Norm Macdonald’s death last year came as a shock to almost everyone but him. The stand-up and alumni Saturday night live The performer died of acute leukemia in September 2021 but was diagnosed nine years earlier and made the decision to only keep the information from close friends and family members. During this time, the comedian enjoyed a career resurgence, releasing a Netflix special. Hitler’s dog, gossip and trickery, in 2017 and hosting chat show Norm Macdonald has a show on the same streaming service in 2018. He was working on another hour-long stand-up special when Covid 2020 hit, and before undergoing a medical procedure, he decided to record the material himself because he, like his loved ones said he was “didn’t want to leave anything on the table in case it went wrong.”
Although the operation itself was a success, Macdonald died before he could tape the show in front of an audience. All we have is what he was doing at home, headphones on and speaking directly into the camera like he’s hosting the most entertaining Zoom meeting in history. He is occasionally interrupted by his ringing phone (“Hi! I need to call you back because I’m doing a special on TV!”) and his own barking dog. He handles the dog heckling very well. “The thing is, you have to be ready,” he says as he resumes his material without missing a beat. “You have to be ready for whatever this world throws at you.”
Macdonald certainly was, as the existence of this last letter makes clear. It’s a great shame he was never able to perform these jokes in front of an audience as intended, but what’s remarkable is that it’s still so polished. Early on, Macdonald reacts with mock outrage, having led his viewers to an offensive punch line and then rebuked them for what they were thinking. It’s just one example of the deep, if sometimes distorted, morality at work in his work. Another comes with the observation that as a self-proclaimed “degenerate gambler,” he preferred losing money in Native American casinos to Las Vegas because he saw it as a form of redemption.
Macdonald had the ability to pick up even the most trite of stand-up subjects; Flying is scary, taxi drivers are racists and then lead them to digressions that make them seem entirely new. The plane footage allows him to approach the subject of his own impending mortality without ever letting it weigh him down. “Ashes to ashes, matter to matter, as Scripture says,” he jokes about his fear of dematerializing in a plane crash. He later jokes that he doesn’t have enough time to read political manifestos anymore because he still has half a box of legal dramas from the ’80s Matlock get through “You only have so much time,” he says, the meaning of his words shining in his eyes. “You have to make a choice.”
Macdonald was one of the greatest comedians who ever lived, and even here, with no theater audience, it’s always obvious that you’re watching a master at work. In this format, his face is the only stage he has left, and yet he delivers, his expression changing over time from uncle to comic book. His use of words is almost poetic – a mention of “guts” has crossed my mind since I first heard it.
Aside from being a technically great set, Nothing special is a deeply profound and human hour of comedy. Towards the end of the set, Macdonald meanders from an obscenely dirty joke to a sincere expression of love for his 84-year-old mother. There’s a sweetness about him that offsets his bitter wit. In the middle, Macdonald talks about how you’re happiest when you wake up before “your life falls in and comes over you like a spider’s web”. Then he brings his face close to the camera and asks, “Do you sometimes go in the mirror and just look at yourself? I’m not talking physical, I’m talking eye to eye?” Norm Macdonald did just that. Even though he knew the end was near, he looked himself straight in the eye and decided he could only go out with a killer punch line.
Nothing Special is on Netflix now
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/norm-macdonald-nothing-special-netflix-review-b2091348.html Norm Macdonald’s posthumous Netflix show Nothing Special is the complete opposite