tv review

Norm Macdonald Has a Show Is a Comedy Relic

Photo: Eddy Chen / Netflix

Netflix’s Norm Macdonald Has a Show is a talk show designed to make one person comfortable, and to make one person laugh. That second part is not a huge problem: Norm Macdonald’s sense of humor is not for everyone, but there are viewers who will enjoy his long memory for the history of comedy and his interest in Old Hollywood stories. They’ll also enjoy his taste for under-delivery, self-deprecation, and his jokes about hookers, trying to hit on women, and all the coke everyone did back in the day.

But the sense that the entire series is built to feed the needs and reinforce the perspective of a single person, well, that’s more frustrating. Norm Macdonald Has a Show could have been designed as a platform for his guests. It could have been oriented more toward the show’s audience — who, one would imagine, are people who are not Norm Macdonald. Instead, the whole thing feels like it could just as easily have taken place without cameras in Macdonald’s basement. It also seems like Macdonald might find that arrangement pretty satisfying.

The show isn’t served well by its shaggy first episode, featuring guest David Spade. Macdonald and Spade wander onto the small set in a daze, and Spade keeps asking how things are supposed to work. Will Macdonald introduce him? Are there commercial breaks? What’s the format of this thing? Who’s supposed to be the audience? Macdonald just shrugs and rolls ahead, taking obvious pleasure in his guest’s minor discomfort. At one point, while Spade believes they’re taking a break and camera equipment rolls by in front of the interview desk, Spade cracks that the set’s still being built while they’re shooting it. It’s meant as a joke, but it’d be funnier if it felt less true. It’s not the incomplete set that’s the larger problem, though. It’s the general sense that no one prepared all that much, and that it doesn’t matter because they’re just figuring it out as they go.

Norm Macdonald Has a Show is a part of a genre that once felt subversive and fresh. Macdonald’s interview style is aiming for raw conversations, with the intended goal of just being honest and authentic, man. It’s about just sittin’ around, tellin’ stories, havin’ a great time, shootin’ the shit. But where this might once have seemed like daring response to overly stuffy, overly scripted interview programs, Macdonald’s show is now just one in a vast supply of #authentic #content, many of them already focused on showcasing comedians. To be fair, most of those shows are podcasts rather than talk shows, and in that way, Norm Macdonald Has a Show isn’t that far from WTF With Marc Maron or You Made It Weird or (shudders) The Joe Rogan Experience. The difference is that in the best of those shows, the interviewer seems to have prepared. Or at least given thought to the way they want the arc of the conversation to run.

It’s not that Macdonald is actually under-prepared about the work and lives of his guests. He’s eminently knowledgeable, especially about obscure comedy personalities and classic films. It’s more that his entire style is to downplay that intelligence, which then either makes his guests feel uncomfortable, or implies that all the responsibility for the way the show runs belongs to the guest. At one point, Jane Fonda chides Macdonald. “I know you’ve done enough research to know [better],” she tells him, after he makes an intentional mistake about the role of a love interest in one of Fonda’s films. “I need no research to talk to you,” Macdonald responds, “because I’ve grown up with you. I’ve Jazzercised.” “That’s not what I did,” Fonda replies, referring to her workout videos, which were called Jane Fonda’s Workout. “Oh yeah, I know,” Macdonald says, “but they later called it ‘Jazzercise.’ They stole your idea.” Fonda nods, still slightly confused about what this conversation is about. It’s hard to blame her.

For fans of Macdonald’s comedy, this will feel right in his wheelhouse. But it’s hard to get away from the sense that Macdonald doesn’t particularly care, and that he is its only intended audience. He may be cracking a joke about how he’s “grown up” with Fonda and that should be enough, but the fundamental idea is still that his own interests and worldview are the only things on display.

Occasionally, Macdonald’s interests make space for the interests of his guests. Sometimes his guests are allowed to tell full stories. But even when Macdonald is intentionally deferential or flattering, there’s a sense that he has very little interest in what he might derisively refer to as “political correctness” and I would think of as “considering women to be something other than sexual objects.” He asks if Spade has ever paid for “straight sex,” which Spade pauses before answering, “Indirectly … there’s a lot of hybrid hookers out there.” “What do you mean?” Macdonald responds, gamely. “I mean, you go out on a date, you fool around a little bit, and a few days later it’s like, Hey, I need a new radiator,” Spade says. Macdonald laughs heartily.

In the two episodes provided to critics where the show’s guest is a woman, Macdonald leads with commentary that feels tilted toward their gender. His first question for Jane Fonda is, “Who do you consider sexy?” He tells Drew Barrymore how overwhelming he finds her “radiance,” something he first noticed when he saw her at a Souplantation years ago. But it doesn’t matter if you’re on a talk show or a city street: Beginning a conversation with a woman by saying that you saw her at a salad bar and found her “magnetic and radiant” will never be anything but off-putting.

I’m not suggesting that Norm Macdonald should not be allowed to have interesting conversations with people he finds appealing. Of course he should do that: When he gives them room to do so, the stories he gets his guests to tell are fascinating, especially when they’re digging up old, untold stories about the entertainment industry. I just wish the cultural sense that women were more than sexual objects didn’t have to get dug up along the anecdotes. It makes Macdonald feel like a man out of his time, like a talk-show host who belongs to an older era, a time when one straight white male boomer’s amusement was enough to render something compelling.

Norm Macdonald Has a Show Is a Comedy Relic