June 9, 2022
Norm Macdonald’s posthumously released Netflix special, Nothing Special, is anything but. The hourlong medley of new material, coupled with a few older bits from the comedian, is a rare glimpse into an entertainer’s last days as he grapples with death in his own humorous way.
Back in the summer of 2020, with an upcoming operation amid the throes of cancer, Macdonald knew his days of cracking jokes were numbered: “I didn’t want to leave anything on the table in case things went south.” With that in mind, he sat down at his computer and, in a single take, recorded Nothing Special.
Up close on camera, Macdonald looks gaunt and frayed. While his near decadelong battle with leukemia had begun to show in the wrinkles on his face, it was nowhere to be found in Macdonald’s enlivened spirit.
Despite being secluded in COVID-19 isolation, Macdonald still sets up his long-winded, meandering punchlines with the same enthusiasm he exuded on the set of Conan O’Brien.
The atmosphere and pacing feel different than any other comedy special. There are no pauses for laughter — there’s no audience and no stage. But the lack of a theater doesn’t take anything away. Macdonald’s best jokes were never meant for stadiums or large halls but rather for intimate settings.
At one point, Macdonald’s phone abruptly starts ringing. He answers it. “I gotta call you back on account of I’m doing a special. For the TV,” he briskly replies before hanging up. Was he doing a bit, or did he just happen to receive a phone call?
The most charming facet of Macdonald’s comedian persona was his sincerity. You could never tell if he was doing a bit. After Macdonald closes, the special ends with the one thing he never wanted to be around to see: a coterie of his fellow comics commiserating over his death. David Spade recalled his last interactions with Macdonald, unaware of his ailment, “He would set up dinners with me, and he would keep canceling. And I didn’t know if it was a bit.”
Macdonald spent nearly a decade with cancer without once divulging the grim news. Macdonald didn’t want his twilight years spent drowning in feigned sympathy or maudlin affection. To him, that was worse than leukemia. Macdonald wanted to live out his vocation to his dying day; he wanted to make people laugh. And he couldn’t do that by stamping an expiration date on his forehead.
Despite his stoic secrecy, in Nothing Special, Macdonald constantly teases the audience with hints of deep introspection: “You gotta be ready for anything the world throws at you, in this here world. That’s what I’ve learned as I’ve aged.” But he quickly pulls the rug from under you, revealing it was all a setup to transition into a joke about cannibalism.
“That’s one of my biggest fears,” he jokes in another bit. “That I picked the wrong religion. That I believed, but then I died, and I go, ‘Ah! It’s you! I thought it was the other fella. Ah!’”
At the time of recording, Macdonald must have known that Nothing Special would only be released posthumously. His subtle pokes at the frailty of life — “I hate to bring everybody down, but a lot of you will end up plugged into the wall,” he quips in a bit about writing his will — even the frailty of his life, as we now know, are the perfect coda to his dark-humor-laden career. Leave it to that old chunk of coal, Norm Macdonald, to use his own death as a setup for a good joke.
Originally published at The Washington Examiner