Published Sep 10, 2018There comes a point midway through David Letterman's appearance on Norm Macdonald Has a Show when things have gone so ridiculously off the rails, with the titular host chasing down strange tangents for conversation fodder, that Letterman, bewildered, says, "Let me ask you a question: is it still Tuesday?"
These are the glorious fogs Norm Macdonald has been conjuring with guests on his longform video and audio podcast Norm Macdonald Live. His new Netflix series features higher production values (and shorter runtimes) but are still thrilling — and meta, since the audience consists of the crew, laughing at the show and milling about in some shots. The purity of the man's comedy and his broad knowledge and intellect means his mind races for topics and jokes via an enjoyably surreal scenic route.
Guests such as Letterman (who has been listed as the show's "location scout"), David Spade, Drew Barrymore, Jane Fonda, Judge Judy, Michael Keaton, M. Night Shyamalan, Lorne Michaels, Billy Joe Shaver and Chevy Chase each stop by to visit and ponder Macdonald, a charismatic and highly endearing oddity. In virtually every instance, the comedic chaos yields something amusing and crass, but also, like the best contemporary humour, the interactions reveal something insightfully sensitive about the human condition.
Spade reminds us that he's an underrated comic mind, telling an amazing story of his appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show as an emerging standup, and throwing sharp jabs at Macdonald's weirdness that, playing the straight-man host and being Spade's old friend, Norm kindly absorbs during the chat.
Barrymore, whom Macdonald flatters whenever he can, is delightful as a storyteller and dramatically acts out many of her tales, which give them a sense of urgency.
Jane Fonda patiently gets herself charmed by Macdonald, whose wide-ranging interest in Hollywood history finds him dropping names and describing incidents that a younger generation might puzzle at.
Fans of the old format will be pleased, as the free-form, biographical and celebrity-lore-based interviews and infamous, prepared joke-reading segments have been retained. Put-upon sidekick Adam Eget also remains in tow and he's a stronger presence than usual, perhaps because the show has been on hiatus or perhaps because he's ceased turning tricks underneath the Queensboro Bridge. Either way, the rest was necessary and pays off.
There are also uniquely Canadian moments. Asking Macdonald about his background growing up in Ontario near Quebec, Fonda reveals she once acted in a film shot in Guelph, and, following Macdonald's lead, the pair make fun of the southern Ontario city's name.
In a more pronounced nod to his homeland, Macdonald ends each episode with he and Eget singing the jazzy, call-and-response closing theme to The Wayne & Shuster Show, a comedy variety program that aired from 1955 to 1985 on CBC. As always, Macdonald's perceived nihilism is rooted in an extreme reverence to dedicated, skilled comedians who make up his foundation.
In its new iteration, Norm Macdonald Has a Show reminds us that a sincere conversation can be dynamic as hell. A great host must trust themselves in any moment and, because he mostly uses research cards on his desk as props, Macdonald is an attentive listener who can make hay of the chaos he creates.
What I'm saying is, unlike David Letterman, viewers will not feel compelled to throw their hands up, walk off-stage in mock-frustration, and turn their backs on this compellingly unique show forever. Quite the opposite. Much like his podcast and the various YouTube clips of his past work, Norm Macdonald Has a Show, is satisfying initially and worth repeated viewing.