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The Big Softie: Norm Macdonald’s New Netflix Special Shows His Sweeter Side

When David Letterman was ending his Late Show stint in May 2015, he invited his old friend Norm Macdonald to be the program’s final stand-up act. For the first six minutes of his set, Macdonald was his usual sarcastic, deadpan self; there were great jokes about Nazi Germany, cellphones and LSD. But then, he turned his attention to the fact that Letterman was going to be retiring. And in that moment, Macdonald did something utterly out of character: He got weepy. Struggling to regain his composure while explaining his affection for the longtime host, Macdonald turned to Letterman and told him, with utter sincerity, that he loved him.

“It was accidental,” Macdonald later said on The Howard Stern Show about that spontaneous moment. “I didn’t go out there with that plan. … I wanted to say something. It wasn’t that.” He’d rehearsed what he was going to say, but at the last second, he decided to just speak from the heart. “[It] sounded just written and fake. … I was like, ‘I’ll just talk.’”

People worship Macdonald precisely because he isn’t the kind of sappy, earnest guy who gets blubbery at the drop of a hat. So it was shocking to see him so overcome by emotion. But it also spoke to a possibility that’s been there all along: Maybe the hard-edged, blasé Macdonald to which we’ve become accustomed isn’t the whole story. Talking about the elephant-skin exterior required to survive as a stand-up, Macdonald admitted to Stern, “It’s false by nature.” For someone who idolizes Letterman and Bob Dylan — inscrutable figures who tend to keep their emotions close to the vest and wear a gruff disguise in their public life — Macdonald seemed to be acknowledging that, every once in a while, the mask slips.

All of which brings me to Macdonald’s new Netflix special, Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery. It comes at a meaningful time for both the stand-up industry and the comic himself. In recent months, Netflix has established itself as the go-to place for new comedy specials: High-profile sets from Amy Schumer, Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K. have all debuted on the streaming service.

Macdonald has been in the public eye longer than any of them — he’s also older — but he’s never been as white-hot famous as his younger contemporaries. It’s been nearly 20 years since he was fired from Saturday Night Live, and in the ensuing two decades he’s tried his hand at sitcoms (The Norm Show), movies (Dirty Work, which he co-wrote) and even a Daily Show-style riff on sports (Sports Show With Norm Macdonald). None of them really succeeded.

As a result, Hitler’s Dog hasn’t felt like an event in the way that those other comics’ specials have, receiving a fraction of the advertising and media buzz.

Yet there’s always been something weirdly satisfying and self-fulfilling about Macdonald’s inability to become a superstar. After all, he’s very much an acquired taste — his humor is so snide and sometimes so bizarre that he practically encourages you not to like it. (And some definitely don’t: When Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield ranked all 145 SNL cast members in 2015, Macdonald was way down at no. 139. The culture critic wrote, “Macdonald clearly thought he was hilarious. … Unfortunately, he was just a Dennis Miller clone with no mullet and no jokes. Stare into the camera a little longer, Norm; maybe it’ll get funnier.”)

The Macdonald we meet in Hitler’s Dog isn’t all that different on those counts — still acerbic and a tad surreal, touching on everything from hating parties to explaining why it’s so hard for him not to covet his neighbor’s oxen. Many of the jokes Macdonald told on that final Letterman appearance show up in Hitler’s Dog, each of them just as cutting as they were two years ago. (His extended bit about Germany taking on the entire planet in two wars is only more distressing in the age of Trump.) But what’s most noticeable about the special is just how old Macdonald is. I’m not being unkind: It’s a fact the 57-year-old comic mentions on several occasions, saying almost as an aside between jokes, “Anyways, I’m old now.” Beat. “I was young.” Beat. “Now I’m old.” And the admission adds extra oomph to the special in two ways.

For one thing, Macdonald has successfully aged into the cantankerous smart-ass he’s always longed to be. When he’s bitching about how celebrity has changed in his lifetime — talking about Harrison Schmitt, the last man to walk on the moon, the stand-up huffs, “He’s not famous, but a girl with a giant ass [presumably, Kim Kardashian] is famous” — there’s the usual Macdonald bite. What’s novel, though, is that his get-off-my-lawn crotchetiness is often mitigated by his recognition that, really, things weren’t better back in his day. Throughout Hitler’s Dog, the nostalgia is spiked with snark — a winning move from a comic who, when he wrote his supposed memoir last year, decided to make a lot of it up because he thought that would be funnier.

But the real benefit of Macdonald’s aging is that, if you squint just right, you might notice an encroaching humanity seeping into Macdonald’s act. No, he doesn’t break down in Hitler’s Dog like he did on Late Show, but the barbs are often laced with cockeyed compassion. During a dark bit about hanging yourself, he segues into mentioning people who die accidentally because of autoerotic asphyxiation. It’s ghoulishly funny — summing up his reservations about trying it, he says with characteristic understatement, “the risk/reward is not good” — but it’s remarkable when Macdonald explains why people have a mistaken impression of what will happen at their funeral.

To illustrate his point, he proceeds to perform a lengthy fictional monologue in the guise of a son who’s mourning his dead father, relaying how dear ol’ dad worked two jobs and would come home late at night and kiss him on the bridge of his nose before going to bed. It’s a moving, totally made-up story. Then Macdonald punctures the solemnity by saying, “[Mourners] don’t remember that at all, all they remember is — ” and mimes hanging himself while feverishly jerking off. The juxtaposition of that rosy fantasy and the shock of seeing your dead dad in such an embarrassing position is hilarious, but it’s effective precisely because Macdonald really sells the poignancy of that imagined eulogy.

Macdonald has never been much of an actor, but in Hitler’s Dog he’s oddly touching when he’s playing characters — whether it’s voicing his wizened grandmother, his blindly loyal dog or one-time Six Million Dollar Man star Lee Majors as he’s reduced to appearing in a hearing-aid commercial. Macdonald’s Majors isn’t an impression so much as it is a stark portrayal of a beaten-down elderly man talking to his agent Jerome on the phone, each pause another humiliating instance where Majors learns how far he’s fallen from his former stardom.

At the end, the comic imagines a truly defeated Majors saying, “Jerome, I have to ask you this: Is there any way in the contract that you can put in” — beat — “that I’m sad?” It’s a perfect Macdonald moment: insightful, a bit upsetting, clever and never content to just be a funny moment.

Such segments are punctuated by Macdonald’s casual, persistent asides about his getting older. It’s not a throwaway gag — Hitler’s Dog finds him in a generally reflective mood that comes with middle age. He thinks back to his parents, who were teachers: “They all say, ‘Teachers are the real heroes.’ My folks? Not heroic at all.” He mockingly pines for the days when all kids needed to have a good time was a stick. A trip to the doctor inspires a reverie about the most common ways to die. And when he ends the special by making a plea — “The only really true thing is that we all must love each other” — it’s just another example of his newfound sweet-and-sour approach, because soon after, he’s contradicting it by detailing how hard it is to love other people — and why dogs do it better than we do. “I’m no fan of Hitler,” he announces, “… but there was a dog in history who loved Hitler more than anyone.”

The joke is simple and provocative: Can you imagine having to be Hitler’s dog and love that monster? But in Hitler’s Dog, Macdonald twists the knife a bit. Even Hitler had someone who loved him unconditionally. That’s what’s great and utterly ridiculous about a pet: It loves you no matter who you are.

Is Macdonald secretly becoming a bit of a softie in his old age? Maybe, but only in his own way. Near the start of Hitler’s Dog, he expresses his bewilderment that people always seem shocked when someone kills himself. For him, it makes perfect sense. “You don’t know about life?” he asks sardonically. “How it only disappoints and it gets worse and worse until it ends in a catastrophe?” As far as he’s concerned, suicide is a completely understandable response “to escape this worthless masquerade of a life we pretend we have.”

Macdonald is still a master of the wry quip, bleak observation and deadpan delivery. But to see that smile on his face, he looks pretty content, too.