Published May 19, 2017Norm Macdonald once criticized Bill Maher's hosting chops by comparing him to David Letterman. An important distinction between the two, he said, was that Maher, seemingly more than anything else, wanted to come across as smart to his guests and his viewers, whereas Letterman would disguise his superior intellect by acting like the "dumb guy." It often enhanced Letterman's interviews because his honest curiosity or interest in a subject was never mired in an argumentative, know-it-all pomposity.
For fans of Macdonald, the observation proved insightful. The comedian, who, by all personal accounts and public appearances, is clearly an ingenious comedy savant, also infuses his work with unassuming questioning and clear cunning. He is the human bridge between low and high culture when it comes to anecdotal and observational comedy, and he bolsters that rep with this special that explores history and social customs from wry angles.
Macdonald's special begins with b-roll of him strolling down a sidewalk toward the camera, his eyes — the squinting windows into his weathered soul — shielded by the brim of a ball cap. We can hear Macdonald recite just the punch line from an older joke of his about his former hero, Bill Cosby, the crowd laughs, and then, as if we're late because we couldn't find a parking space, we're allowed into the room with them. Right away, there's something of a ruse.
What follows is Macdonald mostly contemplating the passage of time via various markers, like the ubiquity of ornate dessert carts, our reliance on magic phones, suicide and masturbation, outdated modes of speech, Germany's infamous penchant for starting wars with the world, sarcasm, metaphors, and ill communication, and how even old Adolf Hitler had a dog who loved him.
If you look at and listen to Macdonald long enough here, you will absorb some of his sly, socio-cultural research and also some of the most well-formed and greatest bits you're ever likely to hear. It's all tremendously provocative and fascinating stuff from a man who, within this very special, claims to have no opinions. But the truth is, he does. He just carries himself like the funniest guy in the world, who's open to the possibility that he's got it all wrong.
Exclaim! is reviewing every standup comedy special currently available on Netflix Canada, including this one. You can find a complete list of reviews so far here.