By JOHN SEMLEY
Special to The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Norm Macdonald doesn't want your applause.
"If someone applauds," explains the 58-year-old comedian, over the phone from New York, "they're not laughing."
And that's all Norm Macdonald wants. Laughs. That's probably a good thing. Because lately, nobody seems to be clapping.
This week, while promoting his new Netflix talk show, Norm Macdonald has a Show, Macdonald found himself in trouble after expressing support for his friends Roseanne Barr and Louis C.K., whose careers have been torpedoed following allegations of racism and sexual abuse (respectively). "There are very few people that have gone through what they have, losing everything in a day," Macdonald told The Hollywood Reporter. "Of course, people will go, 'What about the victims?' But you know what?
The victims didn't have to go through that." (These comments made headlines hours after The Globe and Mail spoke to Macdonald, meaning we couldn't confront him about them directly.)
There were calls to cancel his new show. A Tonight Show appearance was axed. Macdonald took to his Twitter account to clarify his words and stress that he did not intend to minimize "the pain their victims feel to this day." While flailing to further explain himself on The Howard Stern Show, Macdonald wedged his foot further in mouth, telling Stern that "you'd have to have Down syndrome" to not sympathize for victims of sexual assault.
The seemingly never-ending apology tour rolled on, with Macdonald hanging his head on The View to recant for his "Down syndrome" remark, calling it "unforgivable."
It's been uncharacteristic bit of drama for a generally quiet, humble-seeming comic who hates doing interviews and loves staying indoors to tweet about golf. It's also consistent with a long, varied career that vacillates between periods of brilliance, laziness, hyper-self-aware performance art, and straight-up self-sabotage.
The Canadian-born survivor of stand-up comedy clubs and Saturday Night Live has shambled through a streak of utterly unremarkable TV projects: the sitcoms Norm and A Minute with Stan Hooper, a nine-episode-long Comedy Central sports-news parody show, et cetera. Macdonald's stabs at feature films were always a bit uncomfortable, too. His character in the 1998 cult comedy Dirty Work, who runs a fly-bynight "revenge-for-hire" business, is attired in comically oversized clothing, a likely unintentional nod at how ill-fit Macdonald is to the business of comic acting. In the promotion of these projects over the years, however, Macdonald has netted cred as a superlative late-night talk-show guest.
Through his sit-downs with favourites David Letterman and Conan O'Brien, Macdonald nurtured a cult following turned on by his nonsequiturs, ambling shaggy-dog anecdotes and candid appraisals of his own career struggles.
Apart from stand-up comedy, which offers limited commercial horizons for someone who is of middling celebrity but considerable talent, the only format Macdonald ever felt suited to was late-night talk shows. In 2013, he launched Norm Macdonald Live, a YouTube series and podcast that would see Macdonald - flanked by his "trusty sidekick," comedy insider and frequent punching bag Adam Eget - engaging in long-form interviews with a wide range of celebrities, from Larry King to Mike Tyson to Caitlyn Jenner to Mike Tyson.
Norm Macdonald has a Show is a natural extension of Norm Macdonald Live. His new guests range from comics (Chevy Chase, David Spade, guru-buddy David Letterman) to Hollywood icons (Drew Barrymore, Jane Fonda, M. Night Shyamalan). He wants people who can get "granular," who don't talk down to the audience.
"Even though I'm an idiot," he confesses, with undue, if not altogether false, modesty, "I love hearing really high-level people talk with passion."
Norm Macdonald has a Show is less a conventional talk show than deconstruction of one: no live band, no studio audience (bursts of laughter come courtesy of the skeleton crew), no hacky, ripped-from-today's-headlines monologue. There is, of course, no lit-up sign begging for APPLAUSE.
"There's something about applause," Macdonald waxes, in the folksy-philosophical manner that has endeared him to fans. "It's a voluntary act. They're just agreeing with you, which I don't think is a good paradigm. Now, laughter is involuntary. You're forcing them to laugh."
Not everyone is laughing at Norm Macdonald.
During a 2015 headlining appearance at Toronto's Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Macdonald lost most of the audience. His show devolved into long-winded digressions and mutterings of, "Y'know? I dunno. Y'know?" At one point, he took a phone call on stage from his adult son. From the rafters, an aggravated audience implored him to be funnier.
To some, the performance was (like his new talk show) a deconstruction: a topsy-turvying of everything commonly associated with stand-up, a bit of so-called "anti-comedy." But, Macdonald insists, it was anything but.
"There comes a time in a show when it's lost," he says of the show. "The funny thing about stand-up is you can kill for a half an hour, 40 minutes. If you do badly for 10 minutes? You're dead. They never come back. But there are times when you can win them back. And I'm always trying to win them back. And I won't leave the stage until I win them back - and then they get even angrier!" For Macdonald, the relationship to the crowd is always hostile. He calls the audience "the enemy." The aim is not to antagonize the enemy, but to win them over. Still, he seems to find a weird, almost perverse thrill in alienating some of the crowd, in embracing the bomb.
"There's this out-of-body experience," he explains. "Chaos is going on around you. And it is entertaining in a way. Then you smirk, and then you're really in trouble because they think you're doing it on purpose. Of course you're not doing it on purpose! What makes you smirk is you're trying to do a good thing. I'm trying my best to make them laugh.
And if I fail they still hate my guts.
It's the weirdest thing. ... That's something special about comedy: When you fail, it's like you've done them wrong."
Lately, such failures aren't just bungled attempts to elicit sufficient laughs. They're moral failings. Macdonald is aware of the ways in which comedians are held to a certain standard and are expected to stand on the right side of history. "People will say, 'Well what about this rape joke?' " he says, of the types of comedy typically subject to intense scrutiny. "These are always the worst things you've ever heard. I'll defend a person's right to say whatever they want. But these jokes are terrible. They're awful. And I just can't imagine them ever getting laughs."
That doesn't mean he's insensitive, or hostile toward, the expectations placed on modern comics. In 2017, before his recent controversies, he was called out for making jokes some perceived as transphobic and proceeded to hew those jokes from his act, genuinely worrying that he might be causing harm to trans people.
"When it comes to touchy issues," Macdonald says, "it's fine to let the audience decide. People aren't evil. If the whole audience laughs, you can't indict a comedian, you have to indict all of society, which is what the audience represents. Or you accept it. I think an audience pretty well regulates what they like by their laughter."
The laugh is the thing, he believes, that stands the test of time.
Macdonald isn't some prophet, or truth-teller, or beacon of hope in consuming dark times. He has zero interest in curating the contemporary, hyper-topical, zeitgeist-seizing Netflix series we need right now.
"I don't want to timestamp it with anything political, any movement, anything that's going on right now," he says. "Not only do I not think that stuff is that funny, but I want the comedy to live forever. That'd be great."
Norm Macdonald has a Show is now streaming on Netflix.
David Letterman, left, and Adam Eget, right, appear with Norm Macdonald, centre, on his new Netflix show.