Norm Macdonald was the funniest comedian in his time among those who stayed out of political controversies. His specialty was pointing out how uncomfortable we are facing the reality of our human limits, moral and intellectual, as opposed to the fantasies we embrace eagerly in our flight from mortality. He was never far from the Pascalian insight that our boredom and restlessness begin in our lack of self-knowledge. Viewed from this philosophical height, earthborn affairs such as politics seem uninteresting or petty, pathologies rather than achievements. Norm mocked such preoccupations in his time at Saturday Night Live, then left that style of comedy behind when he got fired for making one-too-many jokes about O.J. Simpson, a friend of one of the network executives.
Norm died last fall and now Netflix has released his last recorded comedy show, Nothing Special, on which he’s credited as writer, performer, producer, and director. The show has two unusual features. First, it was recorded in his home, during a COVID lockdown, so it’s Norm talking into a microphone, headphones over his baseball cap, staring into a computer camera; you can barely tell he’s in a shirt and coat, as though ready to perform in a club. But instead of hecklers or a crowd, we merely see the ordinary interruptions of any life: a dog barking, a phone ringing. The effect is powerful—the man is dead, yet he speaks directly to us, considering his mortality from a number of points of view, wondering first whether necessity, rationally understood, leads us to monstrous acts, then whether morality makes for happiness. Altogether, it’s a humanist reflection.
And second, it comes with a coda, a conversation about his talent among his most famous comic friends. The editing cuts from his sign-off to a room where David Letterman, Dave Chappelle, Conan O’Brian, Molly Shannon, Adam Sandler, and David Spade are watching the show and then proceed to talk about their friendship with Norm. This is a fitting testimony to the man, since he kept his suffering private, and his many fans were stunned by the sudden loss, unprepared to remember Norm and grieve.
Norm concerned himself with the lows of ordinary life and, in order to get away with it, he acted the part of a foolish old man, lest he seem preachy or pretentious. He was too insightful to lead an ordinary life, and perhaps his terrible problems—gambling is the example he uses in the beginning of this special—come from a great dissatisfaction with what is available to artists in America. I wouldn’t be able to prove this to you; it’s just my guess about his artistic preferences and his unhappiness. I think he suffered at the loss of the moral virtues of the earlier republic and was philanthropic at heart, always wanting to help people, finding it very hard to reconcile himself to the madness of our times. We laugh at Norm often because we don’t get the point. He was a master of plain-spoken absurdity or, at any rate, obscure remarks that are at the same time obvious.
Perhaps Norm thought our ordinary lives really are both obviously insightful and endlessly obscure—we don’t quite know why we do what we do, whenever we stop to raise the question, and we don’t even know when or why we might stop to ask ourselves such a question. His comedy has the character of that confused exploration that is the beginning of self-knowledge, but at the same time a rejection of what we recognize as problematic in our lives. He knew better perhaps than other comedians that we are ashamed—both because we don’t understand ourselves and because we suspect that what we would understand with some effort is nothing to be proud of—so we laugh.
Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation. This is an extract from a blog post. read the full story here.