We were never meant to see the Norm Macdonald posthumous special which landed on Netflix this Memorial Day, eight months after the comedian premature death from a very private battle with cancer.
In Nothing in particular, which was filmed without an audience in the summer of 2020, Macdonald looks skinnier than he has in recent years. He wears headphones and holds a handheld microphone in a nondescript room as he delivers his unfinished material in one long take.
The jokes are punctuated with the occasional yelp from an off-screen dog. When his cell phone rings halfway through, he picks up. “I have to call you back because I’m doing a special,” he said into the phone with a smirk on his face.
Behind the camera is Macdonald’s longtime producing partner, Lori Jo Hoekstra, who was among the very few people in his life to know he was dying.
“Norm worked so hard on a new hour of material and wanted it to be seen,” Hoekstra said in a statement about the project. “While this version of Nothing in particular was not originally meant to be the final product, COVID restrictions prevented it from filming in front of an audience. We want to make sure his fans see this very funny hour. He left this gift to all of us.
The hour is sometimes very funny, and also much less refined than it would have been if Macdonald had had the chance to work it out entirely in front of the public, then record it in a suitable place. But the unusual format gives us a glimpse of both his process as an actor and his state of mind towards the end of his life.
There is surprisingly progressive information about reparations for Native Americans and even the #MeToo movement, especially given the allegations that surfaced after his death— and long digressions on topics like cannibalism that few other comics could pull off. But there’s also a section early on that pokes fun at the idea of being trans and is sure to alienate some fans in in the same way as Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais have has sparked controversy on Netflix in recent months.
This joke, a version of which was also on Macdonald’s set when I saw him perform at the New York Comedy Festival in the fall of 2019, centers on how his father’s outdated views on gender would be viewed today. today. He sarcastically says he’s only trying to show how “obnoxious we were back then.” Noting that his father did “good things” like fighting Hitler in World War II, he says he also had an “evil side”, which he describes as “this crazy idea he had that having a dick had something to do with being a boy”. .”
“Nowadays, we can’t even understand that kind of thinking,” he deadpans. “But people used to think that way. Isn’t that something? »
From its beginnings as Anchor “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night LiveMacdonald was always more interested in shocking viewers with his unexpected punchlines on current issues than he was sharing intimate details about himself, so much so that he wrote an entire “memoir” titled Based on a true story composed of false anecdotes about his life. Here, he includes jokes about an imaginary wife named “Ruth” and tackles hot topics like “systematic racism,” as he puts it, while poking fun at the very idea that anyone should turn to comedians for Political Views.
“When you’re a comedian, they expect you to know things,” he says, a relatively recent phenomenon he experienced when investigators…like this one— began asking him to weigh in on politics during the Trump era. He explains that he prefers not to pay close attention to politics “because you only have one life”.
Macdonald begins to confront his own mortality, however, when he says he stopped “painting” his hair black because he doesn’t want to “die and be surprised.” He acts out a scenario where God says to him, “I mean, I made your hair white, what did you think it was?” I was telling you to get your affairs in order, for God’s sake.
He describes himself as a Christian, but says one of his “biggest fears” is that he “chosen the wrong religion”. Macdonald imagines himself dying, going to the afterlife and saying, “Ahh, it’s you! I thought it was the other guy. I should have killed apostates all the time. Oh well, what are you going to do?”
Towards the end of the set, Macdonald worries about making the special too “depressing” before moving on to elements of what it’s like to write a “living will” and a handful of extremely dark jokes about life. his own family’s eagerness to pull the plug if he ever finds himself in a coma, without ever directly acknowledging his cancer.
In the end, he ends with a surprisingly sweet joke about his mother Ferne, who survived her son and was with him in his final moments. Yet it ends with the punchline, “I don’t want to suck her tits!”
Once the screen goes black, viewers are treated to an immediate reaction from six of Macdonald’s closest friends and admirers who gathered to watch the special earlier this month: David Letterman, Dave Chappelle, Molly Shannon, Conan O’Brien, Adam Sandler, and David Spade.