Norm Macdonald is one of those rare and captivating public figures to whom you can raise a subject and safely know that the conversation won’t promptly be squashed with a pat or predictable response. The 56-year-old stand-up’s uniquely skewed, deceptively laconic approach is both the source of his comedic gift and often held up as some sort of built-in brake on his success. No, he’s never had a hit sitcom, breakout movie role, or hosted a network late-night talk show. Yet, as fans like David Letterman and Louis C.K. will attest — and as he demonstrates in his new Netflix special, Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery, and his book Based on a True Story: A Memoir, out June 13 in paperback — Macdonald is arguably on the very short list of the best comedians working today. Though, as he tells it, maybe there isn’t much competition.
I just saw on Twitter that you’d reached out to someone who had mixed feelings about what she saw as your habit of punching down comedically. You were offering to explain the jokes in question. How come? That’s not something you often see comedians do.
Yep, she was mad about an O.J. joke I did at the Espys. Charles Woodson had won the Heisman trophy and I said, “They’ll never take that away from you. Unless you kill your wife and your waiter.” So I explained to this writer that that joke could in no way be a joke at Charles Woodson, and even if it was, how could I be punching down? I’d just been fired [from Saturday Night Live] and Charles Woodson won the Heisman trophy. That didn’t seem like punching down to me.
I think the ambivalence had more to do with jokes you’ve made about transgender people.
Yeah, the other thing was a joke about Caitlyn Jenner which, as a matter of fact, was a joke I’d deliberately left out of the Netflix special. It wasn’t much of a joke really, and it’s weird when you have to explain jokes that aren’t that funny. The joke was about how everyone was saying Caitlyn Jenner is beautiful, but she’s not really beautiful. In that joke, I went to great lengths to say you should love Caitlyn Jenner and accept her, but you don’t have to pretend she’s beautiful. There’s no reason to do that. That was the entire point of the joke. It was pretty weak. So I won’t do those jokes anymore. Which is fine, because the reason I didn’t do the joke on the special is because I came to an understanding that other people came to much sooner than I did.
Which is what?
Which is that a lot of people are idiots. You don’t want to have a joke be misunderstood and then someone goes and beats up a trans person.
So are you stopping telling jokes about transgender people because you want to avoid those jokes being misinterpreted or because you’ve reached the conclusion that those jokes are offensive?
I’m worried that someone might get hurt, not offended. I know other comedians that go, “If the joke is funny, I don’t care if someone gets beat up.” I don’t care if the whole world laughs: If someone gets beat up over a joke of mine, what was the point of doing it? Really it’s my own fault if someone had ambiguity or felt any pain on behalf of my jokes. That means I didn’t communicate the joke clearly or properly.
I’m sure you don’t remember, but I interviewed you last year for your book.
Yeah, I remember that.
And there was a possible misunderstanding that’s stuck with me. We were talking about sexism and comedy, and you said your experience was that women aren’t as funny as men. You made it clear that you didn’t think that was a good thing, but it was what you’ve observed. And you had this line —
What’d I say?
It was something like, “I don’t remember ever being in high school and seeing a bunch of people standing around laughing and then hearing ‘Boy, Louise is killin’ ’em today.’”
And then the next day, I spoke to you again for a Barnes & Noble discussion, and when we were in the green room beforehand, you made a point of telling me that what you’d said about women and comedy was “in character.” I found that idea so confusing — because it didn’t seem anything else you’d said had been “in character” — that I left the exchange out of the final piece. And I’ve always wondered if you brought up the “in character” idea because you were trying to hedge against how an opinion like that might come off, or because you thought I might somehow misinterpret what you’d said. Is this ringing any bells?
I don’t remember that.
But what you’re saying I said, I believe is true. Sometimes things are true even if they’re bad. It’s like saying, “On average black people don’t have as much money as rich people.” How dare you! Well, you’re not saying they shouldn’t have as much money. Just because something is unequal or wrong doesn’t change the facts.
And the facts in this case are what?
It’s obvious why women in stand-up aren’t as good, because they don’t have all the role models that males had. I don’t know who their roles model are? Phyllis Diller? Joan Rivers? People will say that Sarah Silverman is their role model and she’s only in her 40s. Comedy takes a long time for someone to learn. The only good young comedian I ever saw who was like 19 or 20 years old was Eddie Murphy, and even then he wasn’t good. He was just talented. He did incredible impressions and had incredible charisma but his writing wasn’t that great. There’s no great Eddie Murphy joke that people tell.
That didn’t seem to hurt the young Eddie Murphy.
He was amazing. But sometimes you go to a comedy show and get bowled over and then you realize you don’t remember any of the jokes. Being funny without having good jokes is like a magic trick some comedians can do. I was gonna write a book about how to be a stand-up without being funny, but I thought it would be too cynical. I really think I could write it though.
A manual for how to perform an impression of a stand-up comedian?
That’s exactly right. It was mostly about crowd control. If you’re not very good you have to deal with the audience a lot, so it was a lot about how to do that. Like, you can pick on one person in the audience, and then the rest of the audience gets on your side because they’re afraid of being picked on. It’s all the psychology of mobs. You can learn it. I’ll go to a club and suddenly the guy who was the bouncer last time I was there is a stand-up, because he’s been there, watching how it works. Even jokes, you can do them mathematically without having any inspiration.
How’s that work?
You just take a premise and instead of following it to its logical conclusion you follow it to its illogical conclusion by having a faulty premise to begin with.
It’s surprising that you ultimately decided against writing a book that would’ve suggested that your vocation, the field of your life’s work, can be an empty, soulless shell of an occupation.
Yeah, I also thought it would be too pompous. It’s nobody’s fault there aren’t more funny comedians. If I were an awful comedian, I’d probably still be drawn to doing it. I remember when I first came to Los Angeles, Jay Leno was there and at the time he was the king of all stand-ups. And one night, I had to follow him. I was thinking, My god, this is going to be the worst. But Jay told me it’s fine to follow a good comedian. You just don’t want to follow a bad comedian. Or a filthy comic. They pull the audience down. It’s hard to go on after a filthy comic with, “What about Raisin Bran? Doesn’t everyone know how big a scoop is?”
Is it common for you to feel like people misinterpret your jokes?
People will say I’m a “divisive comedian.” I’m not divisive. It’s not like at my shows half the audience is laughing and the other half is yelling at me. But I have had jokes where I brought up a subject — race or a gay thing — and you hear someone going “yeeeeah!” and it makes you go, “Woah! Wait a minute. I think you’re understanding a different joke than I’m telling.” It’s like politicians say, the appearance of impropriety is as bad as impropriety. But, you know, I’m for people saying anything they want to say on stage.
Some of your peers — I’m thinking of Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock — have said they don’t want to play college campuses because those environments are oversensitive. But isn’t it also progress for people to call out what might actually be offensive material as offensive?
You want to be on the right side of history with these issues; you don’t want to look like an idiot. But comics always think they’re right. They never consider, “Oh, maybe I’m wrong about this social issue.” The stuff that’s happening on college campuses, though, like, this “resistance” stuff — I don’t even like protests. It’s all too much for me.
What’s wrong with protests?
I don’t like groups of people. If I’m walking down the street, I think it’s freaky to see a group. And if I saw a group of people that was obviously all thinking alike? Oh god, that’d scare the fuck out of me. I’d just be like, what does that sign they’re all carrying say? I better agree with it or I might be in trouble. And what’s going on in colleges, with not giving free speech to morons, is ridiculous. It’s insulting to everyone in the country to think people can’t handle hearing some retard. I can listen to any retard I want. Like, I enjoy listening to Louis Farrakhan. He’s just funny to me. Or Charles Manson. I like listening to crazy people.
Ah, okay. So like, “call Charles Manson crazy, but the man could write a song?”
With Manson, his biggest flaw was probably his bloodlust for slaughtering people. He’s like Anthony Weiner in that way: His vices dragged him down. But with the colleges, I’d feel insulted if I wasn’t allowed to hear something. If I was on a college campus, and a Nazi came to give a speech, I might go, Well, I’ll listen to that guy talk. Not because I’m a Nazi, but because I’m interested in seeing it.
Same as if your local zoo got an albino tiger?
Exactly! Whenever I’ve been in the presence of racism, it’s often pretty comical. I was thinking about this the other day, about how cabbies are not as open-minded as you’d think.
Yeah, it’s the worst when you’re having a nice conversation with a cabbie about the Mets and all of a sudden he says something racist.
Yeah, I’ll say something to a driver and he’ll say “damn these beanheads” or something and I never even know what he’s talking about except that it’s racist. I guess a better person than me would make a point of arguing with a racist cabbie but I just want to get the fuck home. Actually, the cabbie probably thinks everyone agrees with his point of view because no one ever says anything. But who wants to get stuck in traffic on Crossfire with a cabbie?
You’ve said that your new special didn’t catch you in especially good form. Is consistency a struggle for you?
When I was talking about that, I was just talking about how a special can end up being a fluke of what night you were taped. The way I do stand-up is I just meander around and once I decide on what that material is, I do it like 30 times. The special was definitely the thirtieth-best time. It wasn’t 1,000 times worse than my best, but I wish it could’ve been as good as it usually is. It doesn’t matter, though. The material was still good.
Are you ever unconfident about the material? Is your delivery always the bigger variable?
I’ve always been pretty confident about my material. Being onstage and performing is what I’d get nervous about. I used to think that I’d be better off if I could give the material to someone else to do, since I don’t really do anything onstage physically. I just try to keep my stand-up cohesive now, so my sets feel like something more than just a bunch of jokes. I’m still learning. But, you know, stand-up is such a young form.
That means there’s more room for discovery?
If you were a novelist or something, you could never be as good as the world’s greatest novelists. You’ll never be as good as them and they’re already dead. But stand-up is so young, and the very first stand-up comedians were so bad. Now is when you’re seeing the best ones because they can still build on the people who came before them.
So the idea that we’re in a comedy boom rings true for you?
I think the best stand-ups now are better than the best stand-ups used to be, but I don’t know if it makes sense to call it a boom since you’re also seeing the worst comedians ever now. The problem is that there’s too many comedians. Netflix is doing a new comedy special every week. I remember talking to Robert Klein once and he was telling me that when he started there were 500 comics and only 5 good ones. And at the time we were talking, he said that that it’d gotten to be there were 5,000 comics and only 5 good ones. Now there are 50,000 comics and only 5 good ones.
Supply and demand, right?
Supply and demand doesn’t work with comedy. There just aren’t that many good comics, but the computer demands new content. I’m the wrong person to talk to about this because I don’t understand the viewers who’ll watch bad comedy. I just tend to watch the things I think I are funny over and over again. I don’t think you can say we’re in a golden age if you’re talking about overall quality.
Who are the five good comics right now?
I wouldn’t want to limit it to five, but I’ll say four and leave the last spot blank. Louis C.K. and Chappelle. Brian Regan. Jerry Seinfeld.
It’s interesting you mention Louis and Chappelle. I was just watching your episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. You and Seinfeld were talking about how it’s so much more impressive when comedians can work clean. Louis and Chappelle aren’t exactly working clean.
That’s true. I swear gratuitously and when I see it on tape it looks awful. It looks illiterate and low-rent, but it’s something your mind goes to when you’re trying to save yourself in a rough moment. Most bad comics are dirty. There’s not very many bad clean comics. I feel two ways about swearing, and about talking about things like sex. I always thought it would be cool to see what Seinfeld had to say about sex. Because he’s so great about the minutiae of everything, I’m sure his particular takes on sex would be hilarious. I’ve asked him about why he doesn’t do it and he says it’s just not him. But you are also limiting yourself when you make sex and swearing off-limits and it’s really impressive to limit yourself and still be funny.
Are there too many outlets for comedians now?
People do all of their podcasts and streaming shows, and then they go on their friends’ podcasts and shows, too. It’s just not possible to be so funny that you can put out so much stuff and have it all be good. Richard Pryor was always said to be the best comic and he only did two specials. Well, he did three but the third one sucked. So even that guy, the best comedian, only had two good specials in him. In the ’90s, I could never get a special because HBO had them all parceled out to certain guys, like Richard Jeni or Dennis Miller or George Carlin. Now everyone’s getting specials.
Richard Jeni is not a name you hear brought up often.
Well, he came to a bad ending. Chris Rock still tells me how fantastic Jeni was. But I thought he was just very, very … he’d be perfect nowadays because he could do 25 minutes on Jaws 3 or whatever the Jaws 3 of today is. Not that there’s ever really a reason to do 25 minutes on Jaws 3.
Dennis Miller’s trajectory — it never stops feeling weird for me to see him on Fox News.
Yeah, he’s had a huge, huge shift.
I understand that people’s politics shift, but I’ll see a Dennis Miller line about climate change and think, Do you really not believe that issue is a problem? Or do you feel obligated to take this position because of who butters your bread? I don’t mean that disparagingly. I’m legitimately curious to know where his politics end and his act begins.
So you think he just says this stuff as a money-making thing? I think some people are cynical like that, but I know Dennis and I don’t think that happened with him. He was pretty liberal and then 9/11 just blew his mind. It knocked him out and changed everything for him. That’s what it is.
It feels like he became sort of an ideologue.
I think he really believes what he believes. But he’s still funny. So when people go, “What happened to Dennis? He’s not funny anymore” — no, he’s still funny. If you listen to his jokes, they’re the same, it’s just that the premises are different. He still does the thing where he picks some guy from Petticoat Junction and throws him in a joke. I think the cynicism you’re talking about does happen on the right a lot more than it does on the left. When I watch Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson — there’s extreme entertainment value in what they’re doing. Tucker Carlson is practically laughing the whole time he’s on camera.
A mocking laughter. Oh, those crazy old liberals. But the liberals aren’t laughing. They’re going, Oh, those evil Republicans and saying it with real venom. It’s hard to get people on your side when you’re that guy. On an entertainment level, the Republicans may be winning just because it’s more fun to listen to them.
If fun is the goal, maybe a place like Fox should more clearly separate their entertainment from what they call their news.
That’s true. But the left is too strident. You know, I always thought Norman Lear made a big mistake with All in the Family. He thought people would relate to Meathead, but he was always whining and sponging off of Archie, whereas Archie was super funny. The left is like Meathead and the right is Archie. People are always gonna go with the funny guy over the whiner.
Are you following the Kathy Griffin stuff at all?
What she did was grotesque. Disgusting. It shows how isolated everyone is. I was golfing last week and I told the guy I was golfing with, “It’s getting pretty crazy. I heard someone say they’re trying to ‘humanize’ Trump. Well, he is human.” And this guy goes, “Well, barely.” Jesus Christ. But Kathy Griffin went about as far as you can go. It’s like she had no sense of the history of that kind of image.
It’s hard to understand how someone didn’t say to her or the photographer, “Maybe let’s dial this down from an eleven to about a seven.”
The photographer, her manager, her agent, the person who made the severed head — no one said, eeeh. And I hate the immediate apology. Why are you apologizing? You apologize and then everyone just accepts that the apology is genuine.
What’s wrong with apologizing?
If it had gone over good she wouldn’t be apologizing for it. She’s only apologizing for the result and what it might mean for her career. It’s like when a guy like Anthony Weiner says, “I’m sorry. I made a terrible decision.” A decision? You had a pros-and-cons list about texting with that 15-year-old? The action wasn’t the result of a real decision.
Our appetite for political comedy seems bottomless. Do you think it’s good for Saturday Night Live, for example, to be so defined by Trump? Is there any value to their satire?
I don’t think satire changes much. People did satire about Donald Trump for a year before the election, and he became the leader of the free world.
Do you find any Trump satire funny?
Personally, with comedy, I think if it doesn’t make you laugh 100 years from now, what good is it? Have you listened to a Mort Sahl album lately? The Eisenhower stuff is a little weak.
So it’s not working for SNL?
It’s good for them, because Saturday Night Live is at its best when it’s political. You’d think they’ll have to find another approach to Trump eventually. I can’t see making jokes with that fever behind them for so long before the whole thing collapses into itself. But, you know, I don’t want to watch things about Trump in real life, so I definitely don’t want to watch it in comedy. If I see that stuff, I change to ESPN. I can’t take Morning Joe anymore. I can’t take wall-to-wall Trump. I see his picture all the time almost like how’d you’d see Mao’s picture all the time in China. Not in a fascist way, which is how it seems like Trump’s being portrayed. I don’t think that’s the kind of person he is.
What kind of person do you think he is?
You know, people say stuff like, “You gotta wake up. Trump and his boys are trying to take over. There’s a coup going on.” That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t know much, but I know coups are not undertaken by the president of the United States. If anything, it looks like a coup going on the other way. They’re talking about impeaching a guy before any investigation has even begun.
You think he’s being treated unfairly?
Remember how people would get really mad if someone referred to President Obama as just Obama and not President Obama? “You’re talking about President Obama.” Now Trump’s critics never call him President Trump. It’s just “Trump’s over there, pretending to be president again.” The whole thing is crazy. But I think what they’re doing on Saturday Night Live is smart, especially when they go after the side characters like Spicer.
There’s probably some element of cynicism there too. SNL’s Trump stuff has done so well for them.
I don’t know, I’ll spend my time on YouTube watching William F. Buckley talking to some super intellectual on Firing Line. The funny thing is that the subjects are exactly the same. They were talking about immigration back then, too.
The subjects stayed the same, the caliber of public conversation didn’t.
Instead of dumb guys, have super-smart guys that like each other talking about stuff. Maybe someone should give that a try again.
Stories written about you almost always contain the idea that your career is an example of unfulfilled potential, or that you shot yourself in the foot when the opportunities came to be more famous. Does that feel fair to you? How have you measured success?
It’s very easy to pigeonhole someone. You have to, in life, because you can’t take the time to figure everyone out. What I’ve realized is that if I had just stayed a stand-up, I’d probably be considered a very good one. But I left stand-up and I did this one thing [Saturday Night Live] that defined everything about me after, and that hurt my stand-up. Stupidly, it took me a long time to understand that if I go to a comedy club, many people don’t know me as a stand-up. They just go, “He was on Saturday Night Live and now he’s coming to our town.” It’s like I’m making a personal appearance or something.
That’s other people. How are you defining success?
To me success is just the merit of what you’re doing. I really hate any fame. Whatever small measure I’ve had of it has always been scary. I’d walk down the street with Adam Sandler and you’d hear [whispers] “Adam Sandler, Adam Sandler.” It’s like paranoia but real; the people really are all saying your name. And Sandler has an entourage — I used to think having an entourage was such a dick move, but he needs these guys around him because if he goes out to eat, if his guys aren’t around him, he’ll be swamped with strangers. I was always averse to that kind of thing.
Does that aversion extend to the business side of show business?
I’m terrible at that, and I used to think it didn’t matter, but it matters. I remember, when I first knew him as a stand-up, Judd Apatow used to always know everything going on in the business side. And I’d think, how does he know all this? But it’s really important to know that stuff if you want to be successful — if success is defined as “more money.” I’m not equipped for that kind of thing, but if I wanted to focus on that kind of success, I’d be a step ahead of where I am now.
And are you happy where you are now?
Yeah, I always wanted to do stand-up. People laugh, you’re standing there — that’s all I ever wanted. It’s pretty simple.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.