Late comedian Norm Macdonald’s new Netflix special is self-deprecatingly titled “Nothing Special.” It isn’t for the faint of heart, the easily offended, children, the elderly, or even the marginally well-balanced. All in all, it’s perfectly fitting for the man himself, who knew that sometimes the only sane response to a fallen world was a healthy dose of maladjustment.
Perhaps best known for his years as the face of “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update, over the years Macdonald earned a cult of followers, this author included, who loved him for his laconic wit, unconventional structure, and comedic principle in the face of corporate meddling. Just say the words “Moth Joke” to any man sitting alone at a party and it might salvage his night.
Norm also happened to be something of a Christian, albeit of a Chaucerian strain. He wasn’t casual about it either, once asking Jane Fonda if she believed in the “Hypostatic Christ.” This often surprised many of his longtime fans, who couldn’t square how someone often vulgar and with no truck for the sentimental could have a sincere spirituality at the same time. But as Norm himself pointed out, if something is true, it is not sentimental.
Norm was famous for his gambling addiction, having lost his life savings three separate times and once tossing his winnings into the New Jersey surf so he wouldn’t gamble them away, too. But he had some justification for such an attitude, which informed his faith as well. He knew better than anybody that there is no river long enough that doesn’t contain a bend.
At one point in his recent special, Norm jokes, “I never want to dye my hair. White hair is the signal to get your affairs in order.” But he lived most of his life with an earlier warning than that. Norm was first diagnosed with cancer in his 20s and lost more than a quarter of his stomach in the attempt to stop it. During subsequent standup performances Norm would occasionally stroke his abdomen. What fans initially mistook for a tic was actually lingering pain from the operation.
His close brush with death made it impossible for him to ignore it, and it became a recurring theme in his comedy. So much of modern life, it seems, is spent feeding the illusion of immortality, as if we were once the part of the universe immune from decay. But Norm turned the old Christian principle of “memento mori” into an art form, making it his life mission to point out the murderous elephant in the room. Interestingly, he did so without ever mentioning his earlier misfortune. This obscuration became a habit of his.
Norm’s personal cross made his gambling problem easier to explain. His entire life became house money, every subsequent second one he wasn’t expecting. Why should he fear financial ruin? Life can kill you, but it can’t eat you.
Certainly, this attitude should apply to a well-ordered Christian life: there’s a certain invitation to go “all in” as Christians. There is the parable of the foolish rich man, whom Jesus rebukes for hoarding his wares instead of enjoying the fruits of his work. St. Paul acknowledges that if Christians are wrong about the Resurrection, then they are fools with nothing to show for it. And Pascal quite famously casts belief as the ultimate wager: Faith is a gamble, and there’s no point in hedging your bet.
As Norm once put it in his unique perspective, “You just have to hazard a guess at that point. So what I do if I have two choices is I go, ‘What do you got?’ The guy goes, ‘When you die, you get to go up and play a harp on a cloud.’ Well, I’ve always wanted to play a harp. ‘What have you got? What happens when you die in your plan?’ ‘They put dirt on you.’ ”
It’s no sin to concede that God is the only chance we have at getting out of life alive. Without faith, death becomes the cruelest possible gag, a period at the end of a gibberish sentence. But with it our pain and finality has meaning, and whatever suffering we endure sanctifies rather than abuts our journey.
Norm touches upon death frequently in his most recent comedy special, as he had always done. But the jokes hit harder this time around, being the last time we would hear them. Norm died last September after a secret nine-year struggle with leukemia. In typical Norm fashion he didn’t want anyone to know, laughing off the steroids swelling his face as him just getting fat with age.
But in “Nothing Special,” Norm’s face is gaunt, gray in appearance if not demeanor. The special is a low-key affair, recorded in his living room at the height of the pandemic. Norm rattles through his material in one take during this delightful Zoom call, his only audience an occasional barking dog.
According to his longtime manager, Norm was due for yet another procedure on his cancer. Unable to record in front of a crowd due to the pandemic, he decided to tape this solo to avoid leaving anything on the table should the worst happen. The worst did happen, albeit a few months later than he expected.
That final sentiment is quintessential Norm, and a parting lesson for us all. Life and faith, as if there is a difference, requires us to leave with no regrets. When we approach the pearly gates, St. Peter will grab us by our ankles and vigorously shake. Perhaps our years in purgatory shall be judged on how much falls out of our pockets.
And if we are so lucky to have nothing hit the ground, may we be greeted beyond the gates by a cantankerous Canadian, who through sheer tyranny of will managed to sneak in with time served.