Norm Macdonald’s Netflix Special Is Almost a Masterpiece

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
Norm Macdonald (Photo: Netflix)

The title of Norm Macdonald’s new Netflix standup comedy special — Norm Macdonald: Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery — derives from the definition of comedy he unfurls in this exceptionally funny, frequently semi-profound and magical, hour-long presentation. Macdonald tells lots of jokes. Many are jokes in the good old-fashioned sense: setup + punch line = you laugh. If you don’t laugh at Macdonald’s material about cellphones and George Washington chopping down the cherry tree — well, I’m sorry, but you’re just not a smart person if you don’t find his stuff funny.

But Macdonald also has the need and the confidence to veer away from old-fashioned jokes, to discuss aspects of existence, articulating his positions on big, abstract concepts such as life and (especially) death. He does this in a manner of speaking that is uniquely his: a combination of intentionally ornate or flowery turns of phrase that are violently attached to more blunt, startling expressions. To paraphrase Macdonald, I don’t wanna get pretentious on ya, but much of Macdonald’s superb work here reminded me of the 19th century poet Compte de Lautreamont’s definition of surrealism: “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.”

Macdonald speaks in an utterly original manner, mixing poor grammar (“You know opinions? I ain’t got none”) with high-flown phrases (“this worthless masquerade of a life we have”); alternating elegantly thought-through observations with little torrents of carefully-selected obscenities. So much of this is about rhythm: Macdonald prefers a loping pace that rises and falls and meanders deceptively. You may think he’s just rambling, vamping for time a bit, but it always turns out that his casual asides end up contributing to the bigger punch line he’s building toward.

Macdonald stands on stage in a suit and tie and sneakers. Now in his late 50s, he’s got a comfortable paunch and addresses his audience as “you young folk.” He talks about being old (which he’s really not) in a slightly defensive way — as though he’s labeling himself before the cool kids in the crowd do it to him first. But one of the many great things about Macdonald is that he’s working on a wavelength that’s so much more acutely attuned than the ones you or I use to communicate, he soars over ordinary concepts such as “hip” or “cool” or “young” or “old.”

I’m happy to look back on what I’ve just written and see that I haven’t really transcribed any complete Macdonald jokes or gone into much detail about what Macdonald discusses. All I’ll say about the latter is that I watched this special when I was in a pretty lousy mood, and what he said seemed so funny but also so true — I was lifted out of my funk. Scandalously under-promoted by Netflix — I wasn’t even aware it was going to exist on Netflix until it had already started streaming — Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery is a perfect thing to watch during this long weekend.

Norm Macdonald: Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery is streaming now on Netflix.

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