WWe were never meant to see the posthumous Norm Macdonald special, which landed on Netflix this Memorial Day, eight months after the comedian’s untimely death from a very private cancer.
in the Nothing special, Filmed without an audience in the summer of 2020, Macdonald looks gaunt than in recent years. He wears headphones and holds a hand-held mic in an unobtrusive room as he delivers his unfinished footage in one long take.
The jokes are punctuated by the occasional bark of an off-screen dog. When his cell phone rings in the middle, he picks it up. “I have to call you back because I’m doing something special,” he says into the phone with a mischievous grin on his face.
Behind the camera is Macdonald’s longtime producing partner Lori Jo Hoekstra, who was one of the few people in his life to know he was dying.
“Norm has been working so hard on a new hour of material and wanted it to be seen,” Hoekstra said in a statement about the project. “During this version of Nothing special originally not intended as a final product, COVID restrictions prevented him from filming in front of audiences. We want to make sure his fans see this very fun hour. He left that gift to all of us.”
The lesson is hilarious at times, and also far less polished than it would have been if Macdonald had had a chance to fully flesh it out in front of an audience and then record it somewhere convenient. But the unusual format gives us a glimpse into both his process as a comedian and his state of mind towards the end of his life.
There’s some unexpectedly progressive material about Native American redemptions and even the #MeToo movement – especially given the allegations that surfaced after his death – and lengthy digressions on subjects like cannibalism that few other comics could pull off. But there’s also a section very early on that pokes fun at the idea of being trans and is sure to alienate some fans in the same way that Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais have stirred controversy on Netflix for the past few months.
This joke, a version of which was also on Macdonald’s set when I saw him perform at the New York Comedy Festival in fall 2019, is about how his father’s outdated views on gender would be perceived today. He sarcastically says he’s just trying to show how “hateful we were back then.” He notes that his father did “good stuff,” like fighting Hitler in World War II, and says he also had a “bad side,” which he describes as “this crazy idea he had that a cock has anything to do with being a boy describes .”
“Nowadays, we can’t even get used to that kind of thinking,” he says dryly. “But in the past, people actually thought like that. Isn’t that something?”
From its beginnings as a Weekend Update anchor Saturday night liveMacdonald has always been more interested in shocking viewers with his unexpected punch lines on current affairs than sharing intimate details about himself, to the point where he wrote an entire “memoir” called Based on a true story consisting of false anecdotes about his life. Here he inserts jokes about an imaginary woman named “Ruth” and covers hot topics like “systematic racism,” as he puts it, while also poking fun at the idea that every comedian should seek political opinions.
“Here he inserts jokes about an imaginary woman named “Ruth” and covers hot topics like “systematic racism,” as he puts it, while also poking fun at the idea that every comedian should seek political opinions.”
“As a comedian, they expect you to know things,” he says, a relatively recent phenomenon that he experienced when interviewers — like this one — began asking him to get involved in politics during the Trump era. He explains he prefers not to pay much attention to politics “because you only have one life”.
However, Macdonald begins to confront his own mortality when he says he stopped “painting” his hair black because he didn’t want to “die and be surprised”. He acts out a scenario where God tells him, “I mean, I made your hair white, what do you think it’s about? I told you to put your affairs in order, for God’s sake.”
He describes himself as a Christian but says one of his “greatest fears” is that he has “chosen the wrong religion”. Macdonald imagines dying, going to the afterlife and saying, “Ahh, it’s you! I thought it was the other guy. I should have been killing renegades all along. Ah good, what are you going to do?”
Towards the end of the set, Macdonald fumes at making the special too “depressing” before moving on to some material on what it’s like to write a “living will” and a handful of extremely dark jokes about how eager his own family is would be the plug if he ever fell into a coma — without ever directly admitting his cancer.
Finally, he closes with a surprisingly sweet joke about his mother Ferne, who survived her son and was with him in his final moments. Still, it ends with the punch line: “I don’t want to suck her tits!”
After the screen goes black, viewers are treated to an instant reaction from six of Macdonald’s closest friends and admirers who gathered to watch the special earlier this month: David Letterman, Dave Chappelle, Molly Shannon, Conan O’Brien , Adam Sandler, and David Spade.
They begin by marveling at Macdonald’s ability without attracting the attention of an audience’s presence. “It’s not necessarily stand-up, it’s something else,” says an awed Letterman, adding that the “great gift” would have been watching Macdonald perform those jokes in front of a crowd.
Sandler shares that for him, the special felt more like the “soft norm” that hung around the tour bus after shows. “It looked like he just wanted to get everything out,” he observes before he had no more chances.
“My favorite comedy is counterintuitive, but it makes people feel like everything is going to be okay,” adds Chappelle. “This guy has weirdly balanced his mortality in a hilarious way. And ironically, he’s no longer with us. We sit in the aftermath of Norm Macdonald and watch how incredibly alive he is.”
The comics soon recall the unique experience of being friends with Macdonald, a man who knew how to make them laugh when they were down but has become increasingly distant in recent years. As close as some of them were to him, they reveal they had no idea how ill he was in the months leading up to his death.
“I thought maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t know,” O’Brien says at one point. “But he didn’t want anyone to know.” When news of Macdonald’s death broke in the fall of 2021, he says, “We were so upset we didn’t have a chance to tell him what he meant to us.”
They all agree that Macdonald would not have “tolerated” that kind of sentimental emotional support in his lifetime. And yet his latest special shows that even in his darkest jokes, there was a man who knew what it meant to love and be loved.
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