Norm Macdonald’s ‘Nothing Special’ gives us one last dose of dead comics : NPR


Most of Netflix’s Macdonald specials run through its set in one uninterrupted take. The rest are a small group of comedians, including David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, talking about their friend.



DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

It’s FRESH AIR. On Monday, Netflix premiered a new comedy show called “Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special.” He was filmed by the comedian in his apartment complex without an audience the day before he entered the hospital for a stem cell transplant in June 2020. He had been in remission from cancer since 2013, but that had reproduced after seven years. Only his immediate family and management team knew he was ill. Following his death in September 2021 from complications from cancer, his producing partner, Lori Jo Hoekstra, produced this special. Most of it is Norm Macdonald running through his comedy in one unbroken take. The rest as a small group of friends, including David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, sat around talking about their late friend after screening the special. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: When I heard about the circumstances surrounding Netflix’s ‘Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special’, I immediately thought of the unforgettable TV appearances I had seen by people who knew their death might be imminent . Mythologist Joseph Campbell, speaking to Bill Moyers, once advised people to follow their happiness. British television writer Dennis Potter told people to see the present tense. And singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, appearing on David Letterman’s talk show shortly before his death, encouraged people to enjoy every sandwich.

So I wondered what kind of advice and wisdom Norm Macdonald would bring to what could be, and was in fact, his latest comedy routine? In the end, not much, but that’s by no means a complaint. We receive a final dose of Norm. And it touches on a variety of topics, from politics and living wills to masturbation and doctors. Yet he never directly addresses his condition or situation. The special was shot with Macdonald sitting at the kitchen counter in the apartment of his neighbor and longtime producing partner, Lori Jo Hoekstra. Two cameras were used, both capturing the comedian in close-up – one shot, one from the side. And without notes or an audience, he just speaks, delivering the ongoing version of the upcoming Netflix stand-up special he was working on.

The special’s on-screen introduction explains that Norm Macdonald came up with the idea to record it because he, quote-unquote, “didn’t want to leave anything on the table in case things got bad”. So he talks and talks. And sometimes, even when talking about doctors, he strikes a vein of comedic gold.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, “NORM MACDONALD: NOTHING SPECIAL”)

NORM MACDONALD: I’m a doctor. I’m gonna hit your knee with a hammer now. It is for me the strangest of all time. We have not exceeded that. It’s like a cartoon from the 1950s. The guy pulls out a hammer, hits your knee with it and then you say, oh, my knee. Oh, my God, that hurts. And then the guy writes excellent, very good. This is exactly how you should react when your knee is hit by a hammer.

BIANCULLI: There’s a charm to Norm Macdonald staring straight into the camera, his eyes sparkling with delight as he lands a punch line. He seems focused but at ease, enjoying both the tightness of some sentences and the looseness of what is essentially a rough draft on camera. He’s not even thrown by a barking dog or a phone that rings unexpectedly.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, “NORM MACDONALD: NOTHING SPECIAL”)

MACDONALD: You know, I mean, I have opinions. I mean, I have opinions that everyone shares, you know? Like – I don’t know. Yellow is the best color, you know, but I don’t know if you call that an opinion. You know, it’s just a – it’s just a…

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF RINGING PHONE)

MACDONALD: Oh wait. It’s my phone.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF RINGING PHONE)

MACDONALD: Hello? I have to call you back because I’m doing a TV special, a comedy special. So I’ll call you back, okay? OKAY. Sorry about that, guys. In any event…

BIANCULLI: Norm Macdonald came up with the title for ‘Nothing Special’ himself in the hospital after filming it. It’s the perfect double-meaning title from a guy who, like George Carlin, was always on the lookout for the perfect word. After the unedited portion of Macdonald’s one-take performance of “Nothing Special” ends, the rest of the show features six of his friends sitting around deconstructing the special stories and chatting about him. Norm’s “Saturday Night Live” pals Adam Sandler and David Spade and Molly Shannon are there, as are Dave Chappelle and David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, who not only appreciates what Norm Macdonald says but how he says it.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, “NORM MACDONALD: NOTHING SPECIAL”)

CONAN O’BRIEN: He had, I think, the best choice of words of perhaps any comedian ever. He intentionally speaks words…

DAVE CHAPELLE: Yes.

ADAM SANDLER: Yeah, yeah, that’s right.

O’BRIEN: …when he knows he can say TV. He says it’s TV. When he came on our show – I think it was his first appearance, and he was talking about a Doberman and he said, that’s a Doberman…

(LAUGH)

O’BRIEN: …And he knows. But he constantly makes fun of you on all levels.

DAVID LETTERMAN: That’s right.

O’BRIEN: But his choice of words is – he was like Mark Twain. He was just – he had this folk, completely out of time – and I don’t know if he was born 300 years too late or 300 years too early, but he speaks in a way – nobody speaks like that. And you really appreciate the way he says it.

BIANCULLI: There’s a great example of that in a moment, where Norm, instead of offering wisdom, wonders why we’ve come to expect it from him or any comedian in the first place. He mentions a particular comic and, as Conan notes, purposely mispronounces its name. But he has an even funnier, more philosophical idea just around the corner.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, “NORM MACDONALD: NOTHING SPECIAL”)

MACDONALD: Especially when you’re an actor, they expect you to know things these days, you know what I mean? It wasn’t like this before. For example, during the Vietnam War they didn’t go there, I wonder what Red Skeleton (ph) thinks about that. But these days – like, I’ve heard – they go, the comedian is the modern-day philosopher, you know? Which, first of all, always makes me sad for the real modern philosophers that exist, you know?

BIANCULLI: After Norm’s set, Dave Chappelle and David Letterman try to define what makes Norm Macdonald’s “Nothing Special” so special.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, “NORM MACDONALD: NOTHING SPECIAL”)

CHAPPELLE: It was very endearing. It was amazing. This…

LETTERMAN: The shape is different. It’s not, strictly speaking, stand-up. This is another thing.

BIANCULLI: Yes, it is; so does the long conversation that follows – part wake, part party and, like Norm Macdonald’s part, unusually intimate. Even with longtime TV hosts Letterman and O’Brien on board, no one is hosting this conversation after the fact. Everyone is just there enjoying and enjoying and being present. This unique Netflix special lets us all do the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, “NORM MACDONALD: NOTHING SPECIAL”)

MACDONALD: Stay safe, folks. I love you. I would drop the mic, but I paid for it.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed Netflix’s new show ‘Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special’. On tomorrow’s show, we’ll talk about the Southern Baptist Church sex abuse scandal with Robert Downen. He was one of the reporters who ran the story that about 300 church leaders abused or assaulted about 700 church members. This led the Southern Baptist Convention to commission an independent study. Findings released last month suggest a cover-up. Hope you can join us.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE “SAMBA OF THE THIRD LINE” BY ABDULLAH IBRAHIM)

DAVIES: If you’re interested in an inside look at FRESH AIR from our producers and getting recommendations from the staff, check out our newsletter, which you can subscribe to from our website. This is freshair.npr.org. The executive producer of FRESH AIR is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our Digital Media Producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I’m Dave Davies.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE “SAMBA OF THE THIRD LINE” BY ABDULLAH IBRAHIM)

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