It’s been quite a week for Norm Macdonald. In a recent interview, Macdonald revealed that he had connected Louis C.K. with Roseanne Barr after the latter’s show was canceled. The 58-year-old comedian, whose new Netflix show, Norm Macdonald Has a Show begins streaming on Friday, also spoke at length about the #MeToo movement and Australian comic Hannah Gadsby’s provocative special Nanette, which he criticized despite “[having] never seen” it. The backlash to these comments resulted in The Tonight Show canceling Macdonald’s scheduled appearance there, though that didn’t stop him from making more problematic comments on The Howard Stern Show.
So, yeah, it’s been quite a week for Norm Macdonald. Then again, anyone who has ever watched, listened to or interviewed the Saturday Night Live alum knows that no matter how controversial or trivial whatever he wants to talk about is, he wants to talk. (Like when, after “[opening] the door” and “[putting] one foot on the curb” at the end of a New York Times Magazine interview, he “talked to [the reporter] for the next 90 minutes.”) This doesn’t excuse everything he has said this week, but it does help explain why, when we spoke to him recently — just prior to him becoming embroiled in controversy this week — Macdonald just didn’t want to stop talking as our conversation reached its predetermined end time.
Norm Macdonald: “Do you play poker? I play big. I played my only cash in a no-limit game two days ago. It was this app called PokerGO. Remember that show, Poker After Dark?”
Uproxx: Yes, I do.
They used to play it after the 12:30 slot. It went from 1:30 to 2:30, and it was just the six best players and they would play at one table. They would have folks like Doyle Brunson on, and it would just be them talking. It’s a pretty good format because you hear conversations, overlapping conversations and things like that. If you’ve got really interesting people doing that, like at a celebrity card game, that could be something. That would make for a great format.
Because you’re doing something, and you talk differently when you’re doing something at the same time. Different emotions at different times.
That’d be a fun talk show format.
It would be a good idea, right? I think it’s a great idea.
Having interviewed Macdonald before, I knew exactly what to expect. So did he. The talk show host is always ready for a chat, and he credits Tom Snyder’s legendary Tomorrow Show and Allan Havey’s Night After Night as some of his biggest inspirations for this love of conversation. He also cites former Late Show host David Letterman, who’s credited as the location scout for his studio-based program, and legendary sports broadcaster Bob Costas. Most of what he has to say about the medium and its practitioners is laudable, though some of it questionable, too.
MacDonald: All of those guys are gone now. You can’t be sexist or racist now, but those guys… they don’t even apologize for it. Yet they were literally way funnier and better than, say, Michael Strahan, but they’re questioned nowadays. They’re fired. People say, ‘He’s too old.’ Guys like Larry (King) and Piers Morgan. I don’t think young people go, ‘I’d rather watch a 70-year-old or a 50-year-old on TV.’ Then again, when I was a kid, I liked those guys, not because they were young and handsome, but because they were hilarious.
Not only is Letterman one of your guests, but the promotional material for Norm Macdonald Has a Show credits him as a location scout.
This is what Letterman said to me: “Don’t try to make it something for a vault. Don’t make it the guy’s biography.” That’s the kind of thing that Bob Costas would do on his show, Later. I thought he did it perfectly because he knew so much about pop culture. Where he did a half-hour with George Carlin, that thing could have served as Carlin’s eulogy. It was basically three great clips and it covered all of the highlights of his career. Costas was great at that, but Letterman told me to do the opposite. He said just let it be, that half-hour or hour that you’re talking with the person. Don’t have any ambitions about it. Sometimes I want to bring things up because they’re interesting, something about this particular guy’s life, but the conversation just isn’t on.
So what’s the plan for your show?
On our show, we didn’t bring up subjects because they’re something that just comes up. We wanted to stick to that paradigm of, you might catch an hour of talking or so, but it will still be better than that canned shit. That’s what I don’t like. I would never want to put our guests through that because that’s what they go through on other talk shows. “Hey, tell us, you got any funny stories?” You give them one and then they write it down. They tell the host beforehand, and then you tell them again later. You tell him all the fucking funny stuff. Now you’re telling the guy, and you know he already knows all this fucking shit. He knows the whole story because the other guy has fucking clued him in. So you have to try to change the story because you know they’re not going to laugh a second time.
It’s quite evident, both from Norm Macdonald Has a Show and your previous online talk show, that you love conversation.
The best guys are the guys that you’ll talk with and they make you laugh. They say something really funny. I was talking to Jerry Seinfeld and he said that when everybody was a kid, your life was simply hanging around with your buddies and making each other laugh. That was all you did. Jerry also said that you eventually have to stop doing that, though he told me, “I’m lucky enough, and you’re lucky enough, that we’ve never had to stop doing that. We just make our buddies laugh.” That’s what made us happy as kids and that’s still what makes us happy today.
This all reminds me of the David Spade episode, especially. You all were throwing him for a loop, it seemed.
I tried to trick him into telling us the same story. He almost fell for it. I feel like he couldn’t do it. His intuition, his Spidey senses, were tingling. He saw there was something going on. I realize now I can get other people to do it, like dumber people, but Spade was the perfect guest for us. One thing I learned from Letterman is, you have to subvert something. Let’s say you’re that if you have a talk show and you burned your desk down, you’re only subverting something that you created. Why did you put the desk there if you don’t like it? If you’re going to smash it with sledgehammers, why aren’t you sledgehammering some other guy’s desk?
With Letterman, especially ’80s Letterman, that was the most subversive thing I had ever seen. It was still 90 percent talk show and 10 percent somebody watching a talk show. But it felt like the whole thing was mostly the show he made. Letterman really rigorously stayed true to that form. That’s why he loves traditional broadcasters. Letterman knew that it couldn’t be all chaos. There just had to be just a little chaos thrown in there.
Putting all the wild things Macdonald has said this week aside, Norm Macdonald Has a Show is a pretty good talk show, especially for anyone who is a fan of the comedian, Letterman, or the late night genre in general. To be honest, I was especially enamored by the series and its made-to-look low budget format, as I was a longtime fan of Allan Havey’s program, which eschewed the normal routine with things like the “Audience of One” and other gags.
There’s no audience here, but you sure do enjoy making the crew laugh.
Whenever I’d watch Tom Snyder, you would hear the sound guy really crack up off-camera. It’s funny, especially the way Tom talks to him. “You liked that one, didn’t you Jack?” The noise that guy makes, his laugh, is so much more satisfying than hearing the sound of a whole 300-person audience laughing really hard. It just sounds like white noise, but with this, you hear a distinctive human laugh that you can relate to. It makes a much better connection between the audience at home and the person who’s actually there and laughing, the sound guy. He’s a better audience surrogate than a studio audience.
I was on one of these syndicated talk shows, and they don’t even have anybody in the audience usually. I was on Martin Short’s talk show, The Martin Short Show. They would try and get guests from outside the day-of, these guys who stood on the corner of a nearby CVS. They just paid them to come in and sit in the audience.
What about the guests? Like Lorne Michaels, for example? Was it ever your goal to make them crack?
Hopefully, it’ll be interesting. The only guy I kind of prepared for was Lorne. I was really interested in the old days of SNL. But then I realized I was the old man and he was the kid. The farther I got in years, the less I knew about the show. So I had all of these questions about Belushi and those guys. I tried to say funny things, but Lorne said wise things. You know how people give you nicknames? That’s what I would do at SNL, but Lorne would say wise things.
Well, you’re just funny. You get away with anything you want if you’re funny. People don’t see that, and when I had Lorne on, I wanted to try to do that, to be funny for him. I wanted to see him laugh, because he will actually laugh at you if you’re funny. If he thinks something is good, he lets you know. You can tell whether a guy is good at comedy or if he’s just pretending to be. If a guy doesn’t laugh, then he’s pretending to be a comedy expert. He’s not funny at all. But when a guy can laugh really hard at something, you know that guy is a genius, because he’s seen everything and he still finds joy in it.
So anyway, Lorne can be funny and Lorne can laugh a lot, but you never see him laugh a lot, so that was one of my goals. I just wanted to make Lorne laugh.
‘Norm Macdonald Has a Show’ will be available to stream on Friday, September 14th on Netflix.