This isn’t going to be a traditional review or an opinion piece on the Netflix’s Nothing Special. I can’t be objective about it. I’m a deep fan of comedian Norm Macdonald. I have been since I was 14 years old. I borrowed a lot of his act to complement my own developing personality when I was a teenager. He gave me the sense that I was an outsider. Even if I wasn’t. He provided an attitude, a confidence that if I ever was an outsider, I should enjoy it – revel in it. It’s this trait that I am eternally indebted to him for. So, I can’t separate myself enough to gave you an unbiased (or the appearance of unbiased) analysis. Instead, I’m going to write something more akin to a tribute. I want to explain who this man was.
Norm Macdonald wanted nothing more than to be a stand-up comic. Despite television appearances (Saturday Night Live and a run of sitcoms) and movies (Dirty Work, directed by his friend Bob Saget, and cameos in numerous films in the Adam Sandler universe), Macdonald was devoted to the craft of standup comedy. He was a tireless road comic with hours and hours of material, well-respected by his peers and a legend among hardcore comedy fans.
Interestingly, though, Macdonald became famous (or infamous, depending who you ask) for his appearances on late-night talk shows and, through this, developed a viral following on YouTube. Classic clips include his skewering of Carrot Top on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and his numerous appearances on David Letterman’s The Late Show. More than his standup, it was these late-night appearances’ social media presence that burnished his legend.
In 2013, he got his own talk-show (more like a video podcast) on YouTube. He translated that show into a Netflix series. All of this cast him in an odd mould, a strange social media-ish celebrity. I say “strange” because Macdonald always seemed ill-fitted to the format. His shows lacked fluidly in a delightful way. There was no two-dimensional late-night story fodder. All of his stories were made up. Often, they were old jokes from the 1930s disguised as personal anecdotes.
He seemed to take pleasure in disrupting the format, pursuing subjects or lines of thought that would be bound to destroy further success in the medium (consider his dismissive, satirical manner of presenting sponsors on his YouTube talk show or controversial comments he made to Howard Stern that caused his Netflix show to be put on permanent hiatus).
For all his legitimacy as a traditional standup comic and for all his refusal to work within the format of the social media landscape, it is this social media format that his final standup special takes:
Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special is filmed like a video podcast. It is Norm without an audience. It’s a format he was forced into by pandemic club closures in 2020 when he was building an hour for a new special for Netflix. Macdonald recorded the ‘standup’ in one take as he was going in for a medical treatment the next day and wanted to have something to show for his work if he didn’t survive the procedure. It’s a morbid reason and you can’t help thinking about as you watch (the information is conveyed in the opening of the special). This is counterbalanced by a gleeful look in his eyes as he delivers the material. The kind of glee that a little kid with a secret has.
The special is unformed. It isn’t organized or metered out as Macdonald normally did with all of his appearances. Yet, the spark is there. The glint in the eye that fans recognize: the give-away that, whatever people thought was happening, it was all a big joke. Even though there is no audience, Macdonald’s mannerisms account for their absence: a sly glance, a milked silence, a silent argument with the crowd… Macdonald needed the audience and, if need be, he’d create one.
At the end, during a conversation of Norm’s friends who just finished watching the special, David Letterman comments that it wasn’t standup without an audience. Technically, you could argue, he’s correct. However, he says that, more than anyone, the audience was necessary for Norm Macdonald. The audience was Norm’s partner, noted Letterman. The shadow of the audience’s absence hovers over every aspect of his performance. There’s something missing, because Macdonald would have looked to the audience to finish the joke, to toss it back at him (either in laughter or silence – both of which he enjoyed).
The partnership with the audience was something Macdonald mentioned as a primary reason why he admired Letterman – noting that his admiration of Letterman’s show was based on an unspoken pact between the audience/viewers and Letterman. The guest on his show wasn’t in one it… they were the butt of it. This was something that carried over into Macdonald’s performance as well. He delivered jokes that he believed in. (He was famously fired for doubling down on O.J. Simpson jokes during Simpson’s 1994 murder trial despite television executive pressure to stop.)
His jokes weren’t intended to make everybody laugh; rather, a portion of the audience would laugh, and it was those who did that would feel a kinship with him. As if they shared a secret.
The greatest secret was Norm’s own: he’d known about his cancer diagnosis for much of the 2010s. In fact, this was the second run-in with cancer he’d had (the first being early in his standup career when he was primarily working in Canada). The audience didn’t know he was dying, but Norm left breadcrumbs. When he died, those who followed his appearances and standup work ruthlessly caught on. There was a recurring bit Norm liked to do on his YouTube talk show that perfectly characterizes this strange bond he formed with his fans post mortem. When he would mention a celebrity and be told that they recently died, he would remark, “I didn’t even know they were sick.”
For me, this bit really slammed home after his death. I smiled, but I didn’t laugh. It was a momentary transcendence of that tragedy/comedy binary. His standup special was like that for me (and probably many of his fans). I felt nervous about viewing it. When it was finished, I was sad but oddly amused. It wasn’t a farewell, it wasn’t a goodbye, both would imply that this was the culmination of all his work. But his oeuvre was so enormous that it’s impossible to pare it down to this or that piece. It’s part of a whole. Untarnished by an unfunny, mawkish focus on death. Rather, it’s death as another part of his act, as another act in his life.