If you were paying the least possible amount of attention in the 1990s, Norm MacDonald was just Weekend Update’s driest, oddest host, and the guy from the not-as-good-as-you-wish-it-was movie Dirty Work and the short-lived ABC sitcom The Norm Show. He was an unassuming fact of life on network TV–albeit one who did get to roast Clinton–rather than a unique comic hero. But the advent of YouTube has allowed fans to easily access the work Norm did–often in disparate, sometimes-obscure appearances across television, awards shows, and radio–as a discrete lexicon, giving a different picture of his artistry. Points in the constellation include his litany of wholesome anti-jokes in Bob Saget’s Comedy Central roast, his “Dirty Johnny” shaggy-dog joke on Howard Stern, his oblique tales of moths and frog getting bank loans often told to late-night hosts, or that time he rounded off a crowd work section during an ESPYs routine by roping Charles Woodson into a devastating O.J. joke.
Moments like these are the best proof that Norm is a a lot more crafty and iconoclastic as a comedian, thanks to his self-parodic delivery and dopey-shrewd perspective, than he’s ever gotten enough credit for outside the ranks of the comedy world. There’s no one I’m happier about getting to take some of the ludicrous piles of money Netflix is putting into their new standup initiative than Norm, whose new special Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery premiered on Tuesday. Even with a reasonable cult of late-millennial and early-middle-aged fans, he remains undersung, and nearly 20 years after his proper heyday, his work never fails to satisfy. Most recently, his Norm MacDonald Live channel has been a consistent source of edification, as have his almost-daily, straight-faced live tweets of entire sports games on what, in his special, he calls his “magic phone” (check out his coverage of the Pens-Caps game last night.)
Norm doesn’t refer to this eccentric, almost obsessive practice in his discussion of “magic phones” in Hitler’s Dog; he’s never so directly personal in the special. In an interview with Vulture promoting the memoir he published last year, Norm expressed his disdain for comedy of the overly personal or topical varieties. “Confessional is bragging. That’s all it is,” he clarified. “Social commentary — I don’t know. Have you tried watching Murphy Brown lately? Those Dan Quayle jokes…” In Hitler’s Dog, Norm (or the standup version of Norm) justifies these preferences another way, while declaiming his source of discomfort at hip get-togethers: “Here’s the problem–I have no opinions!” The ability to not to have opinions is a luxury, to be sure, but it’s not a source of pride for Norm. He chalks it up to not being smart enough–knowing that the world is going bad but not being able to count all the ways, or access them emotionally. He admits he can’t conceptualize things like North Korea as threats to his safety, asking the audience to earnestly imagine themselves waking up in a cold sweat thinking about a “tiny country way the fuck over somewhere.”
In Norm’s self-effacing comedy, it is way too easy to poke comedic holes in any expression of-the-moment outrage, especially his own. Adopting a “gotta hear both sides” approach, too, is just as absurd. Norm parodies this after acknowledging the problems with “raining in the forest”: “I know science, and I would not be surprised if, years from now, scientists said ‘Goddamn, it’s a good thing we burned down that motherfucking rainforest. Turned out that’s where all the spiders and snakes lived and shit.’”
By avoiding the horrifying particularities of the current moment, Norm manages to get access something definitively universal, and unexpectedly poignant. Norm peels off various layers of surface-level cynicality to reach the core of the special, comprised of anecdotes full of pathos and cosmic reflection. The direst image is of Six Million Dollar Man TV star Lee Majors, elderly, getting a phone call about doing a hearing aid commercial for a paltry sum. It ends with his final declaration to his agent: “Is there any way you could put into the contract that I’m sad?” It’s a snapshot of a supremely confused, tired, and dissatisfied human being–the kind of person, Norm argues, that so many people end up being late in life.
Norm structures his special around pathetic figures like this, at various stages of life: the astronaut who tags along for the moon voyage without being able to leave the ship, the well-liked guy who embarrassingly expires during autoerotic asphyxiation, the deficient and miserable elementary school student staring out of his classroom window dreaming of nothing but playing with a big stick. He positions these examples as intuitive choices with his casual pivots, but of course, they’re peculiar enough to be very singularly Norm’s.
Eventually, he guides us toward a potentially cheerier metaphor: an image of the unconditional love of a dog. But he frames it in the most incendiary possible way: His owner, and the source of all his joy, is Adolf Hitler. The good creature only knows his supremely evil owner as the greatest thing going, and can never understand it any other way. It’s a bittersweet, stymying, paradox–for Norm, the perfect representation of the limitations of our own perspectives and understanding.
Throughout the special, Norm reminds that he’s “old.” He paints a picture of himself as out-of-touch, easily amazed by dumb things, and not smart enough to wrap his head around the manifold ways the world is going to shit. But behind the banalities that his painstakingly crafted comedy focuses on, there is plenty of deep, lived-in insight that few other, more “relevant” comics take the time to hone in on. Norm’s motto in Hitler’s Dog isn’t outright articulated, but it’s certainly felt by the end of the hour: The best thing we can do in the midst of worldwide fear mongering, societal and cultural erosion, and so many other forms of cosmic bullshit is try to be the best version of ourselves, even if we fail at it most of the time.