the great bits

Norm Macdonald Delivered the First Great Set on Coronavirus

Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Many of the comedy clubs of planet Earth are closed for the foreseeable future. To function, they require a large group of strangers to squeeze into a small room with no windows and a low ceiling. It’s a horrendous idea with a rampantly infectious virus on the loose. It’s sad; in anxious times, stand-up comedy can relieve worry and provide a new perspective on our hardships. Livestreams and videos featuring stand-ups pop up hourly, yet without human beings there to react, it’s not the same. Stand-up comedy is a conversation, and an empty room and webcam are poor conversation partners.

But if public safety demands that live comedy go on hiatus, at least Norm Macdonald has given it a proper season finale. On March 13 at the Hollywood Improv, he delivered the first great set about the coronavirus, just as it began to dominate people’s minds. In five minutes and 33 seconds, Macdonald reminded us of the power and purpose of stand-up comedy.

Macdonald’s set doesn’t build to a powerful crescendo. It isn’t crammed with clever wordplay, nor is it punctuated with precise act-outs honed in front of hundreds of audiences. If this were a late-night set, you could be forgiven for finding it sloppy. That’s because Macdonald has never said any of this before in his life. How could he have? The feelings and experiences he describes hadn’t become common among Americans until that very week. Macdonald pinpoints his anxieties in a terrifying moment and shares them with the crowd.

It is true that entertainers don’t risk their safety or the safety of others the way paramedics, nurses, or even construction workers do. They do, however, risk letting people down who gave them their trust. They risk compounding the audience’s unhappiness instead of relieving it. They risk their future employment whenever they take chances in front of a possible recording device. Performing any new bit is scary, even one about Spotify or The Masked Singer. Thirty seconds of untried material makes a comic antsy; five whole minutes is horrifying. On the flip side, tackling controversial topics can be nerve-racking even when you’ve done the bit 50 times. Addressing a deadly pandemic with unstructured, unrehearsed thoughts, with your status as a beloved icon on the line, shows courage. Courage is what this moment demands.

Macdonald acknowledges the risk upfront. “I wasn’t gonna talk about the coronavirus,” he begins. The audience squirms. One person says “Ew.” They are right to be nervous. Only someone with Macdonald’s experience could pull this off. He has such masterful comedy chops that his off-the-cuff observations come out in joke form. He has trained his brain to produce lean, elegant, low-word-count bits the first time he says them, and he edits his thoughts down to only the most crucial information before they leave his mouth. He imitates a radio announcer delivering the news: “Well there’s been, so far, eleven cases — fifty! TWO HUNDRED!” In just ten perfect words, he nails the speed at which the crisis first surrounded us. He earns the audience’s laughter and their trust.

“I feel like I’m in the fucking middle of a Stephen King novel or some fucking thing,” he continues. Working “clean” won’t capture the horror-fiction insanity we’ve been dropped into. Macdonald says he knows other people will die but hopes to make it long enough that he will live. The crowd understands. Selfish thoughts are inevitable, even when we’re supposed to come together as the all-for-one America of our mythology.

“It’s funny how Big Pharma is so evil ‘til now,” Macdonald says with enviable brevity. “It’s like, what is it? 200 dollars a pill? Yeah that’s good, that’s fine,” he adds, resigned to anything that might save his life. The audience laughs. When we’re desperate, our notions of justice go out the window. “It’s funny that we all now know how we’re gonna die,” he observes. “It’s just a matter of what order at this point.” Macdonald then accidentally touches his cheek. “Oh, I can’t touch my fucking face!” he remembers. The audience erupts. It’s maddening to now have to monitor an activity we didn’t even notice before, and hearing someone express it is a huge release. Macdonald adds, “Remember the good old days when washing your hands didn’t take three hours!?” He gets his biggest laugh yet. He mimes rubbing his hands under the sink, singing: “A, B, C, D … Just take me now.” Another big laugh. Sometimes a comedian doesn’t need a crafted joke. Vocalizing the audience’s thoughts can be enough, and hearing a room full of people confirm that they feel it too delivers a powerful message.

Macdonald says that whatever he says tonight, “every moment I’ll be thinking of this disease.” The crowd lets him know they feel the same way. He gets another laugh by stepping away from the front row to avoid being infected. He observes that in this era of intense screen time, quarantine will be easy. Macdonald will be happy to shun his friends for ESPN’s Max Kellerman. Even in an improvised set during a virus panic, seasoned pro Macdonald gets a hard “K” into his punchline.

Throughout the set, Macdonald references being on cocaine. The audience is unsure whether to believe him until he mentions tasting baby laxatives in his throat. Realizing he’s actually on drugs, they laugh. Cocaine is no longer glamorous, especially in your 60s. Macdonald’s admission shows that even in a crisis, when our inner Jason Bourne is supposed to take over, we are still flawed humans. We’re going to react irrationally, and it’s okay to admit it.

“I was talking to the manager — he was like ‘Nobody wants to hear about the fucking coronavirus,’” Macdonald reveals. “They come here to not hear about the coronavirus.” In their conscious minds, the audience want to escape from those thoughts, yet Macdonald gave them nothing but the pandemic for five minutes and they loved it. The purpose of stand-up comedy is to shine a light on dark things and make them less frightening, to turn fear into laughter. On March 13, 2020, there was no way for Macdonald to do that without talking about the coronavirus.

“Good choice you made,” Macdonald concludes, “to come out and sit beside total strangers.” The audience gives him his biggest laugh yet. Not only are they all in danger, they voluntarily made it worse.

Macdonald didn’t make anybody safer with his set. He didn’t provide any useful information. What he did was let 200 people know that he felt just like they did, and so did 199 others. The burden of their fear got lighter knowing they shared it with everyone in the room. Macdonald proved to that audience that we truly are all in this together, and that is the best thing stand-up comedy can do.

Norm Macdonald Delivered the First Great Set on Coronavirus