Norm MacDonald: Modern Day Mark Twain

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With his latest offering — Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery — Norm MacDonald has solidified himself as a fixture on comedy’s Mt. Rushmore. It’s a rare gem that combines hilarity, wisdom and unparalleled form.

Norm starts his special with a complex and veiled bit that keeps devolving until it ends in an epic and subversive “dick” joke. What is Norm subverting? Modern comedy. Norm is showing the audience one of many arrows in his comedy quiver. After proving his prowess of dick jokes he can now move freely onto the meat of his show. Norm is not necessarily disparaging dick jokes rather he is righting the comedian ship back to where he believes it belongs. Several comedians have careers by dissecting stand up into a comedy theory and engineering their act in accordance to this, Pete Holmes and Mike Birbiglia come to mind. They possess the desire to be comedians without actually being funny. They endlessly explain comedy and why something ‘works’, these comedy nerds attract fans an audience with similar sensibilities. They engage in a performance where laughing is recognition of a ‘smart’ or cleverly constructed joke rather than an involuntary reaction.

Norm fires another distinct arrow as he moves onto an homage to his comedy hero David Letterman. The “big acid” bit is honoring Letterman at his finest. The stage in Letterman’s career when, like Norm, he savaged the establishment and their influence with subtle biting satire. Easy targets to the comedy genius’s. It’s not angry, it’s not loud, rather it’s pure wit.(Here is Norm performing the Letterman joke Link)

Norm’s artistic prowess shines as the worlds sharpest satirist.

Norm’s special and comedic style are perfectly crafted for the present-day audience. Culture is inundated with experts, experts on those experts, and every obscure interest has at least one obsessive podcast dedicated to exploring it. The potential deification of experts can result in the audience being told what and how to think instead of being lead to a conclusion that they come to on their own. Norm stands out among the sea of experts by packaging his message in a multi-layered format delivered in Norm’s disarming lackadaisicality. His satire is scintillating without always being overt. Another modern day work of satirical genius, South Park (powered by iconoclast Trey Parker), has similar satirical bite while disguising their target in the most thin of disguises if any disguise is even used at all. The creators of South Park will not let their message be misinterpreted so they choose to attack it head on. Look to the episode Sarcastaball to see this in action. This direction is necessary for South Park because of their beginnings. When South Park shifted into their now signature satirical view they shrewdly knew that concealed metaphors and layered subtext wouldn’t fly in a show where during the first season Cartman has a forty foot tall alien satellite dish expand out of his ass. This does not diminish the effect of the comedy or message but I do sense that the satire of Norm and prime Simpsons seasons have a more profound effect because it invokes the audience brain to fire a few more synapses.

The cunning style Norm expresses in his latest special shows masterful growth and cultivation of his previous work. He is still Norm MacDonald, complete with Carson mannerisms, Bob Hope one liner sensibility, and a new (to me) extreme wry version of Dennis Miller, but the new Norm has added about two more layers to his previous incarnations and remains unique. Norm exposes and bites so tough while maintaining precise delivery filled with consideration, a master communicator.

I’ve decided not to analyze the complexity of one of the several multi layered jokes Norm tells for three reasons. The reasons are by analyzing comedy it takes out all the humor, the probability that I fail to capture the genius of the joke, and the potential that an analysis would take away or give meaning to his joke that he crafted to be consumed as universal. Watch the special and experience it for yourself.

Norm has crafted his comedy to all sensibilities. Liberal, conservative, religious, atheist and any other conflicting ideologies can process Norm’s special and come out thinking “Norm thinks just like I do”. Norm eviscerates PC culture in many of his bits while preemptively mollifying any critics, creating a perfect satirical argument. Yet the special is filled with brilliant one liners like “I like to stretch my drug dollar”. Norm demonstrates how comedy is the best argument against the absurd.

Norm has bits taking down the absurdities associated with healthcare, education, media, religious zealots, science zealots, and pop culture. Norm says he doesn’t care about politics while speaking on many political talking points. Another example, like the title says, of his trickery. Norm has always fought innuendo on the surface of his comedy. The “what happens in vegas stays in vegas” saying being a euphemism for discrete hookers demonstrates it’s still a prevalent theme in his comedy. In his longer bits he enters the joke with that theme and then builds in complexity to brilliant punchlines that also include brilliant social commentary, the “dog bit” is the prime examples of this.

Norm is the modern day Mark Twain. He finds the essence of comedy by going back to the roots of the first stand up comedian, Twain. With this special Norm has elevated comedy back to the status he believes it belongs. Comedians are the people telling the truth through a series of lies. A shrewd move in a current society that is quick to thrust labels upon any idea the world presents.

By comparison Norm makes contemporary top comedians, with their obvious comedy deconstructions & meta-humor (yes Louis C.K. and Tig Notaro), seem hackneyed. Norm mocks the world while loving it. He is a sincere and subversive artist. Norm MacDonald is the preeminent comedian of our time.