Recently, I watched Norm Macdonald’s Netflix special Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery. Thinking about it afterwards I realized, even though I watch a lot of standup, I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. Norm’s deadpan, rambling style is the perfect delivery mechanism for his observations about life.
I wanted more and found instant gratification on—where else?—YouTube. Therein, you can find a show called Norm Macdonald Live. I watched Norm’s “interview” with Stephen Merchant (unfortunately, this episode has since disappeared from YouTube). I call it an “interview” because this isn’t 60 Minutes, Barbara Walters, or Charlie Rose. It’s clear that you need to be conversationally fit to sit across from Norm Macdonald for an hour. That’s because, as a guest, it’s not always obvious that Norm requires your presence to conduct a compelling interview. I say that in the best possible way: I’m more than happy to just hear Norm ramble and for the guest to occasionally chime in.
This particular interview has some palpable tension, as Norm tries to push Merchant’s buttons, constantly steering the conversation into the dangerous waters of topics like gender identity politics, pedophilia, and killing the Queen. Merchant does a good job of playing defense, but you can tell he’s a bit uncomfortable and slightly annoyed. Wasn’t this chat supposed to be a lighthearted stroll through his foray into show business? Eventually the interviewee addresses the problem head-on (at 34:36); a frustrated Merchant finally blurts out: “Are you an old sea captain? …are you drunk on rum? We were talking outside about why you never guest hosted… What’s weird is you’re not even drunk. And yet, the illusion of it is extraordinary. Have you had a stroke?”
Maybe this is just the mathematical impossibility of having two comedians both trying to be funny at the same time. The dilemma is always: who is going to be the straight man? Your average talk show host instinctively knows how to lay down and let the guest be the funny one. But this isn’t your average talk show and Norm isn’t your average talk show host.
Merchant eventually turns the tables, assuming the role of the interviewer and asking Norm about his methods as a stand-up comedian. What’s this, a serious question? Norm explains that his comedic style is an adaptation that keeps the jokes fresh—to himself. Adding in a bit of improv-inspired rambling solves the problem of repeating the same jokes over and over every night (at 53:41):
I think of a great, great punchline and then I just wander around. Because I used to do it by rote… But I’m not a good enough comic actor to pretend it’s my first time saying it. So instead I just started yappin’… You just think of little jokes knowing the giant joke is coming… I’m just circling it like the satellite the moon is circling this whirling cinder we call earth.
Often, while I’m having a conversation with someone, the following happens: they will bring up a topic and instinctively my mind will flash the message, “Stick with this! There’s something funny in here somewhere…” Examples include: colonoscopies, divorces, and drywall installation techniques. Confident that the punchline is near, you can relax and saunter around the subject until the joke comes together.
Norm ends the episode with a brilliant display of his signature wandering technique, telling a type of joke known as the “shaggy dog story.” This format is well-suited to those storytellers who are content to drift along, peppering the narrative with seemingly irrelevant details. That’s because this style depends upon a long buildup that contentedly holds off the anticlimactic punchline. A musical analogy would be the use of pedal points, those very long notes in the bass section that are often employed to great effect in classical music. My choir director once responded to our complaints that these were boring to sing (and hear) by saying “No! Those sustained notes create tension. The longer the better. The audience is wondering: when is this thing going to end?!”
In that vein, listen to Norm’s hilarious “Dirty Johnny” story (told at the end of the interview with Merchant), which had me gasping for lack of air:
Thank god for the hatchery.
- Brigham, Robert. Comedian Danny Kaye entertains troops of the 1st US Cav. Div., during show held at Div. HQS, Korea. Nov. 9, 1951. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200197244/.