When Norm Macdonald was coming of age, there was one talk show that ruled all others, The Tonight Show, featuring the smiling, unflappable Johnny Carson as its host. There were other shows, of course — Dick Cavett had one, and so did Mike Douglas and Tom Snyder — but The Tonight Show was special, and everyone knew it. But in May 1992, Carson retired, setting the stage for the late-night wars that have raged on ever since.
It’s been 25 years since David Letterman came over to CBS and Conan O’Brien took over the Late Night mantle. Jay Leno, Arsenio Hall, Chevy Chase, Magic Johnson, Joan Rivers, Jon Stewart, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Carson Daly, Stephen Colbert, W. Kamau Bell, James Corden, Samantha Bee, Michelle Wolf … they all had or have talk shows. And that’s not even including programs like WTF With Marc Maron or Comedy Bang! Bang!, which further loosen the strictures of what a talk show can be.
And all that time, Macdonald (who turns 59 next month) has wanted his own. At long last, Netflix has given him one. At this late date, it might seem impossible to do anything to reinvent the musty format. But Norm Macdonald Has a Show (which premiered on Friday) has a unique angle. It’s the first talk show where the host doesn’t seem like he wants to do it much at all.
In a recent Vulture interview, Macdonald laid out his dilemma. “I thought I wanted [a talk show],” he said. “It’s fun, but once I got it I realized how difficult it is. It’s a peculiar type of person that can host one, because you have to be interested in every guest. … My fear was that I don’t know how to interview people who I’m not interested in. I don’t want to do all this research. And [Netflix’s Ted Sarandos] was like, ‘Just do people you’re interested in.’ I go, ‘There’s not that many.’ And he’s like, ‘You’re interested in ten people. Do ten episodes.’ So that was a great relief.”
Norm Macdonald Has a Show is an extension of his recent podcast/YouTube show, Norm Macdonald Live, which established the no-big whoop aesthetic that rules his new program. Once again, he sits between his guest and Adam Eget, the manager of L.A.’s Comedy Store and Macdonald’s reliably inept sidekick. And as with Norm Macdonald Live, the Netflix program devotes each 30-minute show to one guest. Macdonald has prepared a little bit — he remembers, for instance, how many times guest Jane Fonda has been married — but for the most part, he’s winging it. Moreover, he wants you to know he’s winging it. Whether it’s old pal David Spade or cult country songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, Macdonald lets the conversation flow wherever, ending each episode with a series of terrible typed-out jokes that he, his guest and Eget read, every one of them more awkward or in bad taste as the one before.
This discomfort has always been part of Macdonald’s appeal. I should know: I’m a big fan, who was especially pleased with last year’s surprisingly tender (and very funny) stand-up set Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery. Throughout his career, he’s wanted to subvert what we consider “proper” comedy — although he’s defiantly not anti-comedy, a postmodern style that encourages the audience to consider the very apparatus of stand-up or the talk show. “I can look at other art forms and see how postmodernism has destroyed them, and now threatens to destroy stand-up,” he said in that Vulture profile. “It’s the height of narcissism to write meta-comedy, because people aren’t interested in comedy. They’re interested in going home after shoveling shit all day and then seeing some fool perform.”
Macdonald loves being that fool, downplaying his intelligence to come across like a dumb guy who just lucked into his own show. It can’t be an accident how many of his guests on Norm Macdonald Has a Show look either baffled or a bit unnerved by the host’s studious unprofessionalism. Fonda clutches her dog like it’s a life raft, while Drew Barrymore’s usually game, bubbly disposition gets challenged by Macdonald’s start-then-stop-then-stammer-then-start-again delivery. During one supremely awkward moment during the episode with Macdonald’s hero David Letterman (who reportedly helped get Macdonald the deal), the former CBS host announces, apropos of nothing, “The Netflix people love the show. They really love the show.” Completely bewildered, Eget responds, “This show?”
Of course, complaining that Macdonald isn’t being a professional is how he gets you. Back when he hosted Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live — or in subsequent appearance as host of the ESPYs or his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Comedy Central program Sports Show With Norm Macdonald — the comic has seemingly dared people to hate him. Like Letterman, he resents comedy’s phony show-biz patina, preferring to get a reaction that’s unexpected or outside the acceptable standards of Hollywood protocol. He’ll sabotage his own guest spots on other people’s talk shows — or straight-up go after other guests, enjoying the ability to ruffle feathers. And it’s often amazing. Every once in a while, I’ll rewatch his 1997 spot on Late Night, in which he toys with poor Melrose Place actress Courtney Thorne-Smith.
That right there encapsulates everything Macdonald does so brilliantly — and he didn’t even need to be the host to cause such havoc. But that wit is rarely in evidence in Norm Macdonald Has a Show. Instead, there’s a cynicism and laziness, a feeling that Macdonald doesn’t really care.
Normally, that can be invigorating, but here it’s not. When Macdonald really loves a guest, like Shaver (whom he refers to as his best friend), he can’t translate that appreciation into a meaningful talk-show experience. When he has someone a little further afield — like Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan or Judge Judy — the strangeness of the juxtaposition between host and guest is rarely magical. It feels like a put-on without any real reward.
It might be a little easier to forgive all this if Macdonald hadn’t just had one of the worst publicity tours in recent years. I don’t need to rehash it all: the tone-deaf defense of Roseanne and others, then the tone-deaf apology for his earlier comments, and then his follow-up apology on The View. Just like his pal Jerry Seinfeld, he comes across as a guy who deeply doesn’t get it — and, more important, doesn’t want to get it.
Those public gaffes too neatly play into what’s wrong with Norm Macdonald Has a Show, which seems utterly pleased with itself and unconcerned about giving the audience anything they can hold onto. And the optics couldn’t look worse: At a time when women are struggling to land talk shows, Macdonald (who’s great but hardly a hot property) seems to have fallen ass-backwards into one. So often, the comic’s faux-unprofessionalism was a sign of his orneriness. On his new Netflix show, it just looks like he’s drowning. At one point, Michael Keaton tells Macdonald while he’s flailing, “You know, on this show, I think a lot of things occur to you right here in front of everybody.” Macdonald laughs, but it’s not really funny.
Here are a few other takeaways from Norm Macdonald Has a Show.
#1. Netflix is kinda #problematic.
In the last few years, Netflix has strengthened its Hollywood position, distributing some of the most acclaimed TV series and films, including House of Cards, BoJack Horseman, Stranger Things and the Oscar-winning documentary Icarus. But amidst those successes, Netflix’s let’s-release-everything strategy hasn’t always been a winner. In fact, the company keeps finding itself putting out high-profile projects that end up provoking a mighty backlash.
It started a few years ago, when the streaming platform signed Adam Sandler to a multi-picture deal, the first of which was the Western satire The Ridiculous Six, which angered Native American actors on the set because of the script’s racist jokes. (Sandler didn’t help the cause by defending the comedy as “pro-Indian.” Nonetheless, Netflix and Sandler later extended their deal to include four more films.)
Then in 2017, Netflix released the series 13 Reasons Why, a drama about a teenager investigating the suicide of a pretty classmate. Soon, mental health groups were criticizing the show, arguing that it romanticized suicide. (When the show returned this year, Netflix tried to be more proactive about offering guidance to impressionable viewers who might be emotionally affected by the series.)
This past summer, critics had their knives out for Insatiable, a series that was accused of fat-shaming by casting Debby Ryan as an overweight teenager who becomes vindictive once she loses a lot of weight and becomes a beauty. (This week, Netflix announced Insatiable was being renewed.)
And while Netflix has become the go-to destination for comedy, there too the platform has had its share of problems. Dave Chappelle got blasted for telling transphobic jokes in his recent stand-up sets, while Chris Rock’s Tamborine was an often unpleasantly misogynistic look at his failed marriage. The latest season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee highlighted Seinfeld’s dismissal of new styles of comedy, unintentionally taking a shot at the sort of personal stand-up that Hannah Gadsby personified with her laudable summer special Nanette — which, credit where it’s due, was also on Netflix.
It would be unfair to blame Netflix for Macdonald’s poorly timed comments this past week. (Although, seriously, can at least one of these male comics cool it on knocking Nanette before they see it?) And Netflix acted rather swiftly after Kevin Spacey’s #MeToo revelations came to light, removing him from House of Cards and retooling the show. But for a platform that’s advertising itself as the future of content, it would be nice if they were a little more careful in terms of that content.
#2. Sorry, I can’t stand Adam Eget.
I watched a few episodes of Norm Macdonald Live when it started, and while I was unsure what kind of longevity the show had, there was one thing I knew definitively: Adam Eget was sucking the oxygen out of the place.
This, of course, is part of the joke. Eget is meant to be something of a buffoon, butting in at the wrong moments or offering idiotic banter that gets him mocked by Macdonald and the guest. There’s a thick layer of irony to Eget’s studied woefulness. But that didn’t really matter: I still think the guy’s terrible.
The above clip reel from Norm Macdonald Live gives you an idea of Eget’s ineptitude. He’s like that one loser guy who keeps embarrassing you in front of your cool friend. Obviously, there are bits in here — like the “Where do you get your ideas from?” running gag — that’s meant to be god-awful and awkward. But on Norm Macdonald Has a Show, Eget continues to be the punching bag — a really unfunny punching bag.
In the Michael Keaton episode, Eget pipes up that he really liked The Founder, which just inspires a withering look from Macdonald: “You didn’t see that movie.” When Chevy Chase is talking about his cat who had a Hitler mustache, Eget tries to throw in a joke about Chaplin and Hitler’s similar facial hair. Chase just glares at him: “Excuse me, we’re talking,” pointing to himself and Macdonald.
Is all this orchestrated? Absolutely. Eget is the guy who’s there to be picked on — unlike Macdonald’s sarcastic demeanor, he’s a little too dorky and giddy, just waiting to be ripped into. And every once in a while, I enjoy watching someone decimate Eget. But god is he tedious. And I think it’s a sign of Macdonald’s discomfort with the talk-show format that he wants someone around he can pick on. Otherwise, his own weaknesses would stand out more.
#3. Let’s remember that time when Norm Macdonald made me think that Questlove had died.
On Twitter, Macdonald will talk about golf or comedy. But in April, he scared the hell out of me (and other people) by tweeting this…
For a second, I thought I’d missed something and that the drummer for the Roots had died without me knowing it. Thankfully, that was not the case — although, if you scroll down those mentions, you’ll notice that a lot of people took it as real.
What inspired this tweet? What was Macdonald trying to say? Was it a joke? And why didn’t Macdonald ever take it down? Nobody seems to know the answer to any of these questions. (There was an even Reddit thread devoted to getting down to the bottom of this. No such luck.)
As best I can tell, Macdonald has never been asked about this — and he never tweeted about Questlove again. Some mysteries will have to remain that way.
#4. Macdonald might have been the best Colonel Sanders.
A few years ago, Kentucky Fried Chicken decided to revamp its image by having a rotating crop of comics play Colonel Sanders in TV commercials. First it was Darrell Hammond, but in subsequent months everybody from Reba McEntire to George Hamilton to Jason Alexander donned the distinctive white facial hair. Macdonald, though, was the best of the bunch.
He’s the one actor who seems to know the whole thing is completely goofy — he really leans into the irony of the actor swap. That said, Macdonald had his own pick for who the best Colonel was.