During the summer of 2020, when most of the world was shut down over Covid-19, Norm Macdonald was scheduled to undergo a procedure related to the leukemia that would ultimately kill him. The comedian “didn’t want to leave anything on the table in case things went south,” so he shot a special in his house, seated, with no audience. The result is brutal, brilliant, and hilarious.
The original intention was to re-film the set with an audience once the world opened back up, but the comedian never got that chance. Instead, we’re treated to a unique performance from a dying man, dispensing wisdom through jokes. The performance takes place at the bottom of a stairwell in his house. A yappy dog heckles him briefly at one point and causes him to restart the joke he was telling; his cell phone rings at another.
He meanders around, pretending to have forgotten the point he was trying to make. The color yellow appears repeatedly. He leans into his trademark mispronunciation of words. He even offers eye contact and nods to the nonexistent crowd.
But he’s not just telling jokes, he’s trying to do his part to heal a broken world, knowing it’s likely his last time to do so. He’s using humor to remind us of our own humanity, to bring people together, which was especially visionary considering the fear of each other that was so prevalent when he filmed it.
Macdonald is also offering his goodbyes. In the closing portion, he expresses his limitless love for his selfless mother and celebrates her sacrifices. I’ll avoid spoilers, but Macdonald’s love for her is evident. Leaving nothing on the table, he finishes his last show ever discussing her, closing out his career with a tribute to her, almost coming to tears at one point, although it ends with a crude joke.
Macdonald, who hid his illness, was obviously dealing with his own mortality during the performance, but he was also doing something more. He was playing the part of a philosopher.
As he jokes at one point in “Nothing Special,” “I hear people say, ‘The comedian is the modern-day philosopher.’ First of all, it makes me feel sad for the actual modern-day philosophers, who exist, you know. They’re working, trying to come up with their philosophy, you know, and they go, did you hear this? The nightclub comic is doing great work on totaligism.”
While he wasn’t elucidating upon totaligism, or any other fake -isms, the special does, as Matt Mehan wrote on Twitter, offer a brutal indictment of “modern ideological immorality.” Mehan, director of academic programs and professor of government at Hillsdale’s D.C. campus, also offered me this comment: “He is reaching out to a fallen people, with a humor designed to free them from their worst habits and opinions, under the guise of admittedly crude stand up.”
And it is crude. The language is salty, and many of the jokes are dirty. During the process, though, Norm hints at the cruelty of aborting children with Down syndrome, pointing out that their only crime is being extremely happy. He discusses the problems surrounding living wills and euthanasia.
Norm wasn’t afraid to openly profess his Christianity. That faith, which obviously influenced the entire set and much of his comedy in general, opens people to his message. Norm spoke the truth in love.
Not that the lack of a live audience, with potential converts sitting in the chairs, changes his style. Just as he did on stage, in “Nothing Special,” he refuses to flinch. As Anthony Jeselnik said when asked what he learned from Macdonald, “Believe in your joke. And if the audience doesn’t get it, you still need to believe in it … You don’t want to be a crowd-pleaser. You want to be a great comedian.”
In the reaction to the special from David Letterman, Dave Chappelle, Molly Shannon, Conan O’Brien, Adam Sandler, and David Spade, a story came up in which Macdonald told a group of comedians he was the best amongst them. None of those present could argue with that assessment.
When Macdonald passed away, the world lost a great comedian. Were he looking over my shoulder right now, he might even instruct me to call him the greatest. Given that one of his last acts was to leave a brilliant gift for us to enjoy now that he’s gone, I wouldn’t disagree. For while all comedy has the potential to be transformative, Norm’s vision was to transform us in ways that allow us to become better, more connected, more faithful people.
He invited us to believe, even if popular sentiment wasn’t on his side. With “Nothing Special,” he still invites us to do so. Norm wants us to have faith, to believe in God, in ourselves, in us, in the goodness all people have the power to try to capture, even as we mostly fail. May we all be so unflinching, regardless of how the audience responds.