke, even as comedy has turned away from it,” wrote Dan Brooks in The New York Times Magazine. And Macdonald himself has decried comedy’s turn toward satire, toward subversion for subversion’s sake, toward mere anecdote and personal history, toward the sort of hybrid deconstructions typified by Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix sensation Nanette. (Which Macdonald, like—allegedly—Michael Che, has not seen.) “I always bristle when people say, ‘The comedian is the modern-day philosopher,’” Macdonald told New York magazine’s David Marchese. “There are modern-day philosophers.”
Whereas Norm sees himself as a pure-comedy lifer, just a guy telling jokes, just a guy with a new Netflix enterprise that struggles mightily to scramble out from under the pitch-black cloud of his wayward efforts to promote it. Norm Macdonald Has a Show is sparse and loose to the point of total collapse. It consists of 10 half-hour episodes dumped all at once, one guest apiece, with a sparse set save the neon-blue “Norm” sign hanging on the desk and the Netflix-branded fridge stocked with water and Red Bull. (“Look at this shit,” Macdonald crows to Michael Keaton, offering him a beverage.) There is no audience save the mingling crew, which can sound like a dozen boisterous people when they’re delighted and several hundred dead-silent people when they’re ill at ease. Adam Eget, manager of L.A. stand-up institution the Comedy Store, plays the sidekick, reprising his role on Macdonald’s podcast, which launched in 2013 and served as proof of concept for this gig. It is a good sign when Eget is laughing a little; it is a very bad sign when he’s laughing uncontrollably.
As for the celebrity guests, they make for excellent audience surrogates, in that they, too, have no idea what the hell is going on.
Drew Barrymore: “I like your free-flowing format! It’s totally different!”
David Spade: “This is the most shabbily run operation.” (Also: “Is this gonna go down as a test show? You better fuckin’ air it.”) (This episode should not have aired.)
Jane Fonda: “Why are you drinking Red Bull?” (Also: “You’re weird.” Also: “You’re tired.”)
Chevy Chase: “Why don’t you just wipe your mouth a little? You’re making me fuckin’ sick.”
Michael Keaton: “I’m gonna tell you what you’re a master of. Segues.” (Norm Macdonald is not a master of segues.)
Lorne Michaels: “Is this a dating show?”
Billy Joe Shaver: “You get to lean into that pain. You gotta get started liking pain. That’s why I’m here today.”
David Letterman, who is also credited in every episode as special counsel: “Is this going anywhere?” (Also: “I feel like I’m on a show in another country.” Also: “You’re an infant.” Also: “They’re going to have to lease editing equipment for this show.” Also: “I’m not coming back, Norm.”)
There is just enough structure to alert you to the near-total lack of structure. Each episode kicks off with Macdonald, Eget, and their latest guest ambling onstage together and ends with the trio taking turns reciting jokes off those dreaded blue index cards, most of them terrible, a few of them transcendently so. (“Bad news for e-cigarette users,” outlaw-country legend Shaver reads. “You look fuckin’ stupid.”) Sometimes our host seems to have at least potential interview topics prepared; sometimes he is clearly just winging it, with that patented Norm Macdonald sort of jovial contempt. The beyond-shambolic Spade episode comes first and is also, fittingly, by far the worst, save for a running joke where Macdonald keeps pretending to cut to commercial and a few throwaway one-liners. “They wanted Sandler,” Spade recalls of his long-ago role on The Larry Sanders Show, to which Macdonald responds, “We wanted Sandler.”
Norm Macdonald Has a Show is, at heart, a classicist affair, with a filmed-podcast simplicity and little interest in cultural affairs or mores since Johnny Carson signed off. (The Michaels episode is the 10th and second-worst, in part because, to Michaels’s palpable chagrin, Macdonald doesn’t want to talk about anything younger than Three Amigos.) It’s silly and indulgent and pointedly aimless, and it’d be a lot to ask of the bewildered viewer even without the nonstop-apology press barrage that preceded it. You have to really like Macdonald to tolerate it, and even beginning to love it absolutely requires already loving him. Even if he’s just broken your heart, which is, as his most lovelorn fans have to admit, a very Norm Macdonald thing to do.
He is best remembered as the most volatile Weekend Update anchor in Saturday Night Live history. Born in Quebec in 1959, Macdonald started his career as a stand-up and a TV writer (he worked on both the original Roseanne and this year’s doomed reboot) before joining SNL in 1993; he was fired in 1998 by NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer, reportedly for making one too many jokes about Ohlmeyer’s good friend O.J. Simpson. But the Macdonald-era Weekend Update joke I remember best never made it to air, as he recounted to Playboy in 1997, in response to a question about his then-boss, Lorne Michaels:
I did this joke in which I showed that picture of the girl running away from napalm in Vietnam. I said, “In gossip news, Woody Allen’s dating again.” Lorne told me not to do it, and I told him he was wrong, that people would like it. Then I did it in dress rehearsal and there was this insane audience reaction that went on for two minutes: hate. I was completely wrong.
You can just picture Macdonald’s face as that hate washes over him, the evil smile tugging at the corners of his lips. His career since is rife with edgy, cult-classic material: the enormously caustic 1998 black comedy Dirty Work, the 1999 sitcom The Norm Show that lasted three seasons, the 2011 Comedy Central experiment Sports Show With Norm Macdonald that lasted nine episodes. In 2016 came a book called Based on a True Story, followed a year later by a Netflix stand-up special called Norm Macdonald: Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery.
Most Norm Macdonald profiles paint a melancholy picture of a semi-reclusive divorcée who lives in L.A. with his adult son, Dylan, and nurses a penchant for YouTube rabbit holes and compulsive gambling. Per the New York Times Magazine article:
At 58, he said, he was having the disturbing experience of recognizing some of his own opinions as the thinking of an old man. There were new ideas about gender identity that he knew were right but couldn’t quite get his head around. He recounted what Dylan said to him when he broached this subject: “Why do you always need to feel you understand things?” The question had set him thinking, and he related it to me with a father’s uninhibited pride.
Norm Macdonald Has a Show is at its best when its host is at least trying to understand something or convey a specific idea, even if it’s only his profound attraction to Drew Barrymore. At one point he raves about her acting skill by denigrating his own.
Drew: “I think you know acting.”
Norm: “Actors look on me the way vampires look on Count Chocula.”
[Long laugh break.]
Drew: “You know what, I don’t get it! I have to admit, I don’t get it!”
Norm: “I love when people don’t get it!”
At one point he asks her if she misses cocaine; it turns out she does not. And then Macdonald turns suddenly, convincingly serious: “When I’m so close to you like this, uh uh uh, um um um.” [Drums fingers on forehead.] “A quote, uh, occurs to me from Pablo Picasso, who said, uh, ‘I do not do drugs. I am drugs.’ [Ed. note: The quote is from Salvador Dalí.] And this is the effect that you have on people. I don’t know if you know that. But you make them happy.” Barrymore glows in response, and for one split-second we all enjoy the ultra-rare experience of Norm Macdonald making someone conventionally happy too.
But that episode has its frustrations, too. Throughout the series, Macdonald is a serial interruptor and, as Michael Keaton observed, a master of the non sequitur. He cuts people off a lot. Barrymore starts to tell a story about doing James Corden’s show recently and how he was “forcing me to eat turkey’s testicles,” and Macdonald cuts in to tell her that he once ate a monkey’s brain in Bangkok. The show won’t sit still long enough to make an argument for its existence. Which may be, like most things in Macdonald’s universe, very much by diabolical design. But for most of his career, he’s had a least a little more audience goodwill behind him.
As threatened, the show is militantly apolitical—binge-watch enough episodes, and all that boneheaded #MeToo talk starts to fade, a little. The hints that this show premiered in 2018 or anytime in the 10 years previous are slow in coming and pop up in odd places: a conversation with Judge Judy, for example, in which Macdonald forces Eget to tell the story of a mild legal grievance.
Norm: I think he got gypped.
Adam: Well, I don’t think gypped is a word we can use anymore, but I do think that I did get bamboozled.
Norm: Oh, gypped because gypped comes from gypsy.
Judge Judy: It’s so PC. That’s so ridiculous.
Norm: Yeah, yeah, isn’t it?
Judge Judy: Yes.
Norm: But most gypsies are fine.
Watching this show, you feel every one of Macdonald’s 58 years, and you can easily recall the less-than-progressive ideas about comedy and who can handle it that he expressed even when he was a bit younger. He is not “woke,” and you would hardly recognize him if he tried to convince you otherwise. A palpable sense of Wrong is part of the deal. The laughs are supposed to catch in your throat; often, they’re supposed to hurt. You’ll learn to cringe every time those blue index cards come out, but every so often he fires off one you probably can’t deny, even though you know you should: “I want to coach a little person to become an eating-contest champion, and I wanna name him Gnome Chompsky.”
If you’re a Norm obsessive, his bursts of naked humanity are rarer still, but even more rewarding. The Fonda episode is packed with lots of klutzy flirting, but halfway through, Macdonald suddenly grows serious, evokes Jane’s superfamous actor father, Henry, and delivers a heartbreaking monologue:
My father, being a civilian, I have memories of my father. I have a few black-and-white pictures of him; I have a picture of him when he went to war. But as time passes, so then, the image of my father fades into the same oblivion that my father now resides. You can turn on the television, and watch your father at several different ages, displaying several different emotions, it must be a gift.
Of course, he also brings up Suzanne Somers, a.k.a. “that Thighmaster lady,” and asks Fonda, “Do you think her thighs were as powerful as yours?” The tone is mercilessly erratic. That’s the brand. The brand failed Macdonald, utterly, on the publicity trail. At its worst, the show itself is only more consistent by comparison. But the single best episode might be his talk with Shyamalan, in that it’s an actual talk, with Macdonald interrupting less and listening more.
“I think there’s this moment where your instinct and your experience reach this kind of ideal crossroads,” Shyamalan says, trying to explain his huge early success, his spotty middle period, and his recent cautious resurgence. “And you have all of this kind of purity of your instincts. And you have just enough craft to execute those instincts. And you have this perfect moment there. Sometimes it happens young, that moment. And then, as you keep going as an artist, you use craft to protect you. So you know more. You have more practice at it. And you keep on using craft more and more and more and instinct less, less, less to protect you, because it’s vulnerable just going by your instincts. You can fail. And that’s a bad thing.”
The bad thing isn’t the failure; it’s using craft to snuff out your instincts, and your vulnerability. The value proposition of Norm Macdonald is that craft, in the classic sense, never figures into it: He’s all instincts and vulnerability and anarchy, even if his conservative impulses lead him to cast doubt or blame on the many, many people far more vulnerable than he. It’s the dirtiest sort of total purity imaginable. His recent media exploits have been unwatchable. His show offers just enough of a glimmer of why someone might want to keep watching.