The death of Norm Macdonald last year came as a shock to almost everybody but him. The stand-up and former Saturday Night Live cast member died from acute leukemia in September 2021, but had been diagnosed nine years prior and made the decision to keep the information from anyone but close friends and family. During that time the comedian enjoyed a career resurgence, releasing a Netflix special, Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & 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 hit in 2020, and prior to undergoing a medical procedure decided to tape the material himself because, as he told those close to him, he “didn’t want to leave anything on the table in case things went south.”
Although the operation itself was a success, Macdonald died before he was able to record the show in front of an audience. All we have, then, is what he made at home, headphones on and speaking directly to the camera, as if calling in to history’s most entertaining Zoom meeting. On occasion he’s interrupted by his ringing phone (“Hello! I’ve got to phone you back on account of I’m doing a special on the TV!”) and his own barking dog. He handles the canine heckler superbly. “The thing is, you’ve got to be ready,” he says as he resumes his material without missing a beat. “You’ve got to be ready for anything this world throws at you.”
Macdonald certainly was, as the existence of this final missive makes clear. It’s a desperate shame he never got to perform these jokes in front of an audience as was intended, but what’s remarkable is that it’s still so polished. Early on Macdonald responds with mock outrage after he leads his viewers towards an offensive punchline and then reprimands them for what they’re thinking. It’s just one example of the deep, if sometimes warped, morality at play in his work. Another comes with an observation that as a self-described “degenerate gambler” he preferred to lose money at Native American casinos rather than in Las Vegas because he considered it a form of reparations.
Macdonald had an ability to pick up even the most hackneyed of stand-up topics; flying is scary, taxi drivers are racist, and then take them off on digressions that make them seem utterly novel. The plane material allows him to approach the topic of his own impending mortality without ever getting weighed down by it. “Ashes to ashes, stuff to stuff, as the scripture says,” he jokes about his fear of dematerialising in an airline crash. Later on he makes a crack about not having enough time left to read political manifestos because he’s still got half a boxset of Eighties legal drama Matlock to get through. “You’ve only got so much time,” he says, the significance of his words shining in his eyes. “You’ve got to choose.”
Macdonald was one of the greatest comedians who ever lived, and even here, robbed of a theatre audience, it’s always apparent you’re watching a master at work. In this format his face is the only stage left to him and yet he still delivers, his expression morphing from avuncular to cartoonish as he goes. His use of words is downright poetic – a mention of “viscera” has rung in my brain since I first heard it.
Beyond being a technically magnificent set, Nothing Special is a deeply profound and humane hour of comedy. Towards the end of the set, Macdonald winds his way from an obscenely dirty joke to incorporate a sincere expression of love for his 84-year-old mother. There is a sweetness to him that counterbalances his acerbic wit. Midway through, Macdonald talks about being happiest when waking up, before “your life comes in and gets over you like a cobweb”. Then he brings his face close to the camera and asks: “Do you ever go into the mirror and just look at yourself? I’m not talking about physically, but just eye to eye?” Norm Macdonald did just that. Even knowing that the end was near, he looked himself clear in the eye and decided the only way he was going out was with a killer punchline.
Nothing Special is on Netflix now