It’s hard to love the format in which Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special is conducted, but it’s so easy to be happy that it exists.
Imagine, if you will, a 60-year-old comedian holding a microphone, staring into a webcam, performing jokes as if he would on-stage, when in reality, the only person he’s speaking to (in the moment) is his unseen producer, Lori Jo Hoekstra. The setup alone sounds like something Norm would joke about in front of a crowd. Maybe the funniest part of all is that he doesn’t miss a beat.
Recorded during the summer of 2020, at the height of the global pandemic, and barely a year before he’d die, Norm recorded a “just in case” special. He was undergoing treatment for acute leukemia, a diagnosis only known by those closest to him. He apparently wasn’t sure he’d be able to perform this set of jokes live when the world opened up again, let alone even harbor the energy to do it. No less, he chose to engage in what you could consider “sit-down comedy.”
If you didn’t know it then, you wouldn’t guess the sexagenarian was ailing in any way. He’s still sharp in his ability to screw with you. No other comedian reveled in the awkward silences or deliberately leading audiences astray with his ramblings quite like Norm. What other comics feared, he embraced. It’s not until you see him performing his material via webcam that you realize that his audience was always his partner.
That partnership is missing from Nothing Special, yet Norm is no less effective with his laconic, deadpan delivery. His love for casinos and “degenerate gambling” is still a fun talking point. He reveals that experiencing turbulence on airplanes leads him to picking out a person aboard he’d consider cannibalizing, should he survive a potential plane crash. And he’s the only comedian I know who can segue from a bit about never being truly certain he wasn’t sodomized by his uncle at some point in his life to saying a few, clearly genuine words about his mother — and still deliver (and nail) the punchline.
The actual special lasts for about 54 minutes before the camera pulls back and we learn we’re the unseen members of a star-studded audience. The final 30 minutes involve Dave Chappelle, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Adam Sandler, Molly Shannon, and David Spade voicing their thoughts on their friend’s final special and offering priceless anecdotes about their individual friendships. Chappelle is the most emotionally moved, at least on the outside. He says that while working with Norm on Screwed in 2000 — a film he did not want to do, as it followed the death of his father — Norm was the only person who could make him laugh after his loss left him “inconsolable.” Spade seems the most reserved, but opens up as the others get to talking. Letterman predictably does what he does best: ask the comics what they felt Norm’s process for this routine.
Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special is indeed special. It’s a reminder that the comedy world was a little brighter when we had someone who mastered the art of the alleged “don’ts” of the business.
NOTE: Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special is now streaming on Netflix.
Starring: Norm Macdonald, Dave Chappelle, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Adam Sandler, Molly Shannon, and David Spade. Directed by: Norm Macdonald and Jeff Tomsic.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!