For comedian Macdonald, word choice is key
May 28, 2017 | 74° | Check Traffic

Features| NYT

For comedian Macdonald, word choice is key

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                Norm MacDonald, from left, Wanda Sykes, Anthony Jeselnik and Keenen Ivory Wayans arrive at the NBC Universal Summer Press Day in Pasadena, Calif. in 2015.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Norm MacDonald, from left, Wanda Sykes, Anthony Jeselnik and Keenen Ivory Wayans arrive at the NBC Universal Summer Press Day in Pasadena, Calif. in 2015.

If you’re looking for the funniest way to say, “Go kill yourself,” listen closely to Norm Macdonald.

In his new Netflix stand-up special, “Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery,” he imagines what it would be like to wake up and realize you were wrong about everything you believe.

“Then it’s time to go to the rope store,” he says, then recommends a trip to the rickety stool store, too. “Listen,” he levels with his audience, “it’s no coincidence that the rope store and the rickety stool store are always right beside each other.”

Macdonald is what’s known as a comic’s comic, a performer revered by his colleagues, even if his fame peaked in the mid-1990s, when he was the host of “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live.” Since then, he has starred in a sitcom, led a Comedy Central show and toured the country telling jokes. But he never found a vehicle to catapult him to stardom.

“New York City was the site of my great success,” he wrote in “Based on a True Story,” his delightfully oddball quasi memoir with an unreliable narrator. “I made it there, and then I didn’t make it anywhere else. I guess Frank Sinatra isn’t so smart after all.”

No one said show business was fair. Tracy Morgan, another former “SNL” star who seems to crack up talk-show hosts effortlessly, has also released a boisterously entertaining special, “Staying Alive,” that makes you wonder why he hasn’t headlined his own movie. (In a bit of inspired casting, he is set to play Redd Foxx in a forthcoming Richard Pryor feature.)

But while Morgan’s gift is his charismatic style, so singular it inspires impressions by both Eddie Murphy and Alec Baldwin, what distinguishes Norm Macdonald is perhaps more rarefied. What makes Macdonald truly exceptional is not his well-crafted jokes or his distinctive half-enunciated delivery, but his precise choice of words. As comedians who spend years refining a phrase know, the difference between a good laugh and several of them can be a few unexpected syllables. On this granular level, Macdonald has no peer today.

The rich language of his material is consistently silly and surprising, colloquial but also deceptively nuanced. His default style is folksy — he says “fella” more than a character in a musical from the golden age of Broadway — and direct, even ostentatiously so. Some of his jokes find laughs simply from the blunt obviousness of the way he explains things. “‘Star Search’ is a show where they search for stars,” he wrote in a characteristic line in his book.

Macdonald is also very smart about playing dumb: “You know how people have opinions? I don’t got none,” he says in one setup on his special. Don’t be fooled: He does not have the vocabulary of a rube. When his jokes are punched up by an unusual or esoteric word, he isn’t showing off. It’s strategic.

When he mocks a waiter at a fancy restaurant — an utterly mundane target — his language adjusts to suit the character. “Guy shows up, and he’s got a big tray at a canted angle,” he says, employing an adjective that draws attention to itself before shifting into something similar to the overheated prose of an ad for a luxury product. “Every confection known to man is on it.”

Macdonald’s jokes aren’t just informed by word choice; they are often about it. He has a bit mocking metaphors and making the case for literal speech, and another that zeros in on the opening line of the Gettysburg Address to rib Lincoln gently for his use of the word “score.”

Sometimes his premises just seem like elaborate excuses to say a phrase that tickles him. In the middle of exploring the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, he finds himself searching onstage for another way to say “beauty,” and what he comes up with — “optic trick” — is the highlight of the entire joke, a term with a strong point of view and a pair of rhyming consonant sounds that echo off each other.

On “Saturday Night Live,” Macdonald could come off as just another sarcastic wise guy with an ironic attitude, a humbler Dennis Miller. And the content of his stand-up right now is pretty banal stuff, often from the well-worn perspective of an older guy marveling at how technology or fame or dining has changed since he was young. But listen to enough of his comedy, and what becomes clear is this ordinary fella has an aesthete’s attention to form.

“Hitler’s Dog” starts in the middle of a joke — comedy in medias res, to use a fancy term he might try out — and it ends abruptly. In bookending his show this way, Macdonald not only toys with the meaning of a joke, but he also drives home the point that the part can be funnier than the whole.

Never has he subverted conventions more triumphantly than when he delivered a roast of Bob Saget. Instead of the usual insults, he told corny one-liners from an old joke book, but with commitment. The performance baffled the audience and the comics on the dais at first; once it gained cornball momentum, it seemed to be a brilliant spoof of the old-world roots of insult comedy. But it was more than that. In keeping the usual transitions and rhythms of comedy, Macdonald displayed an earnest affection for the sound of jokes. He ended on a pointedly genuine note, convincingly paying homage to the kindness of Saget in a way that seemed more emotional than the usual roast pivot away from the vitriol.

Audiences saw something similar when Macdonald memorably said goodbye to David Letterman (who had Macdonald do the last stand-up set on “The Late Show”), displaying an emotional side that took many by surprise.

“Mr. Letterman is not for the mawkish, and he has no truck with the sentimental,” he said with obvious feeling. “But if something is true, it is not sentimental. And I say in truth, I love you.”

Startlingly straightforward and moving, it was quintessentially the work of this comic. After all, when was the last time you heard anyone use the phrase “has no truck with”?

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