That pure comedic distillation was something he tried to do on “Weekend Update,” where his deadpan delivery baffled as many people as it bewitched; it’s something he’s doing even when he reads trite one-liners from a notecard at a Bob Saget roast. In the Times profile, Jerry Seinfeld describes Macdonald’s approach as “sophisticated dumbness,” a performance that presents as basic, but then occasionally grants the audience a hint that there’s something deeper going on.
There’s perhaps no better example of this than his moth joke on Conan O’Brien’s show, a long and shaggy yarn with a zingy ending that simultaneously displays what a good actor Macdonald can be and how precise his grasp of craft is. He’s showing the audience just how powerful a properly deployed punch line can be, even if the other rules of joke telling are stripped away. That’s something that contemporary comedians such as Hannah Gadsby, whose Nanette has become a sight-unseen bête noire to more old-school comics like Macdonald, are doing too—just for different reasons.
Macdonald touched on Gadsby in a dispiriting interview with The Hollywood Reporter that has drawn negative attention. On the press tour for his new show, Macdonald expressed his dismay at recent troubles faced by two of his oldest friends in the business—Louis C.K., who wrote the foreword to his autobiography, and Roseanne Barr, who gave Macdonald his first writing job, on Roseanne in 1992. After years of denial, C.K. admitted that he was guilty of sexual harassment and misconduct last November; Barr saw the revival of Roseanne canceled in May after sending a nakedly racist tweet about the former Barack Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. “There are very few people that have gone through what they have, losing everything in a day. Of course, people will go, ‘What about the victims?’ But you know what? The victims didn’t have to go through that,” he mused.
It was a statement that didn’t stand up to the remotest scrutiny, and Macdonald quickly, if awkwardly, walked it back. It did, however, lay bare the strange lack of empathy for the victimized that has occasionally reared its head in the comedy world as it reckons with the actions of comedians such as C.K. and Barr. Macdonald, like so many comedians, is aware of how crucial being in front of an audience is to their way of life. But in emphasizing that, he’s de-emphasizing the genuine pain caused by C.K.’s and Barr’s misconduct.
An even stranger part of that interview, arguably, is Macdonald’s hostility to topical humor, given his rise to fame on “Weekend Update.” In explaining the premise of his new show, Macdonald decries the Daily Show–inspired trend of all late-night comedy becoming political, sticking up for the less trenchant work of Jimmy Fallon: “He is just all about fun and silliness. That’s what his audience wants.” (Fallon’s ratings have actually fallen behind those of his more topical rival Stephen Colbert since Donald Trump’s election.) Meanwhile, he dismisses Gadsby’s smash hit special, Nanette, a confrontational performance piece that digs into the cruel power of joke writing and the ways in which male artists have for centuries defined the cultural conversation so much that their bad behavior is celebrated rather than criticized.