It’s hard to imagine a comedy set like Norm Macdonald’s latest and last. Nothing Special, a title that manages the Norm-like feat of simultaneous irony and honesty, was recorded at Macdonald’s home, without an audience, during the pre-vaccine pandemic days of 2020.
It’s performed in the style of a webcast; MacDonald has a microphone, but he’s sitting down, focusing mostly on his face, as if Zooming into his own special. The press materials boast that it was done in “one take,” which is both impressive, in that Macdonald appears to do 55 minutes of comedy more or less extemporaneously without any breaks for laughs, and obvious, in that he’s occasionally interrupted, by a ringing phone or a barking dog.
The comic had been preparing material for his next Netflix special, but, as very few people knew at the time, he also had cancer. Before he went into the hospital for a major procedure, he decided to record his material for posterity, just in case. The procedure, as it turns out, went fine. But before Macdonald could do a “real” performance of his newest set, he did succumb to the disease, passing away in September 2021.
So now, we’re in the just-in-case scenario, and Netflix is releasing the special as-is, appended with a 30-minute postscript, wherein fellow comedians David Letterman, Dave Chappelle, Adam Sandler, David Spade, Molly Shannon, and Conan O’Brien discuss the special and Norm in general. None of them seemed to know about his illness; Sandler seems particularly broken up by the memories of his friend.
This segment is remarkable, and strange; it’s essentially a televised wake in miniature, while also making Nothing Special the only hour of stand-up I can think of that’s immediately accompanied by its own review, analysis, and behind-the-scenes tribute — all without the participation of its central figure.
There’s not much a critic can say that these comedy professionals don’t at least touch upon; the talk show hosts, O’Brien and Letterman, are particularly astute in describing Norm’s style and sensibility, and what set him apart from other comics — O’Brien describes Macdonald’s careful word choices as deliberate and “out of time,” comparing him to Mark Twain. Chappelle also jumps in to liken his speaking style to a “1930s Canadian dock worker.”
They’re right, especially about Nothing Special. Perhaps owing to the intimacy of the home taping or just the whimsy of older age, the sometime-folksiness of Macdonald’s delivery hits a peak early in the hour and stays there, with familiar Macdonald decorative phrases like “you know” and “on account of” popping up constantly. Occasionally, he allows himself to ramble around a topic, and get a few digressions deep before circling back around, a kind of front-porch-rocker style that’s appealingly unpredictable.