5 Things We Learned From Norm Macdonald’s Last Comedy Special
“The whole thing is a complete waste of everyone’s time,” says Conan O’Brien. “And it’s joyous.”
O’Brien was talking about the late Norm Macdonald’s circular comic stories on his old talk show appearances, but Conan might as well have been talking about Nothing Special, the one-man comedy special Norm taped before his death from cancer.
He filmed it alone during Covid since audiences were out of the question. It’s all done in one breathtaking, amazing take, yippy dogs and ringing cell phones be damned. Onscreen graphics inform us that Norm was about to undergo a medical procedure and “didn’t want to leave anything on the table in case things went south.”
Unfortunately, of course, things did, but not before he left comedy fans this gift. We selfishly admit to holding out hope for one more OJ joke, but alas, that wasn't to be. Here are five more important things we learned from Norm’s last special ever.
Norm’s health issues loomed large.
Not that he mentions them -- not directly anyway. But jokes about health, aging, and mortality haunt the special like wispy ghosts wandering a graveyard. There’s talk of hair turning white, imagined (and real?) heart attacks, doctors that charge you $80 to tell you to see other doctors. He tells us why it’s important to make a living will, and jokes about why he’s made his own.
Families, says Norm, will all make the same decision about pulling the plug. “At first they don’t, because it’s kind of fun bringing your friends in. ‘Look at that, huh? Used to have dreams. Now it’s just a gray thing.’”
It’s funnier than it sounds.
Dave Chappelle was part of a roundtable of comedians (with David Letterman, Molly Shannon, Conan O’Brien, Adam Sandler, and David Spade) who watched the special together, then shared their memories of Norm. He was blown away by what Norm was attempting, seemingly from his basement. "The guy was reconciling his mortality--hilariously--in front of us.”
Norm didn’t take any of this very seriously.
If you think grave illness meant Norm was taking himself seriously, think again. Nobody thumbed his nose at sacred cows (or Frank Stallone) more than Norm. So it's no surprise that he didn't have an overly inflated opinion of his chosen profession either.
To the end, Norm was the master of the meandering story.
Over time, Norm adopted the persona of an old-timey, clueless storyteller, perhaps modeled on his idol, Mark Twain. The Norm of Weekend Update would never say things like “I’m on the TV!” but he leaned into this folksy Canadian style in his later stand-up years.
And why is that? In Conan O’Brien’s opinion, “he is consciously screwing with you on every level.”
But dang, it works. That meandering way of storytelling allows Norm to take tired comedy tropes like “I don’t like to fly on airplanes” and end up in places that revel in the joys of cannibalism. Brilliant.
Maybe comedians don’t need audiences after all.
I laughed out loud a surprising number of times during Nothing Special, which feels weird when there’s no one laughing with you.
Jason Zinoman, a New York Times critic, found that the special’s lack of an audience worked in its favor. “When Macdonald talks about his fear of dying and finding a different God than he expected, no sound distracts from the poignancy, and you find yourself looking closer at his face, studying it for clues, hints that may or may not be there." (With Norm, you never were 100% sure if he was joking.)
Letterman, for his part, wasn’t buying it, loving Norm’s final performance but questioning whether or not it even qualified as stand-up comedy. “Without the audience,” Dave says, “you don’t get the full measure of Norm.”
Norm sends his love.
There’s a segment in Nothing Special where Norm muses about the #MeToo phenomenon, making poignant jokes about his mom before pausing to reflect on his love for her. It’s a brief moment, but notable for its vulnerability and genuine emotion.
In the comedian roundtable, Molly Shannon remembers seeing Norm at SNL’s 40th-anniversary party. She had no idea he was sick, but immediately upon seeing her, he greeted her with ‘Molly, I love you.”
Those bursts of genuine affection happened a lot near the end, according to Sandler and Spade, who toured with Norm in his final years. And appropriately, Norm ends Nothing Special with a message for his audience, the one that’s not in the room with him but one that he can feel nonetheless:
“Stay safe, folks. I love you.”
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Top image: Netflix