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Norm Macdonald's 'Nothing Special' gives us one last dose of the late comic

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. On Monday, Netflix presented the premiere of a new comedy show called "Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special." It was filmed by the comedian in his apartment complex with no audience the night before he entered the hospital for a stem cell transplant in June 2020. He'd been in remission from cancer since 2013, but it had recurred after seven years. Only his immediate family and management team ever knew he was ill. After his death in September 2021 of complications from cancer, his producing partner, Lori Jo Hoekstra, produced this special. Most of it is Norm Macdonald running through his comedy set in one unbroken take. The rest as a small group of friends, including David Letterman and Conan O'Brien, sitting around talking about their late friend after screening the special. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: When I heard about the circumstances surrounding Netflix's "Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special," I immediately thought about unforgettable TV appearances I had seen by people who were aware that their deaths might be imminent. Mythologist Joseph Campbell, talking to Bill Moyers, once advised people to follow their bliss. British TV writer Dennis Potter told people to see the present tense. And singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, appearing on David Letterman's talk show shortly before his death, encouraged people to enjoy every sandwich.

So I wondered, what sort of advice and wisdom would Norm Macdonald bring to what might be, and in fact was, his final comedy routine? As it turns out, not much, but that's by no means a complaint. We get one last dose of Norm. And he does touch on a variety of topics, from politics and living wills to masturbation and doctors. Yet he never addresses his condition or situation directly. The special was shot with Macdonald seated at the kitchen counter in the apartment of his neighbor and longtime production partner, Lori Jo Hoekstra. Two cameras were used, both capturing the comedian in close up - one hit on, one from the side. And without notes or an audience, he just talks, delivering the in-progress version of the next Netflix standup special he was working on.

The on-screen introduction to the special explains that Norm Macdonald had the idea to record it because he, quote, "didn't want to leave anything on the table in case things went south." So he just talks and talks. And occasionally, even when talking about doctors, he strikes a vein of comedy gold.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "NORM MACDONALD: NOTHING SPECIAL")

NORM MACDONALD: I'm a doctor. I'm going to be hitting your knee with a hammer now. That's the oddest one to me of all time. We haven't got past that. That's like a cartoon from the 1950s. Guy pulls out a hammer, hits your knee with it and then you go, oh, my knee. Oh, my God, that hurts. And then the guy writes down excellent, very good. It's exactly how you should react when your knee is struck by a hammer.

BIANCULLI: There's a charm to Norm Macdonald looking directly into the camera, his eyes twinkling with delight as he lands a punch line. He seems focused yet at ease, enjoying both the tightness of certain phrases and the looseness of what's essentially an on-camera rough draft. He's not even thrown by a barking dog or an unexpectedly ringing phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "NORM MACDONALD: NOTHING SPECIAL")

MACDONALD: You know, I mean, I have opinions. I mean, I have opinions that everybody holds, you know? Like - I don't know. Yellow's the best color, you know, but I don't know if you call that an opinion. You know, it's just a - it's just a...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

MACDONALD: Oh, hold on. It's my phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

MACDONALD: Hello? I got to phone you back on account of I'm doing a special on the TV, comedy special. So I'll call you back, OK? OK. Sorry about that, guys. Anyways...

BIANCULLI: Norm Macdonald came up with the title for "Nothing Special" himself in the hospital after filming it. It's the perfect double meaning title coming from a guy who, like George Carlin, always was in search of the perfect word. After Macdonald's unedited one-take performance portion of "Nothing Special" is over, the rest of the show features six of his friends sitting around deconstructing the special and swapping stories about him. Norm's "Saturday Night Live" buddies Adam Sandler and David Spade and Molly Shannon are there, so are Dave Chappelle and David Letterman and Conan O'Brien, who appreciates not only what Norm Macdonald says but how he says it.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "NORM MACDONALD: NOTHING SPECIAL")

CONAN O'BRIEN: He had the, I think, best word choice of maybe any comedian ever seen. He intentionally mispronounces words...

DAVE CHAPPELLE: Yeah.

ADAM SANDLER: Yeah, yeah, that's right.

O'BRIEN: ...When he knows he knows how to say TV. He says it's the TV. When he came on our show - I think it was his first appearance, and he was talking about a Doberman and he said, it's a Doberman...

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: ...And he knows. But he's constantly screwing with you on every level.

DAVID LETTERMAN: Right.

O'BRIEN: But his word choice is - he was like Mark Twain. He was just - he had this folksy, completely out of time - and I don't know if he was born 300 years too late or 300 years too early, but he's talking in a way - no one speaks like that. And you really appreciate the way he says things.

BIANCULLI: There's a great example of that in one bit, where Norm, instead of offering any wisdom, wonders why we've come to expect it from him or any comedians in the first place. He mentions one comic in particular, and, as Conan notes, mispronounces his name on purpose. But he's got an even funnier idea, a more philosophical one, just around the corner.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "NORM MACDONALD: NOTHING SPECIAL")

MACDONALD: Especially when you're a comedian, they expect you to know things nowadays, you know what I mean? It didn't used to be like that. Like, during the Vietnam War, they wouldn't go, I wonder what Red Skeleton (ph) thinks on this. But nowadays - like, I've heard - they go, the comedian is the modern-day philosopher, you know? Which, first of all, it always makes me feel sad for the actual modern-day philosophers who exist, you know?

BIANCULLI: After Norm's set, both Dave Chappelle and David Letterman try to define what makes Norm Macdonald's "Nothing Special" so special.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "NORM MACDONALD: NOTHING SPECIAL")

CHAPPELLE: It was very endearing. It was amazing. This...

LETTERMAN: The form is different. It's not, strictly speaking, stand-up. It's something else.

BIANCULLI: Yes, it is; so is the extended conversation afterward - part wake, part party and, like Norm Macdonald's portion, unusually intimate. Even with longtime TV talk hosts Letterman and O'Brien aboard, no one hosts this after-the-fact conversation. Everyone's just there, enjoying and appreciating and being present. This unique Netflix special allows us all to do the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "NORM MACDONALD: NOTHING SPECIAL")

MACDONALD: Stay safe, folks. I love you. I would drop the mic, but I paid for it.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed the new Netflix show "Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special." On tomorrow's show, we'll talk about the sex abuse scandal in the Southern Baptist Church with Robert Downen. He's one of the reporters who broke the story that about 300 church leaders abused or assaulted about 700 church members. That led the Southern Baptist Convention to commission an independent study. The results published last month suggest a cover-up. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "THIRD LINE SAMBA")

DAVIES: If you're interested in an inside look at FRESH AIR from our producers and getting some staff recommendations, check out our newsletter, which you can subscribe to from our website. That's freshair.npr.org. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "THIRD LINE SAMBA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.