On March 10, 2020, a friend and I bought tickets to see Norm Macdonald perform at the Palace Theater in Los Angeles. The show was scheduled for May 1, at what was supposed to be the inaugural “Netflix Is A Joke Fest,” the streaming giant’s first live comedy festival. It was promoted with a flier that, in a testament to his career-long middling fame, did not list Macdonald’s name, but did include this ad copy: “Get off the couch ‘cause you’re not in front of the TV anymore — you’re watching LIVE comedy in LA, baby!” As you might imagine, the show was canceled and no one was watching live comedy in LA baby for a solid eighteen months. The debut festival was postponed until last month. Norm did not perform, on account of the fact that he died last September.
But it turns out Macdonald did record new material for the show, which was posthumously released on Netflix this Memorial Day. It’s called Nothing Special, which is apt as, by most definitions, it is not a traditional stand-up comedy special. Those tend to involve a stable set of ingredients: a stage, a comedian standing up, and, save the unfortunate exceptions of Drew Michael’s crowd-less soliloquy for HBO or anything that happened on Zoom, an audience. Macdonald’s has none of those — he’s alone, sitting before a badly hung curtain — but for good enough reason. According to some expository text, the comic had been “scheduled to undergo a procedure” that summer, presumably related to his cancer, and hadn’t wanted “to leave anything on the table in case things went south.” He’d shot it the night before, from what looks like two webcams in his living room. The main audience is his dog, who sometimes barks.
It’s clear that Macdonald has two things on his mind: that he might die, and that no one’s there to laugh. “I miss being out on the road seeing you guys live,” he tells the webcam early on, “I’m all alone looking at the TV. It don’t make much sense.” This confession may have been spurred by pandemic isolation, but it’s also the blunt technical side of the trade. Crowds are comic editors. Reactions red ink in real time what works and what doesn’t, and their absence is apparent a couple times throughout the special, when Macdonald ambles through a set-up with no punchline or loses his train of thought. Norm also had a particular crowd rapport. He was a chronic experimenter who constantly tested jokes that didn’t land, or belabored ones he knew would not, frequently at the expense of employment. He taunted as much as he entertained and toyed with expectations. All the while, he seemed to intuit the response, even fold it into his act. Consider his famous roast of Bob Saget, where Macdonald, facing a crowd warmed on one-line zingers, meted out a slow sequence of straight-faced non-sequitur (“Bob has a beautiful face, like a flower…Yeah, cauliflower”). Listeners responded with titters that, after a few jokes, crescendoed into a loud and constant laugh track.
Macdonald’s asides, looks, and pauses, as David Letterman observed in the post-special commentary, “were interpreted exactly the way he knew that they would,” which in turn fueled his absurd stage patter. “It’s like the audience was his partner,” without which, Letterman concluded, “you don’t get the full measure of Norm.” The latter may be true, but the former is also why the special’s title, like at least half of what Macdonald ever said, is a lie in service to a bigger truth. Nothing Special is a comedy special; Macdonald concedes as much (When his cell phone rings mid-joke, he answers like this: “HELLO? I gotta PHONE YOU BACK, on account of I’m doing a SPECIAL, on THE TV, a comedy special.”) Even without his partner, it’s clear Norm can feel where the laughs would come and where they wouldn’t. And he responds, not unnaturally, to his possible crowd. In one of the more straightforward examples, he sets up a joke about the old name for male flight attendants, freezes for a long time, then dryly berates the audience: “I'm outraged, I tell you. I’m outraged at what you were thinking.” He was going to say steward. More often, it’s how he breaks, mugs, or makes ample use of his eyebrows. So much of Norm’s comedy happened in his face, which here, is all you see.
In this instance, it’s the face of a man who is very visibly ill, a different face than the one I’d grown accustomed to over the years. I first heard about Norm when I was in high school, around the time that, given what we know about his illness, he was first diagnosed with cancer. Very few people knew he was sick, maybe because Norm always seemed very specifically alive. It was something about the grin, the PGA tournament live tweets, his boyish candy diet, his degenerate gambling addiction, the jokes, maybe something else. In any case, the superficial ravages of illness came as a shock when I started watching, even knowing what I now know. He’s wearing a hat and giant headphones so you can’t see his white hair, which he stopped dyeing, but doesn’t like. “I don’t want to dye my hair no more,” he explains, “on account of I don’t want to die and be surprised.”
Another comic might have leaned into the moroseness, or shaped their material into a tidy moral; Norm’s ends with the line: “I don’t want to suck my mother’s tits.” The extremely stripped down special kills in large part because Macdonald's approach to comedy was similarly distilled. He was, as Dan Brooks put it in a 2018 profile, a “comedy ascetic,” an old-school purist who sidelined politics, commentary, or elaborate metanarrative in pursuit of simple, perfect jokes — economical lines that land long after first crack. There are several of those in here. They’re mostly about death, but not specifically his. “After years of therapy, I finally figured out why I don’t care for airplanes,” Norm says at one point. “I don’t like the crashing and dying in the airplane.”