Did I miss something? After Norm MacDonald’s death this week, I kept reading about what a great comedian he was. I had never liked him much but I wanted to be fair: I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to him. Maybe I missed something.
Here’s one of his jokes. He tells us that during a medical examination of Arnold Schwarzenegger because of a faulty heart valve some of the doctors were concerned because they became turned on during a routine examination.
That’s it. That’s the punch line. The audience, on SNL (which is live) didn’t laugh much either.
He also joked about a custody battle between a mother and her ex-husband who was transgender. It was witless, crude, and dismissive. It was the kind of joke back-slapping conservative males made and enjoyed at the time. [Well, well: I now read that Macdonald was a Christian. It’s possible to be politically progressive and Christian, but clearly Macdonald was your standard, off-the-shelf conservative hypocrite, mocking feminists, poor people, and gays, perhaps with slightly more subtlety than Dennis Miller, while nursing a gambling addiction.]
Again, in front of a picture of Bill and Hilary Clinton: “here’s a picture of the first bitch”. No joke– just calling Hilary Clinton a bitch. In another segment, he calls her a liar. Again, no joke– just calling her a liar. On an episode of “The View” he accused Bill Clinton of being a murderer.
A lot of Beatles paraphernalia was up for sale, including a “rare” photo of George Harrison not looking haggard. Huh.
Two homeless people got married at a homeless shelter. If you want to buy them a gift, they are “registered” at a recycling center. Huh again.
I’m told his “off the cuff” comments on carrot-top were hilarious. I’ve watched the clip. I’m open-minded: maybe there is some reference there that is hilarious, and I missed it.
Same with a cooking demonstration on Conan O’Brien’s show with Gordon Ramsay. We’re supposed to find his inability to follow instructions– like a drunk, really– hilarious. The biggest laugh was his use of an obscenity, which the audience laughed at because they knew it would be beeped out. It was all lame, tedious, witless, and boring. Conan must have loved him– that lame segment should never have seen the editing suite.
Paul McCartney is going to host an online chat. Already, 2.5 million calls have come in from people hoping to chat. But 2 million of them are from Ringo. That one is not even a little funny.
How about this: Donald Trump decided to divorce Marla Maples because she violated the pre-nuptial agreement by turning 30. Sophomoric.
Washington D.C. mayor is not interested in polls, or anything that isn’t crack. Again, very sophomoric.
A joke, in bad taste, about Reagan being allowed to still think he owns the ranch he sold to the U.S. government. Maybe Norm didn’t know Reagan had Alzheimer’s.
He mocks women for their looks. He mocks Ellen DeGeneres for wanting to have a baby, because she and her partner are both women. Yeah, they are. Did someone miss something here? This might have been funny had it not already occurred to every single person in the audience.
More women would vote if you could bake your vote. I’m not making that one up– yes, he thought that was funny. Yes, he read it on Weekend Update. No, the audience didn’t find it funny either.
When a joke failed– which was often– he would ramble on aimlessly about how that one didn’t work, which is not even funny once, or make a banal comment like “what a world we live in” as if he discovered something that was not already obvious to everyone. Or, fatally, he would try to explain why the joke was actually funny even though the audience didn’t laugh. That’s not a secret: Macdonald’s approach to comedy was to try to make a virtue of knowing that the joke wasn’t funny. Like Red Skeleton. He and some others thought it was very appealing in, I suppose, a kind frat-boy mode.
I think it’s an attempt to explain why someone who checks him out because you said he was great might be disappointed: because you don’t get it, see? He doesn’t care if you don’t think he’s funny. Really?
After joking about Rikki Lake having to get rid of a dog by eating it because it was aggressive with her young child, he compounds the lukewarm audience reception with “she ate a whole dog”, which torpedoes the wit factor of any joke.
Those are neither the least nor most funny of a bunch. A joke about Richard Gere and a gerbil is worse than tasteless.
A lot of his humor is based on the “everyday man” school of comedy, which holds that anything sophisticated or complex should be mocked because if I don’t understand it, it can’t be true or valid. Gay marriage. Transgender surgery. George Harrison frowning in a picture. And why can’t I make fun of obese talk show hosts? Well, you can– but making jokes about their obesity really isn’t all that funny anyway. Calling Bill Clinton a murderer with a tone of “everybody knows it, right?” isn’t even witty. If there’s a joke about someone involved in the Clinton scandals– and there are lots– tell it. But Macdonald didn’t have that kind of Carlinesque skill.
Macdonald did not graduate high school and he has the tone of someone who loves to get digs in on those people who think they are smarter than you simply because they are smarter than you and got educated and understand something about finance and trade and economics and medicine and music and history– those snobs.
He defended Louis C.K. after he was blacklisted for some relatively mild allegations of inappropriate behavior– a position I agree with. But he also defended Roseanne Barr after she made several tasteless, racist tweets.
Well, gosh, so did Donald Trump.
Jokes about Oprah Winfrey’s husband writing a book on how to be a success (Macdonald quips, “marry Oprah Winfrey”), are okay. A genuine joke: congratulations, Norm Macdonald. Use this one as a model for humour. And ironic insight. A smart perception. A revelatory twist. Go for it.
That’s it for Norm Macdonald. Some okay jokes. Someone who must have been quite likeable in person– he has lots of defenders, including Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien.
That doesn’t make him funny. And it doesn’t diminish the ugliness of character that keeps leaking into his “wit”.