Norm Macdonald fans had to know this would happen. The comedian has always been deliberately obtuse in the face of conventional wisdom, and it has always hurt his career. This is a man who was kicked off SNL’s “Weekend Update” for telling too many O. J. Simpson jokes, a man who went on The View and jokingly insisted to Barbara Walters that not only was Bill Clinton no saint but he “murdered a guy,” a man who once mocked the idea of a YouTube awards show he himself was hosting. In an entertainment world increasingly promising no surprises and nothing but the repetition of officially sanctioned ideas, his approach to comedy is subversive, even heretical. And with his new Netflix show set to premiere, the bien pensants are jumping down his throat.
Don’t get the wrong idea: Macdonald is not one of those comedians whose brand is “politically incorrect,” and his own politics remain somewhat mysterious. In fact, his comedy is generally apolitical, which is to say that it shuns the notion of politics as a matter of obvious right and risible wrong and rejects the point-and-sneer approach. In rare moments when he expresses a sincere opinion, it is wrapped in humility and disavowals of his own expertise.
But this, of course, is at odds with the current environment, and Macdonald is paying the price. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he addressed the Me Too movement, expressing the view that damning the accused removes the possibility of forgiveness, and lamenting what he described as the new model of “admit wrongdoing and you’re finished.” Referring to Louis CK and Roseanne Barr, whom he considers personal friends, he said he put them in touch and has sympathy for their situations. “Of course, people will go, ‘What about the victims?’” he said. “But you know what? The victims didn’t have to go through that.”
Objectionable? Certainly that last part seems so, although as Kat Rosenfield points out it is more ambiguous in context. So naturally, within hours Vulture, Business Insider, AV Club, Uproxx, and other online outlets had run critical takes on the interview and on Macdonald himself. Prominent comedians criticized Netflix for giving him a platform. Twitter was aflame, and Macdonald’s scheduled appearance on NBC’s Tonight Show was canceled. This morning, he apologized, but outlets like Deadline.com and USA Today have attempted to launch their own outrage cycles.
What to make of this? There is a strong probability that Macdonald, a pure aesthete of comedy above all else, is having a joke at the expense of his audience. A line from the interview in which he suggested that Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? had opened his eyes to American racism for the first time is particularly cheeky, as are comments he made in follow-up interviews today. The only thing he said that can be reasonably considered out of bounds was his comment about Louis CK’s victims. His critics may be engaged in an effort to deflect attention from the flaws of their employers, especially NBC producer Owen Ellickson and the NBC executives who reportedly cried at the possibility of Macdonald’s appearing on The Tonight Show. But the most interesting feature of this affair is that it involves a comedian whose only strong opinion is that comedy should not amount to strong opinions.
Everything Norm Macdonald says in the Hollywood Reporter interview contains a caveat, a qualification. On Trump, the Canadian notes that he doesn’t “know anything about the Constitution” before downplaying the possibility of a constitutional crisis. On Me Too, he says that predictions that the movement will generate a societal over-correction are just his “guess.” On Roseanne Barr, he grounds his opinion only in personal experience, saying, “That’s how I always knew her.” On Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, he says he “never wanted to comment” before adding that while the Netflix special might be “powerful,” it’s not, in his view, stand-up comedy. Macdonald has never been self-important, and his critics are taking his opinions more seriously than he does.
With this in mind, asinine charges that Macdonald is intellectually arrogant or out-of-touch begin to look like projection. After all, the celebrities most vocal about the issue include Kathy Griffin and a writer for Samantha Bee’s alleged comedy program Full Frontal, people whose idea of comedy involves mocking those who disagree with conventional liberal wisdom. More controversial than anything Macdonald said might be his subversion of the dogmatic certainty of his critics. Richard Wilbur wrote about “the idea that comedy is a ritual in which society’s laughter corrects individual extravagance,” but the ritual to which Macdonald has been subjected is a bizarre inversion in which society’s disapproval corrects individual heresy.
Macdonald’s stature in the comedy world is not at risk. He’s dealt with such backlashes before, and he’ll continue to live comfortably — he still has that Netflix show, after all. But the incontinence and dishonesty of his critics nonetheless deserve attention, testifying as they do to the refusal of some Americans to tolerate the idea of an unwoke public figure. What is at stake is not Macdonald’s right to get a few laughs, but the modern inability to stand more than one way of talking, joking, performing, or listening — and the potential exodus of any contrarian or independent thinkers away from mainstream entertainment.
It all reminds me of a clip that’s now 21 years old, from an appearance Macdonald made as a panelist on Bill Maher’s ABC show Politically Incorrect. The panel, which included a travel writer, a singer, and a then-still-conservative Arianna Huffington, was discussing the wisdom of granting China most-favored-nation status in international trade. Huffington attacked the idea, while Maher opined that China was, “historically, a very isolationist country.” Throughout the discussion, Macdonald was mostly silent, looking at the floor. But at the end he piped up. “People forget a very important thing,” he said. “The Chinese are a lot smarter than us.”
It was classic Norm: unpretentious, mischievous, irreverent, and the only funny thing that anyone said on the show. With one riposte, Macdonald showed why comedy is comedy and public affairs is public affairs. He was right then, and he’s right now.