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Norm MacDonald Refuses to Be Relevant

We talk to the veteran comedian about his hilarious and impressively non-Trumpy new Netflix special.

by Dan Ozzi
Jun 5 2017, 3:59pm

Ever since Jerry Seinfeld asked what the deeeeal was with airline peanuts, airports have been a clichéd setting in stand-up comedy. And yet: that's where Norm MacDonald's act winds up in his recent Netflix special Hitler's Dog, Gossip & Trickery. But in true Norm fashion, the joke is anything but cliché. "I was in the airport and a guy asked for my ID," he begins. "And it occurred to me that 'ID' is a strange abbreviation, because 'I' is short for 'I,' and then 'D'..." he takes a strategic pause, even though the entire room knows what's coming, "...is short for 'Dentification.'" The audience burst out laughing at the pure simplicity of it, even before he fully delivered the punchline.

"I remember Sam Kinison, when I first started doing stand-up, he told me, 'You can do anything you want,'" MacDonald tells me over the phone. "It was so simple of a thing to say, which I didn't realize at the time because I was so stupid and I was always trying to do jokes for an agenda of some sort, either to get on TV or to be a crazy, I'll-say-anything guy. But from then on, whenever I thought of something that interested me, I would try to work that into my act."

That's just what Hitler's Dog is—a random assortment of things that interest Norm MacDonald, and politics isn't one of them. In 2017, that's a bold move. "I just got sick of politics a few months ago," MacDonald says. "I was getting really into it. I was watching Morning Joe and Tucker Carlson and Samantha Bee and all these people. And then I thought, eh, this is so boring. Am I only allowed to think about one thing in life now?"

The country has grown darker and more cynical since last year's presidential election, and comedy has followed suit. There is no shortage of comedians on late-night TV, the internet, and podcasts using Trump like a punching bag, each trying to make jokes out of a daily news cycle that is often too surreal to satirize.

Yet, right when political humour could be ripe for the plucking by the right person, the 57-year-old MacDonald—who once made a living by cracking jokes about the week's news as the scrawny, smartass anchor of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update—spends the entirety of his hour-long special avoiding anything that could be remotely deemed as topical. Instead of beating up on Trump, a president who would've once served as an endless fountain of writers' room gold for him in the 90s, MacDonald delivers a bit about President Abraham Lincoln and his failure to get "score" to catch on as a popular measurement of time. So, is making Trump jokes low-hanging fruit?

"It's pretty fucking easy, man," MacDonald says. "And then it's not even politics anymore. I don't think people are actually interested in politics in any way, shape, or form. They always pretend they are. Like, they say, 'If only we could get back to the issues!' Well, whoever talked about issues? I never heard anyone in my life talk about issues. Like with Clinton, everybody could talk politics because then you could talk about getting blown."

MacDonald skirts current affairs left and right in Hitler's Dog, with routines about the 1969 moon landing, the shape of sandwiches, and The Six Million Dollar Man, a show that hasn't aired since 1978. In the rare instances when he riffs on modern conveniences like smartphones (which he calls "magic phones"), he does so with his trademark loveable Normian naivety. It isn't a dad joke, wherein we're meant to laugh at an out-of-touch old guy who doesn't understand technology: It's more of an alien joke, as if he was sent from Mars to observe humans and got everything half-right.

"I love Brian Regan and Jerry Seinfeld. They'll take little tiny mundane things and will get mad about them," MacDonald tells me. "The fact that these guys go to these great lengths getting worked up about something like a donut is funny to me—it's the opposite reaction of what it should be. But I thought: What if you thought about big, big issues, and you don't get worked up?"

Throughout Hitler's Dog, MacDonald pulls off what seems like an impossible feat in 2017: He takes the viewer completely out of the real world for 60 minutes to serve them some rare, well-deserved escapism. It's immensely refreshing to bask in the all-purpose, timeless genius of Norm MacDonald, a man who revels in Russian literature in his personal life yet portrays himself as a know-nothing bumpkin in his professional one. At a time when more people have more opinions than ever, he uses his coveted Netflix platform to say nothing at all—and MacDonald's comedic legacy will endure as a man who zagged whenever the world zigged.

The success of Hitler's Dog, MacDonald's first special since 2011's Me Doing Standup, is especially relieving given that the over-40 set of male comedians has not fared as well with their recent Netflix specials. Earlier this year, Dave Chappelle made his much-awaited return to the stand-up comedy special game with Deep in the Heart of Texas, positioning himself as an elder statesman lecturing a new generation about things like addressing transgender people by their preferred pronouns. Similarly, Louis C.K. tried to aw shucks his way through the issue on his Netflix special Louis C.K.: 2017. "I'd give a million dollars to wake up like, 'Oh, I'm an owl," he joked. Both came off like middle-aged men "going there" on touchy issues, falling flat by being behind in the cultural conversation.

Hitler's Dog, on the other hand, is wise enough to play to MacDonald's strengths, stripping comedy down to the bare essentials. "I wanted to avoid them," he says of hot-button issues. "I've talked to Louie about it. He and I were trying to do stuff that was kind of similar on child molesting. He did a monologue on SNL where he did it, and he got backlash. He doesn't care if he gets backlash or anything, but I thought it was real funny stuff. But I just worry about people hurting other people because of something I said. I don't want that to ever happen. I don't have anything that profound to say that would equal one person getting the shit kicked out of them."

Even MacDonald's physical presentation takes a minimalist approach. Not only does he refrain from pacing back and forth across the stage, gesticulating with the microphone as comedians often do, he doesn't take a single step in any direction. For the duration of the special, his feet remain planted as though his basketball sneakers (which nicely complement his navy suit) are nailed to the ground as he delivers joke after joke into a standing microphone, an approach he says he picked up from watching Bob Hope as a boy. For every single second of Hitler's Dog, the audience is focused directly on the man in the spotlight. No distractions, no excess, like nothing else in the world exists. For an hour, we all get to live in the mind of Norm MacDonald, and it's a lot better there.

Follow Dan Ozzi on Twitter.