in conversation

In Conversation: Norm Macdonald

“I’d always learned that concealing everything was art. And I still believe that.”

Photo: Nigel Parry for Vulture
Photo: Nigel Parry for Vulture
Photo: Nigel Parry for Vulture

Note: This interview was originally published on September 13, 2018. We have republished it following the news of Macdonald’s death on September 14, 2021.

In the days and weeks surrounding the premiere of his Netflix talk show Norm Macdonald Has a Show, Norm Macdonald fans were treated to the full, frequently exasperating Norm Macdonald experience. There were glowing testaments to the stand-up and former Saturday Night Live cast member’s formalist comedic skills — as well as the shambling charms of the new show itself — and then there were his cringeworthy comments about Louis C.K. and Roseanne in a Hollywood Reporter interview. Macdonald apologized on Twitter, The Tonight Show canceled his scheduled appearance — the whole thing was a mess. The next morning, Macdonald went on Howard Stern’s radio show to explain his side of things, and also to say he’d never do another print interview again (though at least one has trickled out since then).

Macdonald and I had spoken at the Vulture office the day before his THR interview was published. I didn’t get to ask him about what had happened, or about his thinking on the subjects in question. Instead we talked about, well, just about everything else.

You’ve been vocal for a long time about wanting a talk show. Now that you have one, what does it mean to you?
I thought I wanted one. It’s fun, but once I got it I realized how difficult it is. It’s a peculiar type of person that can host one, because you have to be interested in every guest. Somebody like Letterman, who really has very little interest in an actor telling a story about their second swimming pool not working, can feign interest and make a guest that’s uninteresting interesting and funny. It’s some alchemy that he [Letterman] knows how to do. My fear was that I don’t know how to interview people who I’m not interested in. I don’t want to do all this research. And [Netflix’s Ted Sarandos] was like, “Just do people you’re interested in.” I go, “There’s not that many.” And he’s like, “You’re interested in ten people. Do ten episodes.” So that was a great relief.

The show is very conventional in its way.
It’s conventional for old shows. I don’t know about for new shows though. It was important to me that we not do anything political. [Johnny] Carson went through Vietnam and Watergate and I don’t think he ever addressed either thing. And that’s all right.

But how much bearing should how the way things were done successfully in the past have on how they could be done in the present? Before Bob Dylan came along, for example, and exploded what was possible in a rock song, plenty of people were successful singing exclusively about romance.
Yeah, I loved it when the folkies would cover a Dylan song and they didn’t know what the song was about. I’m sorry, you were going to say that Dylan spawned a bunch of bad shit.

My point was more that Dylan reinvented something about which you could imagine other performers saying, “Who gives a shit what a singer thinks about the world?” Do you know what I mean?

So isn’t that a sign that it can be good when things change?
But comedy — I don’t know. Comedy has a specific thing about it. I don’t really like satire. I think it’s very minor; I think parody is very major comedy. Like, Nabokov to me is the highest form of parody. But that stupid Jonathan Swift thing that everybody talks about — I read that. It sucked.

Gulliver’s Travels?
Yeah, it’s horrible. So I don’t like satire that much, and also these guys [contemporary talk-show hosts] are nightclub comics. They’re not Bob Dylan. They’re just guys, and they get talk shows and suddenly they’re telling me how I shouldn’t be sad because of the Manchester bombing and I can escape the horrors of life because they’re going to interview someone from Two Broke Girls or whatever the fuck they do. When I was a kid, if I’d heard Red Skelton talking about the government I would’ve thought, This is fucking weird. To me, it hurts the comedy any time anything real creeps into it. I know people have different thoughts. I keep hearing how great Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks and Mort Sahl are. People have their own taste, but to me, all three of those people are just shit. They’re not comedians in my mind.

It never used to be the case that lots of people cared in a serious way about comedy and comedians. But now there’s interest even in something like the way comedians consider things like form and its relationship to truth. I’m thinking of how people responded to Hannah Gadsby’s or Drew Michael’s work.
What does Drew Michael do?

There’s no audience in his special. It’s him performing against a black …  
There’s no audience?

No audience.
Shit, I was going to do that, but it was going to be funny. But fuck it. I won’t do that anymore.

He’s also playing with the idea of what makes something “stand-up,” and …
[Macdonald picks up his phone and makes a call.] A guy did a fucking special with no crowd.

Who are you calling?
A guy did a special with no audience in the fucking — I don’t know! [To me:] What’s his name?

Drew Michael.
Drew Michael. Can you fucking believe that? Whatever. I’ll talk to you later.

Who were you calling?
Someone at Netflix.

But I guess my larger question is if you think this shift in the kind of attention paid to comedy, and the work that’s held up as a result, is a bad turn for comedy as a whole or if you just think this is not for me?
It’s hard for me to say because I haven’t seen Hannah Gadsby, but anybody that tells me that stand-up is no good — I take that personally because I’m a stand-up. But I understand these people are trying to be heard and, you know, I was guilty of having that stupid idea that Drew Michael already did. I probably wouldn’t have done it anyway.

Why not?
Because stand-up is a form and to subvert something, you have to do it perfectly first. I remember somebody showed me a talk show with “subversion” in it — the guy chainsawed his desk. It was so stupid. Why did you build a desk in the first place if you were only going to chainsaw it? Don’t have a fucking desk! You just want little drops of subversion. Letterman in the ‘80s would be 90 percent a great talk show and then 10 percent subversion. If you get to 30 percent subversion, you’re in Andy Kaufman land. If you get to 70 percent, you’re a guy on the streets screaming at people. What are you trying to subvert anyway? Entertaining people? It’s absurd.

And you see the kind of subversion we’re talking about as a form of intellectual grandstanding?
Certainly. And for stand-up, a lot of it is bragging. It used to drive me crazy when I knew that a stand-up’s agenda was about showing how smart they were. The last character you want to be is a guy who’s smarter than the audience. But there’s some hole inside that these stand-ups have to fill. It has nothing to do with making people laugh.

Photo: Nigel Parry for Vulture

Does comedy have any special relationship to the truth?
I wouldn’t pretend to ever know the truth. But comedy in its highest form always reveals something. Maybe you could call that a truth. But what I don’t like is the idea that suffering, or pain, or being a victim — you could say that leads to art, and maybe it does, but it’s not art in itself.

For sure. But there are good and bad forms of every art.
But I’m telling you this: I’ve heard people go onstage and talk about cancer or some shit, and I go, “Isn’t this what happens to everybody?” They seem to think they’re singular in their story when their story is the most common story that could possibly be, which is suffering and pain.

I’m not sure I accept that argument unless you’re also saying that comedy exists in a moral void and the only fundamental question that should ever be asked about it is, “Is this funny?” Maybe that’s the case. I don’t know. But I’m also thinking of writers who I know you like, someone like Alice Munro: Her characters aren’t put in situations that make you think, Nobody on Earth has ever experienced a similar thing. It’s what she’s able to do with commonplace experience that makes her so amazing.  
But Alice Munro doesn’t wallow in self-pity.

So that’s the key distinction for you?
Of course. Alice Munro finds beauty in what she writes, and that’s what every artist does because life sucks, you know?

Yeah, I do.
I guess there came a time, and I missed it, when revealing everything started to be considered art. I’d always learned that concealing everything was art. And I still believe that, because comedy is a vulgar art; it’s an art that’s just beginning to take form because it’s so young. But I can look at other art forms and see how postmodernism has destroyed them, and now threatens to destroy stand-up. It’s the height of narcissism to write meta-comedy, because people aren’t interested in comedy. They’re interested in going home after shoveling shit all day and then seeing some fool perform. That’s not to say that comedy can’t make a greater point, because it can. But it can’t make a greater point by screeching to a stop in the middle of the comedy show, making a point, and then going back to the jokes. You’ve got to craft the point into the joke. I always bristle when people say, “The comedian is the modern-day philosopher.” There are modern-day philosophers.

What you were saying a second ago about art and concealment — maybe I’m naïve but I often interpret a lot of your comments, especially on Twitter, as mostly about you trying to upset other people’s expectations.
Which is why I sometimes feel like I’m considered right wing. I’m just fucking around.

So when you make jokes, like you did to Conan and Larry King, about being “deeply closeted” — which, out of curiosity, are you?
[Laughs.] I don’t know. I do know that if I want to make a joke about something — let’s say I want to make joke about something trans. I’m not allowed to. But I am allowed if I’m trans. So I’ll be trans. The whole point of everything nowadays is that you can be anything you want to be. Someone that’s born male and identifies as male, we used to call that “male.” Now we call it “cis-male.” Even though 99.9 percent of the public perceives themselves to be the same gender that the mirror perceives, we can’t say that’s “male.”

I have two thoughts in response to what you’re saying. The first is something I read in the New York Times Magazine story about you: In it you mentioned that your son had said to you, “Why do you always need to feel you understand things?” I think that’s relevant here. And the second is that I’ve had some bad things happen in my life, like everyone, but I’ve never had the experience of feeling that who I am puts me at odds with what other people believe is right or wrong. And if I can make someone who is in that position feel even a little more comfortable in their life, then what’s the skin off my back? Why wouldn’t I do that?
No skin off your back. And yeah, my son said, “Why do you have to understand stuff?” I believe I don’t have to anymore. Because when I try to, I always come back to the conclusion that things are the way I see them. Just as the other person thinks things are the way they see them. But I know trans people. I love trans people. I have a friend that completely transitioned to a woman and he’s a great guy — I mean, he’s a great woman! You can’t even say they were men back when they were. I now have to say that a woman won the decathlon in 1976, and that change I can’t get my mind around.

These changes just don’t seem like a big deal to me. If some guy said to you, “My name used to be Rick and I changed it to John. It’s very important to me that you call me John from now on,” I don’t think your response would be, “That’s insane. Why in God’s name should I change my whole worldview to call you John?” So what’s really the problem? A vocabulary change seems like such a minor accommodation.
There’s a guy I knew when I was about 19, his name was Billy and he changed his name to Monty. He was a bad guy, this Billy guy, so he changed his name to Monty. He thought doing that was going to change who he was. Anyway, one time we were playing softball and he was in the on-deck circle. So I’m yelling at him, using his new name: “Monty!” But he doesn’t hear it because he’s not used to that name. So I go, “Monty! Monty!” And then I go, “Billy!” and he goes, “I’m Monty!” [Laughs.] That could be in a movie or something. But God bless trans people. They should be given every right in the world, and anybody who wants to hurt them is bad.

What was the mood when the Roseanne whirlwind started to happen?
She had made the comments after we’d already finished writing the show; the show had already been on TV even. When it all happened I talked to Roseanne and, oddly, she was like, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe you called.” Nobody had even talked to her. People that she’s directly responsible for — their livelihood or success. She made a lot of people a lot of money. I was kind of worried about her. I don’t judge what she said. How can I judge that? Unless everyone else is without sin, how can you do that?

I don’t know what the right examples to bring up are — Louis C.K.’s situation comes to mind — but it does seem like we’re all still figuring out what proper forgiveness should like these days.
There doesn’t seem to be forgiveness. I’ve talked to Louis all through this. He’s been haunted by this for a decade, looking over his shoulder.

I think his behavior and his lying about it may have had something to do with that.
That’s true. I also think a lot of the anti-Louis stuff was the ugliness of the sexual situation in itself. If you had a video of consensual sex between two people and their thing was getting fisted up the asshole, you could ruin their lives by showing it. Sex, consensual or nonconsensual, is a shameful thing.

But the consensual/nonconsensual aspect of this is the key part of it.
Of course. Nonconsensual is the worst thing that sex can be.

Do you really think sex is a shameful thing?
Yeah, I do.

I read that you’re working on a dating app?
I am. Yeah.

That’s like somebody who’s afraid of heights writing a manual for pilots.
I have this friend, Vivek. He’s a tech guy. He’s divorced and he went on all these dating apps. He was telling me all the problems about these things. I understood immediately: The problem was all the first dates he had to go on. I said, “Have the first date be on Skype.” Have the first date there; get rid of all the false narratives that people put in about themselves when they’re texting or whatever. Just do 15 minutes where you can see each other. Cut away all the other stuff. It’s not an idea I’m especially proud of.

When you said that sex is shameful, do you mean how we’re made to feel about it or that there’s something shameful inherent in the act itself?
The act of sex itself isn’t inherently bad. I mean in the regard that we don’t talk about it over dinner.

I have a question on a different subject.

I was looking through Artie Lange’s new book, and there’s a bunch of stories in it about him gambling with you. And the idea of your hanging out with him, and the fact that you used to hang out with Chris Farley — I think of you as abstemious, so it’s hard to square that with your hanging out with these excessive characters.
Abstemious is what I am, but I’m drawn to people like Artie and Farley. We’re all drawn to that Falstaffian character. But he [Farley] died very young. Then Artie showed up, and I was hanging out with him. Artie takes a certain pride — you see this with a lot of sober people who used to be alcoholics: All they ever do is crow about their alcoholic days. Their whole identity is the absence of what they used to be. It’s not like they’ve found anything else. But Artie takes pride in this. I talk to Artie, now and again, but I refuse to abet his misadventures.

Just because of the recent news: Do you have any particular memories or stories about Burt Reynolds?
Yeah, I met him a few times. I always loved him. Burt had the timing of a stand-up. When I was doing my impression, I was like, “I know why I’m getting laughs: because I’m stealing his great work.” He was a fascinating guy. He would tell me all these great stories on the phone. He told me some fucking wild shit.

Can you remember a story that he told you?
I’m trying to think of a PG one.

It doesn’t have to be PG.
I’ll stay away from the one topic that he was obsessed with. He did tell me about when he could get any girl in the ’70s: One day he was in a hotel in a casino in Las Vegas. The most gorgeous girl comes up to him and says, “Come up to my room right now.” So he goes with her up to the room, and he’s necking with her on the bed. Eventually she whispers in his ear all seductively, “I’ll be right back. I have to take a dump.” So she went to the bathroom, and then he’s like, “What?!” and ran away. I’m like, “You ran away on a girl?” He’s like, “Don’t worry about it. There was another girl on the 12th floor.” On the elevator ride down, he met another girl.

You don’t have to tell me the story, but what was the one subject Burt Reynolds was obsessed with?
I think it should be this: He thought people thought he was gay. There’s nothing wrong with that — unless you’re not gay. Then it’s not that fun.

You had that night a few weeks ago where you replied to something like 50 of Lena Dunham’s tweets. What the hell was that about? Were you just bored?
I don’t know who people are. Someone said, “You know who’s great? Lena Dunham.” I didn’t know who she was, and they didn’t tell me she had a program on TV. I thought she was some philosopher or something. So I went on Lena Dunham’s thing [Twitter feed] and read all her nonsense or whatever you call the little aphorisms she comes up with about life. And I would answer the tweets as if I was talking to someone. But then people were like, “Yeah, fuck her!” And I’m like, “What? I’m not trying to hurt her.” So then I erased everything and I typed to Lena Dunham and I said, “Listen, for fun I did a bunch of things answering your stupid things you wrote. But I don’t dislike you or anything and I erased them all.” She wrote back. She was very nice. She said she had thick skin because I guess a whole bunch of people hate her or something. I didn’t know she was a big person.

It’s even weirder if you didn’t know who she was. You just picked some random stranger to correct their use of the word “literal” on Twitter?
Well, that does bother me. They told me what a writer she [Dunham] was. Whenever somebody tells me that someone’s a great writer and the first thing you see is “literal” used incorrectly…

Forget about your career, do you think Twitter has been good for you as a human being?
It’s definitely bad for me as a human being.

How so?
It’s another way of wasting time and I don’t need that. I don’t have alcohol. I don’t have cigarettes. I don’t have drugs. I don’t have that much gambling anymore. But I do have YouTube, sports, and Twitter — and I only got so much time. When I get sad it’s when I see how little time I have left and how I’m wasting it. Gambling was always like that. It wasn’t the money I lost, it was the time.

You know what makes me feel that way?
What makes you feel it?

I can imagine being on my deathbed and thinking, Why did I waste so many meals on yogurt?
Absolutely. You know, I think about my deathbed a lot.

What do you think about it?
I think I should never have purchased a deathbed in the first place.

Do you go to church?
No, no. I don’t like organized religion so much. I know two rabbis and I talk to them a lot because I don’t understand the Old Testament and they do. They know stuff. I was raised Protestant and they don’t know anything. If you’re in a Protestant household and you bring up Jesus, everybody’s like, “What?! We’re trying eat!” The last thing they want to hear — the last thing anybody wants to hear — is “Jesus.” Actually, if you’re another religion people respect that, but if a guy comes up to you, “Has Jesus … ” “Get out of my face!” “I’m just asking you, do you like Jesus?” “Get out!”

I have to admit that I can never quite follow that line of argument. Aren’t Christians in this country doing okay?
Yeah, they have done pretty good. And you see the power of Jesus when atheists like him. Atheists will go, “Well, that’s not what Jesus would’ve done.” I agree with them! But the two themes I’m interested in now are God and love. That’s the hardest stuff to write about in a comedic way. It’s so easy to write about the pain or the ordinariness of man. It’s not that I have a great deal of jokes right now about love and God, but I thought those would be, by far, the hardest subjects and that that [material] would be part of my third special and then I’d be finished.

With specials?
With comedy entirely. I don’t have that much to say. You shouldn’t be doing too many specials. But I like that those guys [Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle] got $20 million [to do Netflix specials]. When I started, all I wanted to do was stand-up but you had to do other things.

Like try and get a movie or a sitcom?
Yeah, because you were afraid. You’d think, I don’t want to be on the road when I’m 70, trying to eke out a living. So I think it’s good what Netflix is paying. That kind of money means that the next wave of comedians maybe can just be comedians and not have to do anything else. They wouldn’t have to chase anything. Pure comedy would be enough.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Norm Macdonald, in Conversation