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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Richard Roeper

With no stage and no audience, Norm Macdonald still makes the jokes stick

Norm Macdonald (pictured during his 2018 series “Norm Macdonald Has a Show”) made a special at home in 2020. (Netflix)

When Norm Macdonald died from acute leukemia at the age of 61 last September, it was a shock to not only his fans but his friends and colleagues in the entertainment community. Macdonald had been diagnosed nearly a decade earlier, but he kept his condition private and worked as much as he could without ever talking about it. In the opening to the new Netflix event “Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special,” the graphics tell us:

“Norm was working hard preparing material for his Netflix special—until COVID shut things down. … In the summer of 2020, he was scheduled to undergo a procedure and as he put it, ‘didn’t want to leave anything on the table in case things went south.’ At home, the night before going in, he shot this — in one take.”

What follows is 54 minutes of fresh, funny, bittersweet, provocative and uniquely Norm comedy, performed while Macdonald is seated in a Zoom-type setup in his home, armed with a microphone, over-the-ear headphones and his unique brand of observational humor. There’s no live audience to provide beats and rhythms, or to pump fuel into Macdonald’s adrenaline — no one to react to him, no one giving him something to build on. Wearing a checkered sports coat, pink Polo-type shirt and baseball cap, his mischievous eyes darting this way and that, Macdonald just … goes. He talks about his upbringing, his gambling habits, his misgivings about flying. He skirts (and for some viewers, probably crosses) certain lines when talking about hot-button issues and the ways in which some words and commonly accepted viewpoints from his youth are strictly taboo in the modern age.

‘Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special’

Mostly, though, he makes us laugh.

The written word cannot do justice to Macdonald’s delivery, in which he always managed to sound incredibly smart but a little bit dense and lacking in self-awareness at the same time (when of course he knew exactly what he was doing) — but imagine Macdonald’s delivery as he opens with a riff talking about how much he misses performing live and quickly pivots to self-deprecating humor about his well-known weakness for wagering.

“I love doing gigs, and I miss it, my God I miss it,” says Macdonald. “Especially casinos, those were my favorite gigs, because I’m a DEGENERATE GAMBLER as it turns out. And I think the casinos know that. Often, they’ll pay me in chips, which I find, that’s not nice. … Gambling is irrational, I put $100 on black [in roulette], it landed on red and I said, “F--- I almost picked that!’ ”

Macdonald’s advice when you fly: “Always pick the Exit Row, that way you get an extra two-three inches of legroom, and all you have to do is … to lie! You just lie” about the duties you’ll perform in the event of a crash. This eventually leads to a dissertation on cannibalism in the Andes after a plane crash, with Macdonald offering his cannibalism advice: “You can’t gorge, any dietitian will tell you … you graze! You wake up, you have a small meal of co-pilot …”

We get the occasional interruption in the form of Macdonald’s dog barking offscreen, or Norm’s phone ringing (he picks up and tells the caller, “I gotta phone you back on account I’m doing a special on the TV”), before Macdonald resumes his jazz-like verbal riffs on subjects ranging from racism to why women are far superior to men to the fact that everyone has an opinion about everything these days: “When I was young, people would have six opinions. Sometimes you’d meet a guy, he’d have eight opinions and you’d go ‘Goddamn, that guy’s opinionated!’ ”

David Letterman (from left), Molly Shannon, Dave Chappelle, Conan O’Brien, Adam Sandler and David Spade reminisce about their late friend in a postscript to “Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special.” (NETFLIX)

Macdonald also does a number of medical-themed bits, which take on added pathos when we consider much of this material is quite probably based on his personal experiences — and he drops his trademark sardonic tone when he speaks about his mom: “I love my mother, she lives right beside me. I don’t think my mother has ever spoken a word that had any irony in it. She’s just earnest, she knows how to love, she doesn’t judge.”

After the special, we’re treated to a bonus featurette from a memorial event for Macdonald, in which David Letterman, Dave Chappelle, Molly Shannon, Conan O’Brien, Adam Sandler and David Spade gather in a living room-type set and offer low-key and heartfelt reactions to the special while reflecting on their time spent with Norm. “I forgot how poetic he is,” notes Chappelle, while Letterman says what they’ve just witnessed is something different: “It’s not stand-up, it’s something else.” To the very end, Norm Macdonald wasn’t just something — he was something else.

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