Culture Pick | Norm Macdonald’s “Nothing Special” is quite the opposite

Augustus Barnette, Contributing Writer

On September 14, 2021, comedian Norm Macdonald passed away at 61 years old after an undisclosed, nine-year battle with leukemia. Knowing the severity of his illness, Macdonald chose to record the stand-up material he had worked so tirelessly to prepare, in case he never had the chance to grace the stage again.   

Macdonald’s devotion to his craft is what allowed Netflix to release his posthumous standup routine “Nothing Special” on May 30. 

Macdonald was endlessly devoted to the joke. Cementing his stardom through his five-year stint on “Saturday Night Live” in the mid-90s, he wanted nothing more than to make the audience laugh, but he never pandered. Characterized by his long-winded, sarcastic jokes and deadpan, non-sequiturs, Macdonald took on the audience as he wished; occasionally bombing a set just for his own enjoyment.  

The special is visually unassuming. Filming on his phone, Macdonald — donning a ball cap, oversized headphones and a sport coat — presents an hour of comedy that appears as if he’s on a conference call with the viewer.  

It works for Macdonald. Far from comics like Bo Burnham, who delicately plan out skits, songs and theatrics, all Macdonald needs to create a stitch in the sides of the viewer is his facial expressions and classic delivery, and he completes his material in one take.  

Macdonald doesn’t shy away from touchy subjects, but his chipper demeanor lightens the blow. Perhaps with his Canadian politeness, Macdonald’s edgier jokes come across as a friend’s banter. Despite that, he believes he was fired from SNL for joking about the OJ Simpson trial, as NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer was personal friends with Simpson. 

In “Nothing Special,” Macdonald contemplates Jesus’ mistaken identity, psychology with a tinge of Freudian thought and gambling addictions, but what sticks most is the subtle nods to mortality and brief glimpses of emotion. 

Even while bringing up his own mortality, it’s tough getting a read from Macdonald. In many ways, this is what is so attractive about his style of comedy. Macdonald is as much a storyteller as he is a comic.  

Another morbid moment in Macdonald’s special is his longwinded joke about living wills. Dark humor isn’t unique to Macdonald, but “Nothing Special” gives weight to these jokes. While joking about his sister choosing to discontinue his hypothetical life support, or a janitor bumping a plug out of a wall, Macdonald was facing death.   

Towards the end of the set, while telling a joke about psychology and his mother, he drifts off on a tangent, breaking the joke for a moment.  

The joke is anything but an endearing family tale; it’s about her breasts.  

After some jokes, Macdonald looked downward and simply started talking about his mother. Sharing stories about her cooking and attempts at humor, Macdonald talks about her as if he were a proud parent. Though transitioning from a joke about her breasts, most of the last few minutes of the special are just about his mother, and in many ways a dedication to her.  

Between these stories, Macdonald pauses again to share that she lives next door, just to pause again and say, “She’s great.”  

Although going off on numerous tangents, loosely connected to the joke, Macdonald finishes the joke. As if a switch is flipped, he immediately snaps back from a vulnerable moment, sharing his love of his mother with the world, to finishing the joke, and ultimately his career, on a high note.  

Macdonald then ends the special with the final line in the special and likely some of his last ever recorded words, “Stay safe folks. I love you… I would drop the mic, but I paid for it.”  

Leaving the audience with one final, snarky line, Macdonald’s work is over.   

As Macdonald exits the frame, a camera pans out to reveal a panel of friends and fellow comics, who had just been shown the special for the first time.  

For the remainder of the runtime, David Letterman, Dave Chappelle, Conan O’Brien, Molly Shannon, Adam Sandler and David Spade discussed Macdonald’s legacy, the jokes made during the special and Macdonald as a friend.  

While all six of these individuals had close ties to Macdonald, all of them revealed they had no idea he was battling cancer. Comedian David Spade shared that despite consistently attempting to have dinner together, Macdonald never pulled through. 

“He would set up dinners with me and he would keep cancelling. I didn’t know if it was a bit… but it got frustrating,” Spade said.  

O’Brien shared a similar problem, as Macdonald became unreachable by O’Brien’s team. The rest of Macdonald’s friends go on to share their stories, which consisted of the last time any of them saw Macdonald, and the ways that have now revealed themselves to be his goodbyes.  

Macdonald’s comedic stylings may not suit everyone. A comedian so devoted to his craft, he had to share one last, vulnerable stand-up routine. It’s rough around the edges, and there may be some duds, but “Nothing Special” is something special.