Macdonald in Nothing Special.
Norm Macdonald’s final comedy special, released posthumously on Netflix, is an exercise in feeling your way through opposing tensions. Filmed at home in the summer of 2020 as Macdonald was undergoing cancer treatment, Nothing Special carries the huge weight of being a prolific, influential, beloved comedian’s final work, a last special viewed only after his death. The presentation of it underscores that monumentality. Filmed before Macdonald was about to undergo a medical procedure and meant as a record in case he could not perform the special in front of a crowd, Nothing Special is laden with the awareness of why exactly it exists in this form. After roughly an hour of material by Macdonald, sitting at a desk and staring into a camera, the Netflix special continues with a roundtable discussion from several comedians who’d worked with Macdonald and knew him well (David Spade, Adam Sandler, Conan O ‘ Brien, Molly Shannon, Dave Chappelle, and David Letterman). They speak about him warmly; they talk about what kind of a person he was, what it was like to be around him. At times, they attempt to discuss the special as a special, but it’s very hard when everyone wants it to be a wake.
On one side, there’s the heaviness of Macdonald’s death and his memory. On the other side is the special itself, which is not quite ephemeral, but it’s close. It’s thin. Some portions are striking and fun, some feel like incomplete approaches to an idea that’s not fully there yet, some are simply overworn premises without enough oomph to distinguish them. The chief tension is between the gravity of the circumstances and the slightness of the special itself. Perhaps, for many viewers, the emotional context will fill in some places the special leaves blank, shoring up its weaker moments. More likely, the special collapses under the weight of Macdonald’s death, and the hour becomes a placeholder, a space to discuss and remember his legacy.
It’s not as though the special is atypical of Macdonald’s earlier work. Many of his favorite and most distinctive devices are there: his propensity to mispronounce words; his long pauses; his fondness for entirely fabricated premises; and his ability to set something up, wind away through several tangents, then return with a punch line that surprises you. It feels like a special Norm Macdonald, with all the delight and baggage that carries with it. There’s a long section on Down syndrome that I suspect Macdonald was working toward making stronger and more biting than it is, but at this point, he can’t quite find the subversive, disarming inversion of expectations that would make it really surprising. He has material on reparations and Me Too and a section of fat jokes. All of them reach for that twinkling Macdonald pleasure of setting up an audience to feel outrage, then happily hoisting them on the firecracker of their expectations. Few of them quite get there, and in some (the fat jokes particularly), it’s tough to see how they ever could’ve. There are stronger sections as well, including a fun bit about slut shaming and a closing joke that begins with Macdonald drinking a glass of milk and ends with a statement about his mother. He is also preoccupied with jokes about mortality, all of which have a pall that is hard to tease apart from the special’s circumstances.
For all the unhelpful tension between Nothing Special‘s sad context and its comparative flimsiness, there’s a fascinating, richer tension here, too. Macdonald has a perpetual impulse to make things up. He invents a wife named Ruth for the sake of a few throwaway lines. Most of the joke premises are whole-cloth imaginative creations, likely including his several childhood friends and any details about his past. It’s funny and moving to watch the comedians in the roundtable stumble over that element of Macdonald’s work. Did any of them know he had been ill? they ask each other. How much did he ever really say about himself? Did anyone else have the experience of reading his autobiography and then discovering it was entirely fictional? He has always done this; his slippery relationship with truth has been hilarious and likely frustrating for people who want to know him, to understand him.
Here he is, in what would be his final special, once again telling jokes that have no bearing on the facts of his life. He spends time talking about emergency-exit rows in airplanes, surely one of the hoariest joke setups around, rather than giving a single second to what’s been happening with his health. And yet at the same time, there are jokes about how most of us will end up one day being plugged into a wall with our families asked to make decisions about when to unplug us. In the middle of that section about mother’s milk, there is one moment when Macdonald describes how much he loves his mother, and it is breathtakingly sincere. It is a special that adamantly refuses to say anything of depth about Macdonald’s life or comic sensibility except for all the places where it’s right there on the surface.
The most frustrating tension is the one between what the special should’ve been in order to best serve Macdonald and what it had to be in order to exist at all. Macdonald was not well, and this was filmed at a time when almost no comedians were performing in person. Staring at a computer screen, interrupted by a barking dog and a phone call, is a Macdonald special born of necessity. Letterman gives an unhelpfully circumscribed definition of what stand-up must be in the closing-discussion portion, saying, “It’s not, strictly speaking, stand-up; it’s something else, ”because Macdonald performs without an audience. That definition is far too limiting, but Letterman is right that as a comedian, Macdonald’s voice and performance are not well served by being presented this way. There is a push and pull with what audiences will accept that’s always been key to the way Macdonald deploys comedy, and without that presence, his material feels emptier. Chappelle, focused on the same question, tries to insist that Macdonald’s timing works regardless, comparing it to a great jazz drummer. But in both cases, what Letterman and Chappelle are registering is a gap, the space Macdonald is trying to create for where an audience would be. We can applaud him for his ability to define that space, but the result still feels like emptiness.
Nothing Special is not the best of Norm Macdonald, and yes, the special itself is inextricable from the pressure of its surrounding conditions. It does not stand well on its own. But in the same way Macdonald leaves space for an audience who isn’t there, the indistinctness of Nothing Special does create an opportunity to remember him. Like the comedians gathered at the end, it’s an invitation. We can point to all the frustrations and inconsistencies and flaws, and we can also celebrate the things that made him such a singular, astonishing comic.