Thursday, April 30, 2009
Norm MacDonald: Talk Show Guest (Volume One, Issue Two)
With Conan O’Brien’s departure from the Late Night spot and ascension to the coveted seat at the Tonight Show desk, late night television would seem to be at a crossroads of sorts. Jimmy Fallon, Conan’s replacement, doesn’t seem to be much of a host (I won’t turn this into a rant against Fallon, but I simply can’t understand why someone whose major contribution to comedy is breaking character in more sketches than any other SNL cast member would earn the Late Night spot, but I digress) and, frankly, the rest of the late night lineup looks rather bleak: Craig Ferguson is decent at best, Jimmy Kimmel is marginally funny yet somewhat lacking in monologue and interview skills, Letterman and Leno are on auto-pilot, and Carson Daly is Carson Daly.
The remaining late night shows, O’Brien’s program and the Stewart/Colbert combo on Comedy Central, are certainly funny, but aren’t without their problems. As much as I like them, these shows are firmly entrenched in their ways, all following their respective formats to the bitter end: O’Brien is straight-forward late night with a self-deprecating twist, Stewart is a half-hour of SNL’s “Weekend Update” and Colbert is more of the same, except with a satirical character at the helm. Is it too much to ask to demand something entirely new out of late night television?
While the talk show isn’t known as being the most innovative of television forms, it has certainly seen its fair share of creative innovations over the years. Letterman added a sarcastic edge to the interview portion and incorporated surreal humor into his sketches, Conan further developed the surrealism that Letterman introduced while adding a bit of self-deprecation, and Colbert, in perhaps the most drastic innovation to date, injected the concept of character-based, satirical humor into what had previously been a straight-forward format. These developments are all well and good, but two of these three shifts occurred at least 15 years ago, and even Colbert’s more recent manipulations of the form are starting to wear thin, especially in an America that is shifting further and further towards the political left with each passing day (in turn, pushing Colbert’s satire of the right further and further away from cultural relevancy).
On top of all of this, late night TV simply doesn’t draw the audience that it once did. With Cartoon Network’s foray into the realm of late night programming with their Adult Swim programming block, much of the young, sleep-deprived audience that was once the bread and butter of major network talk shows are now watching cable, while the rest of that audience seem to simply turn their sets off at the end of The Colbert Report. As a lifelong fan, it pains me to say this, but late night television, like its primary viewer base, is rapidly growing old and out of touch.
Who, then, will save us from this tedious death march of late night programming? Will Jimmy Fallon shed his cloying, oh-so-cute-and-bumbling persona in favor of a legitimately funny comedic voice? Will Jimmy Kimmel stop trying so hard to get laughs? Will Carson Daly develop a personality?
No, I would argue that the savior of late night is not any of the aforementioned hosts, or even a host at all, but is instead a man who has salvaged many a doomed talk show segment. Ladies and gentleman, without further adieu, I give you Norm MacDonald: Talk Show Guest.
To some, MacDonald might seem a strange choice to breathe new life into the ailing format, especially given his resume to date. Norm’s greatest career accomplishment is undoubtedly his tenure as host of SNL’s “Weekend Update,” a job from which he was unceremoniously fired by then-head of NBC Don Ohlmeyer for being “unfunny.” Since that time, Norm’s output has been limited to one entertaining box-office flop, a rash of mediocre sitcoms and films, and a massive mound of gambling debt.
But it isn’t so much Norm’s body of work that interests me, as much as it’s his promotional appearances in support of that work. Take this clip from Conan, for example:
Shown here saving a struggling young Conan from himself, Norm demonstrates his uncanny ability to step in and deliver comedic gems with precise timing and a sort of nonchalant delivery that disguises the formidable genius at work behind the scenes. I would argue that the reason Norm’s career went the way that it did wasn’t due to a lack of a sense of humor or creativity, but a lack of material to spontaneously riff on. Norm is at his funniest when he’s making a mockery of absolutely anything. Whether it’s Carrot Top, the tacky, self-promotional world of late night television or the decline of comedy roasts, he needs something to wage war on (so to speak).
I could say more about this, but I’d rather show you:
Rife with awkward pauses and hackneyed punch lines, Norm’s appearance on The Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget was an attack on the entire institution of the modern roast. Where Friars Club roasts were once legitimate events that naturally emerged out of the industry’s desire to pay respect to its elder statesmen, the modern version feels like an advertisement for the newest episode of Comedy Central Presents and features such A-list comedians as Greg Giraldo lampooning showbiz legends like Flavor-Flav. Without saying so much as a word to challenge the roast itself, Norm manages to highlight just what a farce the entire show has become, mocking the institution with a straight face and a list of jokes that could easily have been written by Jack Benny in 1950.
Through this irreverent sensibility, Norm has become the voice of viewers who grew up watching televised comedy and, frankly, want to point out just how ridiculous it can be. A relatively simple concept, yet his bumbling, unassuming delivery lends it a certain genuine quality. It’s almost as though we, as the viewers, aren’t quite sure whether Norm is conscious of just how brilliant his delivery really is or not. He could be a genius, or he might be like an innocent child wandering through the mall commenting on the many physical deformities of the passers-by, all the while inadvertently delivering a brilliant comedic set right in front of the Cinnabon (premise for that comparison blatantly stolen from Norm’s appearance on Dennis Miller Live… sorry, Norm).
Best served by absolute freedom and spontaneity, Norm could shine amidst a late night lineup that, frankly, lacks much of an audience. Rigid structure and stuffy formats do nothing but hinder Norm’s considerable talent, so where better to experiment than on a late night show that nobody would watch? As late comedian Mitch Hedberg observed when told he could swear on satellite radio during the early days of the format, “No shit…You can swear in the woods, too.” Without a stable audience, late night is the perfect testing ground for experimental comedy. Rather than rehashing the same, tired formats with different hosts, why not test out something a little different?
Now, don’t get me wrong here, I’m not suggesting that Norm should simply take a seat at a desk and ask people like Pete Wentz fascinating questions about their various pets— if Norm were to ever enter into the late night game, he’d have to do so in a characteristically irreverent fashion. Given his abilities as a talk show guest, why not toy with the format and play to Norm’s strengths? Rather than Norm hosting the show, why not bring guest hosts in to lead the program, with Norm as the perennial guest and interviewee, allowing him to simply take a seat and essentially riff and do what he does best? The somewhat creative manipulation of the relatively strict and uptight talk show format would be sure to draw attention, not only from traditional media outlets, but from blogs, forums and anywhere else that young media nerds tend to congregate (Cough). And lord knows Norm has more than enough in the way of famous comedian friends, making the entire concept surprisingly plausible.
Obviously, this is a bit of a far-fetched pipe dream and wouldn’t be without its obstacles. The first and most glaring issue with this idea is simply the possibility that the show would quickly grow tired and repetitive with only Norm as a guest. While I do have faith in his ability to innovate, especially given the sort of freedom afforded to post-Letterman and Leno programs, I can’t deny that this is a reasonable concern. My only answer to that might be to make it a weekly program (so as to give the producers more time to prepare for each individual show) , but I still have to concede that this idea is A. likely to be short-lived at best and B. a hilariously unrealistic fantasy concocted by me, a rabid Norm MacDonald fan.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to this idea, aside from its lack of any grounding in reality, is an age gap that I suspect has already burned Norm once. More on that after a couple clips:
Aside from being hilarious, these clips illustrate what I think has been Norm’s repeated downfall up to this point: his lack of resonance as funny with anyone above a certain age. Both Barbara Walter’s befuddlement at Norm’s unique comic timing and delivery and his anecdote about the Friars Club card game seem to reiterate the fact that older people like Don Ohlmeyer just don’t “get” Norm. While they may recognize that others find him hilarious, something about his lack of respect for established norms (Hah) of comedy, whether it’s an embrace of anti-humor or a sarcastic, dry delivery, just doesn’t seem to land with the older generation. And ultimately, that’s likely a major factor in Norm’s somewhat lackluster career following his firing from SNL. As long as studio executives have gray hair and remember Abbott and Costello, it’s going to be hard for Norm to find work, especially if he’s presented with half-baked ideas for inverted talk shows concocted by an unemployed college student.
The fact is that studios like to know their money is safe, and to a corporate structure what’s worked in the past is what works; Norm, unfortunately, hasn’t worked and as a (horrible) result, is absent from the airwaves. As great as it would be to see Norm shake up late night, it likely isn’t in the cards, despite my arbitrary efforts to write a bunch of words urging that very thing. That being said, if Norm CAN find some way to overcome this age gap and convince executives that he is one of the most unique comedic voices of the past ten to fifteen years, I strongly believe he is poised to become the new king of late night television. Or, at the very least, the new court jester. And in a court occupied by the likes of Conan and Letterman, jester isn’t a bad role at all.