Norm Macdonald’s Protective View of Comedy

The stand-up has waded into hot water with comments on Louis C.K., Roseanne Barr, and Nanette, but what’s most frustrating is his seeming disinterest in the way joke telling is always changing.

Norm Macdonald performing in 2017.
Norm Macdonald performing in 2017. (Amy Harris / Invision / AP)

One of Norm Macdonald’s most famous comedy performances came at the Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget in 2008. Macdonald, probably best known for his dry, prickly demeanor as the host of Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” for three years, took the stage at an event known for cruel ribaldry and read a list of charmingly innocuous lines from an old book called Jokes for Retirement Parties. “Bob has a beautiful face, like a flower. Yeah, like a cauliflower!” Macdonald barked at the crowd, a blank grin on his face. It was a brilliant, form-busting piece of stand-up “anti-comedy” (a label Macdonald despises) that drew laughs because of how shockingly leaden and unfunny the material was.

Macdonald, like so many other comics, has never been afraid to mess with the typical formats of stand-up. That freewheeling spirit infected his talk show, Norm Macdonald Live, which he’s following with his upcoming Netflix series, Norm Macdonald Has a Show, debuting September 14. But he actively resists the label of “anti-comedy,” which is rooted in the hugely influential, brilliantly grating work of Andy Kaufman. In a recent New York Times profile, Macdonald expressed his adoration for pure joke telling, saying his approach to comedy was essentially striving to find the perfect punch line.

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.

“I have never seen the Nanette thing because I never wanted to comment on it,” Macdonald says. “But from what I have read about it, [Gadsby] is saying that comedy is now not about laughter. And of course that’s a slap in the face of a traditional stand-up comedian who thinks that comedy by dictionary definition is about laughter … Nanette doesn’t sound like stand-up to me. That sounds like a one-woman show.” Nanette is, of course, very funny and filled with one-liners. It’s also radically form breaking, demanding that its audience think about why it might laugh at a certain joke.

Nanette is perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum from Macdonald’s brand of humor, but it’s similarly idiosyncratic. The special is a piece of comedy about joke writing that upends the typical format of stand-up, but still provokes the same result: laughter. It’s an evolution in comedy that feels valuable, one that casts new shadows on what has come before. That’s something Macdonald—and many other unusual comedians like him—has always excelled at. When he reads off corny gags in a room that’s entirely unprepared for them, he too is drawing attention to the inherent ridiculousness of the stand-up format, even though his work is firmly apolitical and Gadsby’s is decidedly not.

It’s something I wish more comedians would understand as the #MeToo movement and other shifts in the broader landscape inflect pop culture—things may be changing, but change isn’t necessarily bad or frightening. Some jokes will go out of fashion or be deemed offensive, but that’s a long-standing pattern in pop culture; and there will never be such a thing as the perfect joke, certainly not one that can endure forever. And though the judgment of someone like Louis C.K.’s behavior might seem swift, he in fact hasn’t vanished from the face of the Earth: His legacy will likely be reckoned with for years to come, as the revelations of his misconduct help comedy fans consider the institutional forces that protected him for many years, and the way he used self-deprecating humor about his behavior as a smoke screen.

Macdonald has long been one of my favorite comedians because he’s so hard to pigeonhole. He’s a master of deadpan comedy, but with a flair for goofiness; he can craft a perfect insult, but rarely seems upset about anything; he’s a terrific actor, yet delivers almost every line in a relaxed monotone. That’s what makes his stated resistance to new, challenging, specific comedy work so discouraging. It gives the sense of a community that’s resistant to any kind of reckoning, even though the power of stand-up as a medium is its ability to ask difficult questions of its audience in a way that still entertains. Macdonald has never been afraid to try something avant-garde, and one hopes he can recognize the necessary ways in which the comedy community is evolving. Jokes will never go away—but the way we think about them will always change.