Norm Macdonald’s Nothing Special: a standup says farewell – The Guardian
The revered comic, who died last year, recorded his last Netflix set at home in 2020. It has the feel of a wake, as fans including David Letterman pay tribute
After two years of closed venues and Zoom comedy gigs, I’m in no hurry to ever again watch standup delivered to absent audiences. But I’ll make an exception for Norm Macdonald, whose Nothing Special, performed to no one, lands on Netflix today. Like the set Maria Bamford performed to her parents alone, it’s one of those specials where the ringing silences are compellingly part of the point. The point being that Macdonald died last year of cancer. He recorded this special in summer 2020, at home, as a precaution before undergoing a medical procedure. He “didn’t want to leave anything on the table,” a pre-show caption tells us, “in case things went south.” The set now has the feel of a last will and testament, and is released with accompanying commentary by a sextet of Macdonald’s illustrious standup pals.
There’s a symmetry at play here, given that the first viral comedy set of the coronavirus era was Macdonald’s, at the Hollywood Improv the day before the US went into lockdown. “It’s funny how we all now know how we’re going to die,” he joked – which sounds particularly bittersweet given that he’d known for years, and (characteristically) concealed it from everyone. And now here we are with another Macdonald video book-ending the Covid years, hopefully the last locked-down standup show we’ll ever have to watch. And it’s worth doing so, for Norm fans interested to see their hero “reconciling his mortality in front of us”, as Dave Chappelle describes it in the post-show chat; and for Norm uninitiates, keen to see what all that fuss was about when Macdonald died in September last year.
What the format zeroes in on, with its closeup on Macdonald from the shoulders up, is the comic value of his face. He was one of those rare comics with “funny bones”, eulogised David Baddiel – but it’s in the face (the laugh flickering around the lips; the expressive eyes) that that funniness resides. (“When he smiles,” says Chappelle, “I can picture him as a child.”) It’s a face that forbids us ever to take him seriously, ever to forget that it’s comedy that’s happening, that even the bits that sound truest or most throwaway are ticklesome constructions designed to make us (or Macdonald) laugh.
Some may bridle at that – the “it’s just a joke” defence having being used and abused to excuse all manner of unpleasantness over the years. You’ll find no shortage of unsavoury Macdonald clips on the internet, where he is celebrated for his “savage” burns against OJ Simpson, Michael Jackson, Hillary Clinton and others during his stint as host of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update faux news bulletin. Macdonald certainly had that streak of devilry common to many comics, that drives them further into discomfort when propriety might make the rest of us pull back. As Chappelle, David Letterman and co discuss on Netflix, this real-world gambling addict had a gambler’s impulses on stage too, staking everything on the jokes he loved, even when audience reaction threatened a losing streak. “His joy at landing a dud,” says Letterman, “it was heroic.”
There aren’t many duds in his final set, although there are sections that might be designed to spook the faint of heart. Slut-shaming, racism, transgender – he addresses them all, and we know that, when big-gun male comics do that, it doesn’t always go well. But Macdonald goes gentler here than he did in his SNL heyday. His “hey dad, I think I’m a girl” material teases at the pace of change (and the vitriol) around gender thinking, and leaves trans identity itself well alone. There’s a Down’s syndrome routine that’s a bit simplistic, and another on recovered memory of trauma that’s flippant but irresistibly amusing.
All the bluntness is softened, as ever, by Macdonald’s folksy manner. It’s not just his smile that’s boyish, it’s his air, affected but affectless, of cheerful, down-home innocence in the face of a bewildering world.
There is, of course, a wistfulness to the whole affair – because of the silences, because we know what came next for Macdonald. And because the jokes are sometimes wistful too. Here, this most secretive of comics (not for him the trend for confessional comedy) waxes nostalgic for a time when people weren’t expected to have opinions – which in turn triggers a thoughtful riff on why we allow elections to be decided by the “I don’t knows”. Here too, several sections on death: how we can’t pretend not to see it coming (“I made your hair white,” God tells Norm: “What do you think that was about? I was telling you to get your affairs in order!”); what it will be like to end our days plugged into a wall, at the mercy of a family’s whim or a clumsy janitor.
Then there’s the closing riff, which peters out joke unfinished, the gag having dissolved into a halting expression of his love for his mum. There’s plenty of sentiment, too, in the comedians’ discussion (it’s a wake, really) that closes the broadcast, as Conan O’Brien, Adam Sandler and others discuss their dear departed pal. It suggests that the outpouring of affection that greeted Macdonald’s death may have been as much to do with his personal qualities – of kindness, empathy and loyalty – as his work.
But this last special is well worth a watch. It doesn’t just show how good Macdonald was, even without an audience – in partnership with whom (as Letterman expresses it) his best work was made. It also addresses the question: what would standup look like if made with death breathing down the performer’s neck? You’d get a different answer from the confessional comedians whose work is prominent today. In Nothing Special, you see what happens when a constitutionally private man uses comedy to both process, and defy, his imminent mortality. This is a set that, without ever mentioning Macdonald’s illness, dances suggestively on the precipice, tweaking the nose of terror (in Blackadder’s coinage) and retreating with a laugh, if sometimes a rueful one, forever playing on the lips. It’s a laugh that will last as long as audiences watch Macdonald’s comedy.
Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special is on Netflix.