In the era of non-stop entertainment coverage, dissecting the frog of comedy has never been more popular. There are literally thousands of podcasts, thinkpieces, Twitter wars, and YouTube wormholes fully dedicated to fussing over the minutia of why something is funny, how is it funny, how funny it is, why laughing at something is a serious judgment on your own biases, and how serious laughing is no laughing matter.
Norm MacDonald is the antidote to all the crap.
The Canadian comedian and former Saturday Night Live star has been doing stand-up for forty years now – or as he’s more likely to put it, about two score. If his new Netflix special, Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery, seems like a bit of a throwback, that cause, you know, it uh… is. (Anything with ellipses is best read with MacDonald’s signature slurry delivery.) While some great comics are seemingly re-inventing what the stand-up special can be (See Maria Bamford’s town-crossing Old Baby or Bo Burnham’s one-man musical escapade Make Happy, both on Netflix) – none of that appears to interest the 57-year-old funny man. This hour is old school, and for the material, it’s a natural fit.
While many likely remember MacDonald for his time as SNL’s Weekend Update anchor in the late 90s, some never took to his slow-paced delivery and frequent off-the-cuff asides (including Don Ohlmeyer, the thin-skinned NBC executive that fired him way back when). Despite a number of attempts to get MacDonald his own TV vehicle (including the 9-episode Comedy Central misfire Sports Show, and the irregularly released yet outstandingly produced podcast that bears his name), the best form of Norm has always been on his own terms, in his own time.
Hitler’s Dog, MacDonald’s second recorded hour after 2011’s Me Doing Standup, picks up in the middle of a bit, quite literally: “…then people go, ‘God damn, least he’s not a hypocrite,’” followed by the laughter of a double decker theatre. Without context, a blurry single cam of the comedian strolling through a park at day break fades up, as the on-stage MacDonald jumps right the meat of his act: hot takes on pork chops, Count Chocula, and blowing waiters in the bathroom. Once we enter the special, the production value is straightforward and the camera never leaves the comic. But if you are craving a reason for that obtrusive bit of avant-garde direction at the top, the special never really clues you in.
MacDonald’s the kind of comedian that almost requires a working knowledge of stand-up to appreciate, but if only for comparison’s sake. Stand-up is a medium of brevity – Jerry Seinfeld often discusses the process the years it takes him to nail the perfect language to fit his intentions. Well, uh…Norm’s not really doing that.
Oftentimes, he seems to almost intentionally leave you hanging, grappling for the rationale behind his painfully over-detailed descriptions of, say, those little triangle sandwich things on toothpicks that you occasionally see at dinner parties. At first these superfluous set-ups seems infuriating – spit it out, we understand they type of sandwich you’re describing!
But then, as he continues, describing the cellophane of the toothpicks and the exact type of platter you often find them on…then, you start to giggle a bit.
Then, a lot, finding bemusement in the comic’s long-winded set-up alone. That’s when MacDonald’s really got you: once you’re on board for this self-indulgent form of amiable rambling, any punch line delivered later just becomes gravy.
The syrupy slow trickle of the Canadian’s cadences almost lull you into this calm agreement with an some increasingly ludicrous assumptions and before long, you’re fully into the theory that George Washington was psychopath and that we should definitely kill ourselves and blame it on MacDonald’s barber, Ralph Abernathy. What did you just agree to? Norm only knows.
To say the stand-up’s timing is rooted in a form of anti-comedy is a disservice, because that term is both loaded and outdated – but there is an element of “laugh when it strikes you,” about the comedian’s rambling shaggy dog tales. As Steve Martin points out in his book Born Standing Up, when an audience is deprived of a natural release of giggly energy, they’ll eventually let it out themselves – often at different intervals, loudly guffawing at a joke from two minutes ago. Listening to the in-house audience – who, interestingly, we never actually see beyond a few front row heads that poke into frame – you can hear these “out-of-time laughs” throughout. It’s the laughter in spite of your own expectations that make MacDonald’s show such a surreal treat, because it’s humor you almost need to participate in to enjoy.
Back when the comedian was on Weekend Update, MacDonald was weighed down by the burden of having pressing information to share, and the expectation of that he should offer in-the-moment incisive commentary on topical moving targets. But as MacDonald admits himself in this special, “I don’t really have opinions, you see?” Thankfully, in his stand-up those expectations to offer perspective or meaning are drained away, and the only requirement of the audience is to ease back and enjoy the ride. Once you get your feet wet with MacDonald, a whole other form of comedic expression opens up to you. The set-ups are funny. The pay-offs are funny. The rambling is funny. Even the silences become their own moments of whimsy!
And, unlike the LSD the comedian was sold as a teenager that promised acid flashbacks that never came, a great Norm MacDonald shaggy dog journey can be a laugh that’ll hit you at first glance, then again on the ride home — and, maybe, once more twenty years later. My friends, that’s simply a great return on investment.
So by all means, hit us again, Norm.