Norm Macdonald tells stories that don’t have punchlines. He veers into material about prison rape without any warning. He trails off all the time and only occasionally comes back to whatever it was he was talking about. Basically he’s Norm Macdonald, a lovable, grinning straight-shooter packing an arsenal of scruffy jokes culled from a life devoted to comedy. He’s performed so much, in fact, that some of the humor in a Norm Macdonald set is the set itself; Norm’s not shy to comment on how he’s doing, to be the first to point out that, yes, that one story doesn’t have a punchline or that there’s not much of a transition into that prison-rape joke. (What he did say: “Hey, I was reading about prison rape…”)
Whether he’s reciting ideas he stumbled upon a while ago or some he only just now discovered, there’s always an element of danger that the whole thing could derail at any moment. It’s thrilling, and when the audience is privy to that feeling – when Norm’s able to connect his journey with those watching – he’s unstoppable. That’s why he was so successful on Saturday Night Live. Sure, it’s a show beamed to millions of households, but each one gets their own Norm, and it’s live TV. The purer the experience, when we all know and believe that anything can happen, the better.
What doesn’t serve his comedy, though, are expectations. The New York Comedy Festival gave him one show at Town Hall, which seats 1500. His face was all over every billboard. Tickets were pricy. He had an album and Comedy Central special (and, sadly, a shuttered sports show) earlier this year. These are all impurities that muddled his shaggy charm, morphing his show into a polished version of a middling effort.
To be fair, most of this had nothing to do with the actual jokes, superb takedowns of absurdities small and large, full of bizarre logic connecting point A to point B. A rant against vegetarianism derailed into talk about cannibalism, how everyone claims to be above it, but that everyone has a breaking point. He described the mental games a man would play with himself stranded in the Andes, with only a rotting dead copilot for sustenance, that might lead him to taste human flesh. But soon he leapt into the Andes themselves, and how ridiculous a scenario it would be for someone to actually find themselves stranded in the Andes unexpectedly (tourists would want a tropical island vacation, but only on an island where the Andes are in the way, and only if they take a rickety, all-white plane to get there). The story spun round and round, Macdonald grabbing the loose threads as they whizzed by and tugging wherever he could.
He let himself go along for the ride, even if it meant he found himself in dark, uncomfortable territory. He brought up Germany and World Wars I and II, but only in the context of how stupid Germany was: They took on the entire world. Twice! When there was a clear thematic throughline to his jokes, Macdonald was able to hold the audience’s attention, and they eagerly jumped on board with pretty big laughs. The longer wind-ups, though, didn’t pack as much punch at Town Hall. Near the top of the show, literally right after a lighthearted bit about how people eat differently at restaurants than at home (at home, he posited, they don’t eat an entire loaf of bread while they wait for their meal), he mentioned that he’s getting old. “I’ve seen more sunsets than I’m gonna see,” he added with a sigh and a long pause, letting the entire audience soak in what he just said. He went on to discuss hanging yourself “to escape the worthless charade called life,” continuing with over-the-top detail about purchasing a noose and a rickety stool from adjoining stores at the mall. Eventually he got to the nut of the joke—autoerotic asphyxiation—but it was clear from the dissipating chuckles that the audience wasn’t following.
Norm likes to flounder, he even told me once during an interview that he loves bombing because there’s just nothing like it. I don’t think there were moments during his set where he flat-out bombed, but I get what he meant with those words. He likes to feel out a room, breathe in its energy, and play directly to that. And every time he steered off course during this set, there was palpable discomfort. The room was too big; not everyone could read his facial expressions, those grins that lit up his face when a joke tickled just him—like when he made up the word “geopolenacist,” or the silly reasons why ghosts don’t scare him. When he joked that “The show ended about 20 minutes ago,” it became clear that something was off, that the situation wasn’t ideal and that Macdonald wasn’t on his game. (The lack of encore didn’t help things, either.) The show wasn’t for Norm or for the audience; it was for the festival.