Toward the end of Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery, his new contribution to Netflix’s expanding lineup of stand-up comedy, Norm Macdonald admits to the audience, “Nothing I’ve said is really of substance.” Everyone in the room laughs on cue, just as everyone watching the new special at home will do as well, but Macdonald is being completely serious. After all, he’s not up there on the stage delivering a sermon. Instead, the Saturday Night Live alum is performing some of his best material in years, well-crafted jokes designed to make you laugh at the smallest, silliest things.
Yet this is the same man who, during his final appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman in 2015, delivered what Letterman biographer Jason Zinoman dubbed the “most memorable of many emotional tributes” to the retiring host. “Mr. Letterman is not for the mawkish, and he has no truck for the sentimental,” a visibly emotional Macdonald told the Ed Sullivan Theater. “If something is true, it is not sentimental. And I say in truth, I love you.”
That moment and the comedy preceding it were infused with a great deal of substance. And seeing as how some of the same material, perfected by constant touring over the past two years, pops up in Hitler’s Dog, it’s difficult to accept Macdonald’s self-deprecation at face value. Though as the 57-year-old comedian explains to Uproxx, it has less to do with substance or self-reflective humor, and more to do with how he identifies himself as a working comic. Others have pondered why the Canadian entertainer doesn’t have his own TV show (or similar trimmings), yet Macdonald cherishes stand-up above all else. Hence why, when Macdonald realized I was calling him from Boston, he couldn’t help diving right into the city’s comedy history.
Norm Macdonald: I did the special in Boston.
Right. I was out of town then. I noticed you filmed it at the Wilbur.
Yeah, the Wilbur.
Yeah. I always like Boston. I like that theater a lot. Most comics’ comics have come out of Boston. It’s a very comedy-savvy audience, usually. Stand-up savvy, I should say. That part is always cool about Boston. It’s weird because, whenever you do Boston, you always do one night at the Wilbur, which is the cool theater. The next night — you don’t have to, but I always do — is at this Chinese restaurant. I can’t remember where it is, exactly. It’s about an hour away. I destroyed the first night, and the next night we were at this weird Chinese restaurant. I don’t know why, but stand-up has been done at Chinese restaurants ever since I began.
In the heyday of the Boston stand-up scene, the Ding Ho was one of the most popular comedy spots. It’s the Comedy Studio now, but there’s definitely a long tradition of great performers at that location. That, and Chinese food.
Oh yeah. I know that place. I’ve played that before, too. I don’t know how it happens. I’ve done so many of them in different cities, a long time ago when I started. Most of the time the owners don’t speak English, so you couldn’t really argue with them if you didn’t do well. Everything truly rested on the merits of your act. If you didn’t get laughs, you were out and you literally couldn’t argue otherwise. It’s just an odd tradition that I’ve never questioned.
People often want a little food and drink whenever they see a comedy show. Maybe Chinese food is more enticing than bar food.
I think you solved it. It makes sense. Like when you stay at home to watch a movie and order Chinese food. It wasn’t as complicated or rubric as I first thought.
Your last big special, Norm Macdonald: Me Doing Standup, came out in 2011. Many comics put new hours out every few years, if not sooner, but you seem to prefer taking your time. Why is that?
I don’t really like doing specials that much. I just feel that, in my experience, it never translates over quite right. I’m not a director. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t direct myself. That’s mostly why I don’t do it. It’s not a matter of getting material ready, because I have a big backlog of material. I always thought it was a live experience that’s impossible to get around. What I usually do though, if I’m going to do a special — which I’ve only done, like, two — is I wait until I have enough that I can talk about one central theme. Or maybe two central themes. It’s not just a mishmash. There’s only so many themes in the world. I don’t have that much to say, I guess.
That’s a lot of material though, and you’re constantly on the road. I suspect it begins to burn a hole in your pocket, especially when you’re looking to make room for new stuff.
That’s for sure. It’s always nice. It’s like cleaning out your closet or something. The way I usually do it at clubs is, when I first started stand-up, I couldn’t stand the idea of doing the same act over and over. It drove me crazy. I’d go to a place on a Thursday, do my act, and then everyone would like me. On Friday, I’d do the exact same act and everybody was like, “What?” Not the audience, but the staff. Though I guess they weren’t, actually. I guess that’s just in my head, because everyone was doing that.
So I stopped doing that for a bit. I lived in Ottawa at the time. I worked for a year making five different hours, so I could do five different shows wherever I went. There are usually five shows at every tour stop. One show on Thursday, two shows on Friday, and two shows on Saturday. Now I had five different shows, and I could do one each night at that stop. Sometimes people come back the next night, or to the next show. I’ve always had way too much material.
What I wanted to do, eventually, was to have jokes on every subject that there is, though there’s only so many topics. Yet that way I could just talk to the audience whenever they brought something up during a show. I’d always have jokes for whatever they said. But then I tried doing that. I’d say, “What do you guys want to talk about?” And people would just yell random words and things at me. Something like “Burt Reynolds” or some other stupid thing I did on TV once. Or they’d point to a guy named Billy in the audience, “This guy’s getting married!” I did’t have anything for that. But it was fun, because I could go on stage and just play around. I didn’t have to go on with a long thing in my head.
For this special, and for my last special also, I grouped together everything I had to say on certain larger subjects. And now that it’s all out there, it’s gone forever from my backlog, which is nice. The real problem is when you think of something else about those subjects after you’ve already addressed them. I did that. In my last special, I wanted to do everything I had about shame and fear. On the surface, it all came out as being about sex and death. But in my mind, it was shame and fear. Afterwards, I suddenly had more ideas about it, and I kept talking about it on stage. I eventually knew I had enough, so I figured I’d do another special. Wait, did you watch the special?
Yes, I watched a screener of Hitler’s Dog.
Oh God. I didn’t know you saw it. Oh my gosh.
Of course! Otherwise I’d be asking you “Weekend Update” questions and I’m sure that’s not what you want. Besides, your stand-up is wonderful and I’d rather ask you about that.
That’s nice. I started realizing that, because I was on Saturday Night Live and I’ve been doing stand-up so long, you define yourself — be it you or your material — with what you do all the time. Stand-up is all I ever did, mostly. The other stuff I did for a very short time, actually. So when people yell out things about the news and stuff like that, I have to tell them, “No, that’s not what I do at all.” It all made sense to me once I understand that. Also, I find people like to pigeonhole others. I mean, I do it too. It’s just easier that way. What the fuck are you supposed to do if you’re trying to understand a person completely? It’s a huge undertaking.
So I’m the donut guy. One time I worked at this place, in a sawmill. I had this chocolate donut with sprinkles. The sprinkles were all pushed over to one side. I don’t know why I liked that donut. It was just this one time and this guy saw me enjoying it. For the rest of the time I worked there, he called me the “donut man.” He’d always ask me, “Are you going to have a donut ?” I said, “What? I just had that donut once.” But it didn’t matter. “You’re the donut guy!” It was easy for him to relate to me because I could just be the donut guy. I think that’s what people do.
Sometimes I’ve done little comedy experiments on television. Afterwards, I’ve noticed people sometimes — be they fans or writers, or whatever — see those things and identify me with them as a result. They call me an “anti-comic” just because I did some odd thing once. Seriously? I’m a very traditional stand-up comedian, actually. I don’t want people going to my stand-up shows thinking I’m Andy Kaufman or something. That’s also a good reason to have a special now, I think. So people will understand I’m just an ordinary, regular stand-up comedian.
It makes Hitler’s Dog refreshing, in a sense. A lot of recent comedy specials have eschewed the standard format to varying degrees. Many of them are good, mind you, but it was nice to see someone like yourself doing pure stand-up.
With this one, I was trying to do it as loosely as possible. We did did shows at the Wilbur and taped both of them. Then we did it again. I said I was willing to do three new jokes in each show, which is something I had never done before. It gets you kind of excited, especially since it helps keep things fresh. And if I could ad lib a few jokes here and there, then why not? I tried to ad lib a few lines to give it a much looser form. Of course when you edit the thing, which is the part I hate, you’re constantly cutting or snipping those kinds of things. You end up losing all of what you initially wanted, including the mistakes. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen a live special recently. I think Brian Regan did one. So did Andrew Dice Clay, though a long time ago. A live special, to me, would be the most fun kind of show.
Is that something you want to do?
Yeah, I’d love to do a live special. That would be fantastic. People have a lot of odd thoughts about me. They’re like, “He’s crazy, and he’ll do something crazy.” They always think I’m going to do something strange. They think I have this idea to burn everything. I’m like, “No! Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it.” I have no ulterior motive to take down someone’s show, network or anything like that. But yeah, a live thing would be the greatest.
I was going to do two specials, originally. I thought we had to do something different, since everyone else had new specials coming out. There’s 50 a year, at least. Might as well call them “ordinary.” So I said I’d do two, and they said, “Dave Chappelle’s doing two.” Then Chappelle did two. I’m like, “You didn’t tell Chappelle my fucking idea did you?” Of course, they didn’t. I talked to Chappelle later about it. He got very lucky. When he vanished and shit, he was always hanging around doing stand-up. He’d get it all on tape. He just did it with his buddies. I mean, the guy had like a billion dollars. He luckily didn’t sell it to HBO or something, because suddenly places were giving everybody a $100 million or whatever for their stuff.
A lot of streaming outlets, especially Netflix, are distributing new comedy specials now. Dozens of them, in fact. You’re part of a fantastic group of comics there. Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K. and so on.
Louis’ was better than anybody else’s. It was one of the best specials I’ve ever seen in my life. Especially his whole bit about the year 2017. It was just stunning how great that was. It was the first time in my life I ever thought somebody could be better than me, ever. Though I always knew that Richard Pryor was untouchable. I even told Louis as much. I said, “I wish I could tell you it was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen, except fucking Richard Pryor did this.” None of us will ever be as good as he was.
I suspect Louis didn’t mind being told he wasn’t as great as Richard Pryor.
What I like about Louis is, he’s just competing against himself at this point. He’s already lapped the field and that’s where the hard work comes in. There are probably four or five guys who I think are equal to each other in terms of stand-up talent. They’re all at a certain level. But Louis? His work ethic is 10 times bigger than everything those five men will ever make. Of course when I say men, I obviously mean “man” and not “woman.” I’m just talking about the five top male comics, and how Louis’ work ethic beats them.
None of his stuff feels like it’s machine fabricated. If you do a special every year — unless you’re Louis — then they’re going to be pretty fucking bad specials. They’re not going to be very special, actually. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s the equivalent to a book a year. Who can write a book a year? Nobody can. No one has been able to write a book a year since, I don’t know.
No good ones, at least.
Probably. I think of an hour as a book. A good hour, mind you. You can do an hour with one eight to 10-minute bit in it that’s really good, and that’s all anyone will remember. I remember back when I used to do five minutes here and there on David Letterman’s show. People only remember the one or two shows you do, like most people. That’s all I can remember if I see a guy. You’re instinct then is to not do all your good jokes in a single set. But you’re supposed to. At least that’s what Jay Leno always said, since there might not be a second time to do them all.
Norm Macdonald: Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery begins streaming today exclusively on Netflix.