MacDonald a Nothing special.
Norm Macdonald’s final comedy special, released posthumously on Netflix, is an exercise in navigating opposing tensions. Filmed at home in the summer of 2020 while Macdonald was undergoing cancer treatment, Nothing special carries the tremendous weight of being the final work of a prolific, influential, and beloved comedian, a final special to be viewed only after his death. The presentation underscores this monumentality. Filmed before Macdonald was due to undergo a medical procedure and intended as a record in case he couldn’t perform the special in front of a crowd. Nothing special is laden with the awareness of exactly why it exists in this form. After about an hour of footage of Macdonald sitting at a desk staring at a camera, the Netflix special continues with a panel discussion featuring several comedians who worked with Macdonald and knew him well (David Spade, Adam Sandler, Conan O ‘ Brien, Molly Shannon, Dave Chappelle and David Letterman). They speak cordially of him; They talk about what kind of person he was, what it was like to be around him. Sometimes they try to discuss the special as special, but it’s very difficult when everyone wants it to be a wake.
On the one hand there is the gravity of Macdonald’s death and memory. On the other hand is the special itself, which isn’t quite ephemeral, but it’s close. It’s thin. Some parts are flashy and fun, some feel like incomplete approximations of an idea that’s not quite there yet, some are just overused premises without enough panache to distinguish them. The main tension lies between the seriousness of the circumstances and the insignificance of the particular. Perhaps for many viewers, the emotional context fills out the special sheets at some points and bolsters their weaker moments. More likely, the special will collapse under the weight of Macdonald’s death and the hour will become a placeholder, a space to discuss and remember his legacy.
It’s not that the special is out of character with Macdonald’s earlier work. Many of his favorite and most distinctive devices are there: his tendency to mispronounce words; his long pauses; his penchant for fully fabricated premises; and his ability to build up, weave through multiple tangents, and then come back with a punch line that surprises you. It feels like a Norm Macdonald special, with all the joy and baggage that comes with it. There’s a long section on Down Syndrome that I suspect Macdonald was working towards making him stronger and more vicious than he is, but at this point he can’t quite find the subversive, disarming reversal of expectations which would really surprise him. He’s got material on reparations and Me Too and a big joke section. They all grasp at that scintillating Macdonald delight of causing an audience to feel outrage and then happily heaving them onto the petard of their expectations. Few of them get that far, and for some (especially the fat jokes) it’s hard to imagine how they ever could have. There are stronger sections too, including a funny bit about slut shame and a closing joke that starts with Macdonald drinking a glass of milk and ends with a statement about his mother. He also dabbles in jokes about mortality, all of which have a veil that is difficult to detach from the particular circumstances.
For all the unhelpful tension between Nothing special‘s sad context and its comparative weakness, there is an intriguing, richer tension here too. Macdonald has a constant urge to invent things. For the sake of a few throwaway lines, he invents a woman named Ruth. Most of the joke premises are imaginative creations from all the stuff, likely including his multiple childhood friends and all the details about his past. It’s funny and moving to see the comedians stumble upon this element of Macdonald’s work in the roundtable. Did any of them know they were sick? they ask each other. How much has he ever really said about himself? Has anyone else had the experience of reading their autobiography and then discovering that it was entirely fabricated? He always did; His slippery relationship with the truth was hilarious and probably frustrating for people who want it knows him to understand him.
Here he is in his latest special, once again telling jokes that have nothing to do with the facts of his life. He spends a lot of time talking about emergency exit rows on airplanes, surely one of the cruellest jokes ever, rather than devoting a single second to what has happened to his health. And yet, at the same time, there are jokes that most of us will one day be plugged into a wall and our families will be asked to make decisions about when to unplug. There’s a moment in the middle of this section on breast milk when Macdonald describes how much he loves his mother, and it’s breathtakingly candid. It’s a special that stubbornly refuses to say anything deep about Macdonald’s life or his comic sensibilities except in all those places where it’s right on the surface.
The most frustrating tension is that between what should have been special to serve Macdonald best and what it had to be to even exist. Macdonald was not doing well, and this was filmed at a time when almost no comedians were performing in person. Staring at a computer screen, interrupted by a barking dog and a phone call, is a Macdonald special born out of necessity. Letterman gives an unhelpfully paraphrased definition of what stand-up must be in the concluding discussion section, saying, “Strictly speaking, it’s not stand-up; it’s different,” because Macdonald performs without an audience. That definition is far too limiting, but Letterman is right that Macdonald’s voice and comedic performance are not well served by being presented in this way. There’s a back and forth with what audiences accept, that’s always been key to the way Macdonald uses comedy, and without that presence his material feels emptier. Chappelle, focusing on the same question, tries to insist that Macdonald’s timing works regardless, comparing it to a great jazz drummer. But in both cases, Letterman and Chappelle register a gap, the space Macdonald is trying to create where an audience would be. We can applaud him for his ability to define that space, but the result still feels like emptiness.
Nothing special isn’t Norm Macdonald’s best, and yes, the exceptional itself is inseparable from the pressure of its environmental conditions. It doesn’t look good on its own. But equally, Macdonald leaves room for an audience that isn’t there, the blur of Nothing special creates an opportunity to remember him. Like the comedians who gathered at the end, it’s an invitation. We can point out all the frustrations, inconsistencies, and mistakes, and we can also celebrate the things that made him such a unique, amazing comedian.