Several decades into his career, Norm Macdonald remains one of the most enigmatic forces in stand-up, a comedic institution whose actual resume—a few years on Saturday Night Live, several failed sitcoms, and a handful of poorly attended movies—belies how beloved he is by comedy nerds worldwide. Macdonald is currently gearing up to embark on yet another chance for the wider public to shrug confusedly and go “Yeah, I guess I just don’t get it” (in the form of his new Netflix series Norm Macdonald Has A Show), which served as an excellent excuse for the venerable New York Times to do its damnedest to try to get inside his head.
The end result—courtesy of writer Dan Brooks—is a fascinating if slightly unsatisfying profile, characterizing Macdonald as a series of semi-expected contradictions. He’s an obsessive gambler, but doesn’t seem to get much grief from it. He’s steeped in irony and meta-humor, but hates the anti-comedy boom. And he’s unfailingly polite, despite the fact that he built much of his public persona from a gleeful sense of fucking with people in pursuit of a joke.
That love of a “perfect, Platonic” gag is a big focus of Brooks’ profile, as he attempts to tease out what satisfaction Macdonald gets out of the life he’s built for himself on the beloved edges of comedy. Much is (rightly) made of his famous version of “The Moth Joke” from Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show, and his love of doing Weekend Update on SNL, where he could deliver brutal, weird one-liners in peace. “I told Lorne I would hire on like Walter Cronkite, and just take the money as it exists, and never ask for a raise, and just do it until I was 65,” Macdonald said. “He didn’t like that idea.”