Early in Norm Macdonald's new stand-up special, he talks about how he doesn't do well chit-chatting at parties. "You know the way people have opinions," he says. "Well, I got none."
This is a fib. The last time Norm Macdonald was on the radar was just a few weeks ago. On Twitter, which he uses extensively, he took issue with the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
He didn't care for it. At all. He referred to the book as "a sub-par piece of science-fi trash," dismissed Atwood's writing skills and thought the punditry suggesting that the dystopian story was "timely" was ridiculous. He tweeted, "To call it timely, when the possibility of this fiction ever becoming fact is even more of a joke, is just a cynical cash-grab." Now, that's an opinion.
There was a minor fuss about this. A lot of people took umbrage. And Macdonald's scorn gave succour to a certain type of right-wing crackpot. "Norm Macdonald pours cold water on Left's loony love affair with Handmaid's Tale" was the delighted headline on some crank's online thingamajig. Macdonald then returned to tweeting about hockey, basketball and stuff like that.
Was he joking? No. Probably not. As a Canadian, he'd be familiar with Atwood's work. He simply takes a dim view of Atwood's prose and the speculative coverage suggesting that Atwood's dystopian world is nigh. So, he's entitled. Then, after doing many breathless tweets about hockey, he turned his attention to promoting Hitler's Dog, Gossip & Trickery, his stand-up special that started streaming on Netflix on Tuesday. He doesn't do many stand-up TV specials, you see. This is only his second.
Macdonald has been around for decades but nobody has a handle on Norm Macdonald. Often, he's referred to as "the Saturday Night Live alumnus" because he anchored Weekend Update for a few years. And, regularly, somebody writes a piece bemoaning the fact that Macdonald has never had a TV vehicle worthy of his style of comedy.
Hitler's Dog, Gossip & Trickery, which is a ridiculous title, tells you a lot about him. It tells you why Macdonald has never found a TV vehicle that actually suits him. He's too self-deprecating, shrugging and mercurial, and he's never honed a slick persona that could be easily transferred to a sitcom. He's very clever. He tells stories that sound like truthful, rueful reminiscences about childhood, but his allegiance to the truth of autobiography is non-existent. He's funny in a way that's unique these days. Only Louis CK comes close to matching Macdonald's offhand but scathing insights into the world we live in. But nobody can carve out and tell a long-winded shaggy-dog story like Macdonald.
The entire special is, in fact, one long tangled tale that might be called a shaggy-dog story. It's probably an inaccurate description, though. He talks about sandwiches. Specifically, the little triangular ones you get at showbiz parties. This is funny but not scintillating. Then, he's talking about suicide. The suicide bit leads to a hilarious but acid slice of humour about auto-erotic asphyxiation that is, somehow, also about family and taking care of kids.
There's a wonderful bit in which he ponders at length the absurdity of the slogan "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." And there's a devastatingly accurate bit about fame. He's used this observation on late-night shows but here it's been polished. He points out that Harrison Schmitt is the most recent person to have walked on the moon. But nobody's really heard of him. And yet everybody knows the Kardashians who are merely famous for their large posteriors.
A lot of the material is of the "When I was young …" variety. The Canadian comic is 57 now, so he's hardly elderly, but he has an excellent knack for skewering the absurdities of this digital age. And, at the same time, he has fun pondering what a metaphor is and why certain metaphors work.
It's that kind of material which sets him apart. He's well-read, thoughtful, passionate about the transforming power of comedy that is anchored in truth. And yet, he approaches the truth in an emotionally circumspect manner. This is a strange, fabulous, very funny stand-up special. An absolute gem.
Yes, Macdonald belongs on TV, but doing this – a stand-up act that's been nurtured and is sturdy in its comic approach to the frustrations and contradictions of just being alive and aware. As for The Handmaid's Tale, he was being honest, not hateful.