The Return of Norm Macdonald’s Anti-Meta Comedy Talk Show
Norm Macdonald Live, the YouTube talk show of veteran comic Norm Macdonald, just launched its second season—guests so far have been Ray Romano, and fellow SNL alums Adam Sandler, and David Spade—and comedy connoisseurs are pretty psyched about it. Not just because they get to see more of Norm, but because this talk show provides a unique window into Macdonald’s art, and why his peers, seasoned pros like Sarah Silverman, Howard Stern, Conan O’Brien, Dennis Miller, and Super Dave Osborne, to name a few, constantly refer to Macdonald as a comic genius. And why the word “subversive” comes up so much. Fabled Saturday Night Live writer Jim Downey said, “…[Macdonald] is a genius and the most fearless performer. He likes people to laugh at his stuff, he enjoys that, but it’s sort of one of a half a dozen important aspects of what he does.” But just what those other aspects are is not obvious.
Why, for example, can you tell your friends a Louis CK joke and crack them up, but, more often than not, when you tell them about a Norm Macdonald bit—a bit that would wreck them if they saw him do it—they just look at you blankly? Last year on Norm Macdonald Live, Macdonald would often hold up a grilling accessory called the Mangrate—one of the show’s sponsors —and simply by reading the product’s boilerplate ad copy, his eyes glittering madly, Macdonald would put his guest and his cohost into what looked like painful spasms of laughter. It was some sort of demented performance art (the Mangrate company was so offended they immediately canceled their sponsorship, though they eventually came back.) But you cannot convey to anyone what’s so funny about the bit. Search for “Norm Macdonald Mangrate Supercut” on YouTube for a fan-made montage of Mangrate madness.
For the record, merely to say, “It’s his delivery,” doesn’t even begin to cover the mystery of Macdonald’s quixotic art. I think it comes closer to say that Macdonald’s comedy—including his delivery— simply has way more layers than that of most comics, like a demented Russian nesting doll. And maybe we can see more easily into those layers on Norm Macdonald Live simply because in the role of talk show host he shares the spotlight with his guests and his cohost, and this allows him to be more loose, less “on.”
As best I can tell, the outermost layer is some sort of crusty, 1950’s grandfather. Someone’s reference to a recent alt rock festival makes Norm squint critically and say, “I don’t much care for the acid rock.” It’s a character who uses old timey words like “gumption” and “grit.”
But with Macdonald that’s just the beginning, because there’s also a whole meta level to his humor—meta meaning comedy that parodies the contrivances of comedy. It’s evident in almost every utterance he makes on Norm Macdonald Live, but one notorious example of Macdonald wreaking havoc on the conventions of comedy is his appearance on the 2008 Comedy Central roast of comedian Bob Saget.
Comic after comic delivers the usual raunchy, nasty insults typical of celebrity roasts. But Macdonald walks up to the microphone and proceeds to tell six minutes of jokes so exquisitely bad they nearly trigger you into a fugue state. Example: “Bob has a beautiful face, like a flower…yeah, a cauliflower!” and “There are times when Bob has something on his mind…when he wears a hat!” Macdonald’s eyes twinkle mischievously as he tells the jokes, like he’s in possession of some secret comedic gnosis.
And indeed, sublimely awful jokes pop up frequently on Norm Macdonald Live. But more surreal yet are the times Macdonald takes a Dadaist baseball bat to jokes. For instance, if you’ve watched much comedy you’ve probably heard the joke where a comic, after pointing out how “the black box” survives a plane crash undamaged, says, “Why don’t they make the whole plane out of the black box?” Macdonald reads a news story about a kid who stole an airplane that crashed, but the kid survived. Then he mugs slyly into the camera, more a parody of a comic mugging, and says, “Why not make the whole plane out of that kid?” Dennis Miller called Macdonald, “the most subversive cat I know,” and these sorts of jokes, or whatever they are, have got to be at least part of what he’s talking about. Somehow Macdonald manages to deliver jokes with the sense that the telling of any joke is itself an unspeakably absurd thing to do.
And yet, even that’s not quite it, because Macdonald frequently derides the whole notion of meta humor, both in interviews and on the talk show (although the very fact that it comes up in so many interviews ought to make us wonder).
Macdonald’s professed disdain for postmoderny meta humor makes me think that, even when he is mocking the artifices of comedy, he’s also simultaneously mocking the wry pretensions of that very mocking—like that, too, is absurd. For those of you keeping score at home, this would, I guess, comprise a sort of meta-meta humor. If MC Escher were a comedian, he would be Norm Macdonald.
The new season of Norm Macdonald Live retains the same format as last year’s season. Episodes begin with Macdonald engaging in jokey banter (and, occasionally, bizarre little comedy bits) with cohost and “trusty sidekick” Adam Eget. Then the guest comes on—one guest for the whole hour—and the three of them basically just hang out, swap insider gossip about showbiz, and talk shop about comedy and entertainment.
The relaxed, intimate atmosphere of Norm Macdonald Live is part of what makes it almost voyeuristically fascinating. Macdonald allows the humor to find its own rhythm, like a seasoned fighter who never strains for the knockout. The lack of a studio audience and the silence occasionally following jokes adds to the strange hilarity; you get the sense that a studio audience would only add a level of cheesy showbizzyness that would be Norm Kryptonite.
In the last segment of the show, Macdonald looks at his guest and says, usually with a funny bashfulness, something like, “Hey, you want to tell some jokes?” Then he produces a stack of blue cards with pre-written jokes, sometimes loosely disguised as news items or one time, as famous quotes. He doles them out to his guest, to Eget, and to himself to read, more or less taking turns. The jokes are good, bad, meta, everything under the sun, and it’s great fun watching the three deliver them.
Last year, guests included Larry King, Billy Bob Thornton, and Simon Helberg. Most often, however, Macdonald’s guests were comedy pros like Andy Dick, Russell Brand, Kevin Nealon, Nick Swardson, Tom Green, Fred Stoller, Gilbert Gottfried, and the indomitable Super Dave Osborn. This new season’s first guest was Ray Romano, one of the more low-key episodes but still really fun to watch. Sandler and Spade both seemed weary and, frankly, a bit dissipated, but it was still hard to take my eyes off of Macdonald’s quiet unpredictability and evil Leprechaun antics.
Norm Macdonald Live’s aesthetic is what makes Macdonald’s friend, Adam Eget, work so well on the show as cohost. A “funny guy” sideman would epitomize exactly what the two of them are goofing on. But Eget’s hangdog persona—plummeting into shame, struggling dolefully with sobriety, perpetually broke—is the ultimate regular guy. In fact, to me, Eget’s only lapses come in the rare moments where he reveals his actual ability to flow easily with the comedic repartee, and we lose, just for a second, the awkward, anti-entertainer, shlub act. In any case, Adam Eget is the perfect counterpoint to Macdonald, and the two of them have exquisite chemistry. Indeed, Eget seems to get Macdonald on a near-mystical level, constantly feeding the perfect lobs for Norm to convert into vintage Macdonald mayhem.
There’s another unusual thing about Macdonald’s humor. It’s that Macdonald doesn’t just exude a sense of the absurdity of life—plenty of comedians do that, but their response to that absurdity is usually cynicism or irony. Norm Macdonald’s response to the absurdity of life, however, seems to be something else entirely. And, strangely enough, I think that something is sheer delight. That’s what lurks just beneath that devilish expression of barely suppressed laughter that keeps sneaking onto his face.
Macdonald may describe himself as agoraphobic, hypochondriacal, orally fixated, terrified of death and addicted to gambling and fried chicken with gravy. And he may be capable of astounding un-politically correct offensiveness. But I could swear that man’s eyes shine with pure glee, and it’s a glee that’s all the more intriguing because he seems to be trying unsuccessfully to conceal it. This is what comedian Russell Brand meant when he described Macdonald as having a “sparkly innocence” about him. I know it sounds stupid and unfunny to say it, but I think this layer of the Macdonald Russian nesting doll responds to the absurdity of life with something an awful lot like wonder. The unbearable hilarity of being.
But it may be that we have to dig down one more Russian nesting doll to get at the real secret to Macdonald’s comedic magic. It’s a quality he displays at the very end of that infamous Bob Saget roast routine. The jokes finished, Macdonald says: “Bob was the first comedian I ever saw perform, when I was a boy, live, and I loved him. But one thing that bonds us as comedians is we’re bitter and jealous and we hate everyone else that has any success. But Bob honestly has never had an unkind word for anybody, and I love him, and I hope everyone else does, so I just wanted to say that. Thank you.”
Macdonald says this with such naked simplicity the effect is almost disorienting. In the midst of all the mean comedic shtick, his unguarded words stand out like a lotus flower in a New York landfill. It is, of all things, the quality of vulnerability that makes this moment what it is and, I would argue, it’s what shines through all of Macdonald’s work—including, maybe more than ever, on this unusual talk show. And in comedy, or for that matter pretty much anywhere, vulnerability is about as subversive as it gets.