Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special Review

Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special is now streaming on Netflix.

Part eulogy, part COVID-era video event, Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special is a gift left behind by the absurdist stand-up virtuoso — who died of cancer in September 2021 — followed by a half-hour discussion by a group of comedians who considered him a friend. It’s as wryly funny as any of Macdonald’s most memorable bits, only it arrives with an added melancholy: it was filmed in early 2020, right before the legendary comedian was set to undergo a complicated procedure. He would live for another year and a half, but he seems to have intended for the special to be released after his impending passing, so it feels distinctly like the work of a man reckoning with his mortality. Of course, given his stature as a beloved (and in his own way, mysterious) performer, that reckoning comes wrapped in a nesting doll of hilarious non-sequiturs.

What Nothing Special inadvertently captures — in a way traditionally shot and edited specials may not have been able to — is Macdonald’s carefully crafted deadpan chaos. Shot in a single take (household interruptions and all), it plays out in the form of a wildly unstructured rant about dealing with a changing world. Only in true Macdonald fashion, his off-the-cuff musings disguise a lively game of punchline hopscotch, with details and stealth jokes returning, often subtly, several dozen minutes after they’ve surely been forgotten.

Netflix Spotlight: May 2022

Delivered mostly to a webcam, and cutting away to a second angle only on occasion, the special is almost akin to a podcast appearance over Zoom, in which Macdonald (his enormous headphones balancing neatly on his baseball cap) is allowed to run wild for almost an hour. In that sense, it feels intimate, like a video message left to you personally from beyond the grave, in which otherwise light rambles about death and childhood are imbued, retrospectively, with a sense of gravity, now that we know more about the health issues he was dealing with at the time.

Even his closest friends had no idea until after he died. Six of them (David Letterman, Dave Chappelle, Molly Shannon, Conan O’Brien, Adam Sandler, and David Spade) even say as much when the special ends, and they sit around on couches trading stories about him while discussing his unpredictable style. All the while, the hat he wore in the video sits quietly on a shelf just over Chappelle’s shoulder; that it goes unremarked upon is fitting, since the comedians reveal that Macdonald wasn’t one for overt sentiment.

The routine itself may not be sentimental, but without an audience’s laughter to accentuate his pauses, Macdonald’s intentional, uncompromising rhythm soon begins to feel introspective. Many of his initial jokes deal with changing terminologies and a widening consciousness around gender and sexuality, and while Macdonald admits to being of a different generation, and a man who can’t possibly know it all, his punchlines all come from a place of attempting acceptance, and trying to understand as much as he can before the end. He was rarely a performer who punched down — then again, it was never easy to get a read on which direction, if any, he was punching in the first place, given his mischievous cadence and the dozen or so layers of irony in which he shrouded every statement. In the special’s post-script, even his pals approach him as a lovable mystery, though not one without his own demons.

The Norm Macdonald character is a delight unto itself, and getting to spend a final hour with him is worth it.

You get what you get with a Macdonald stand-up; not every joke lands, but he was a performer who reveled so much in his own comedy, even the duds, that beyond a point his routines were less about the words themselves, and more about the witty delivery. The Norm Macdonald character — whose comforting, old-world radio presenter cadence seems to exist out of time — is a delight unto itself, and getting to spend a final hour with him is worth it, even if you end up not laughing at all. Then again, that’s an unlikely outcome, since he was one of the very best.

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