'Norm Macdonald Has a Show': TV Review

A train wreck.
9/14/2018

Netflix's new talk show was a disaster even before its star opened his mouth and hurt it.

For the sake of clarity, during a week when Norm Macdonald has been putting his foot in his mouth repeatedly (and could conceivably keep doing it), I'll note here that I've been a fan of Macdonald and his off-kilter, intentionally reductive comedy for years. He's made a career out of being very clearly not for everyone, from his earliest Saturday Night Live days through his stand-up performances, into his TV shows and, perhaps most persuasively, his frequent and shambolic appearances on talk shows (usually hosted by comedians who adore him for what he does).

But Norm Macdonald Has a Show, his new Netflix series, is pretty terrible. It's labor-intensive to get through. In the moments when it's disastrously bad, you wonder if that's the joke; given that Macdonald is notoriously adherent to anti-jokes and anti-stories as a conceit, it's at least a possibility. 

But no. Netflix basically thought the concept of his podcast — Norm Macdonald Live, with co-host Adam Eget, who reprises his role here of laughing uproariously, often without cause — would make a good show. And since Macdonald frequently mentions Netflix's Ted Sarandos in the premiere, it's quite possible this series lives because Sarandos liked it and said sure, why not, which is an operating principle that has worked way more often than it has failed over at the streaming Death Star. 

But whatever calculus went into bringing Norm Macdonald Has a Show to life missed something essential to the equation: Macdonald has always thrived as the guy people don't really get. He's made a career out of being a hero among comics, with a penchant for seemingly fearless iconoclastic detours that others with more at stake probably wouldn't take. Macdonald will do it because he's the guy who fails over in the corner and then goes on talk shows and recalls the horror of it all. He's the guy who dabbles in things that seem too low-wattage for his talents. He's exactly the guy who does the shambolic podcast, and it's funny and odd and almost off the grid and seems very DIY and, well, that's Norm. 

The problem with making a TV series out of this is that people expect a certain production level and an interviewer who entertains and keeps things lively with his wit and curiosity. A podcast can be a train wreck and nobody will really give a damn, but they will if you turn it into a TV series on Netflix.

In the higher-profile setting, the host is so far off his game that his guests know immediately that it's not working. Norm Macdonald Has a Show is a painful thing to watch, which means that it might be hard to get more than the most die-hard Macdonald fans to tune in.

Then — and yes, here it comes — when you put your foot in your mouth about the #MeToo movement, defend a racist and also make a joke about Down syndrome while trying to make amends, well, you're coming out of the chute in the wrong direction. Whether or not this is a concern for Netflix is likely not to be an instantaneously identifiable thing, because the streamer doesn't rely on ratings. Given its impenetrable Death Star role in the TV universe, it can and often does raise its shields and go silent on anything that might be damaging. If Norm Macdonald Has a Show doesn't end up working for Netflix (and talk shows are not its strength), you'll probably know in six months or a year, when a press release goes out on a Friday.

But the take-away here is that the show was bad before the foot (or both feet) went into the mouth. It's also why I noted up front that I'm a fan of his. Otherwise, a negative review of Norm Macdonald Has a Show might be dismissed by his loyalists as being tied to something other than the content.

About that content: It's bad.

The first show — each is a little more than half an hour — features David Spade and, as a side note, it might be the best and funniest Spade talk show appearance in recent memory. Spade is focused, on his game and tells a few choice stories that are honest and funny and even enlightening. But mostly what he does is note that the show seems beyond low-rent (which is intentional) but poorly executed and ill-conceived, which it is. Spade notices that the host is not listening and cutting him off on several occasions. Eventually he shifts from making light of it to saying, at one point, "Give them a fucking second to laugh," referring to the collection of people who are not really an audience per se but are there in the dark corners of the broom closet where the show is filmed. 

Spade knows Macdonald, he gets Macdonald. But it's interesting to note that several times Spade's face gives way to a look of concern that, yes, this really is an omnishambles situation with no real exit. Macdonald seems barely coherent at times: forgetful, directionless, uninterested and distracted. It gets so bad that Spade says, in all sincerity, "Is this going to go down as a test show?" He repeats the funny and accurate "test show" remark again, seemingly sincerely worried.

It's not a test show. It's the premiere (or at least marked that way by Netflix on its review site).

The second show, with Drew Barrymore, is saved only because Barrymore is, as always, game for anything and just goes with it. Even so, she repeatedly and understandably says, "I don't get it" to many of Macdonald's jokes or references. "I like your freewheeling format," Barrymore says, generously covering up the fact that there doesn't appear to be a format. Macdonald jokes about commercial breaks (there are none, obviously, because it's Netflix) and, inexplicably, the screen will fade to a shot of the title card while you can still hear the show going on in the background. The camerawork and direction can best be described as intentionally unhelpful.

I skipped to the fourth episode, with David Letterman, mostly because Letterman is billed as "special counsel" to the series, he loves Macdonald, and he has his own (intriguingly different) Netflix series — and because, well, it's really hard to screw up an interview with a legend like Letterman.

At least that was the working theory.

In addition to the rampant interrupting of his guests' stories (and their answers to questions he posed), Macdonald seems to forget names he's about to reference. He seems to lose track of stories he's telling — and no, not in that patented Macdonald way of yore. This seems different. This seems off.

There's no flow to a conversation. There's no follow-up. At one point, Macdonald asks Letterman a question and Letterman says, "I'm surprised by this, but it's a good question" — getting a laugh but also making a point.

"They are going to have to lease editing equipment for this," Letterman says, looking around at what is clearly a show that's off the rails before it even starts. And when he says, "I'm not coming back, Norm," it seems less a joke about the chaos around him than a true statement. A few minutes later, when another of Macdonald's bits doesn't work, Letterman actually gets up and leaves.

He actually leaves. The special counsel leaves before the show ends, which is maybe wise counsel for these early episodes.

Premieres: Friday (Netflix)

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