''The Norm Show'' misses the mark -- Norm Macdonald launches his sitcom just as sarcasm becomes passe

By Bruce Fretts
March 19, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
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Is sarcasm dead? I pose this question after watching the dispiriting pilot for The Norm Show, ex-SNLer Norm Macdonald’s attempted sitcom. The once-savage ”Weekend Update” wit skates through his role as a hockey player-turned-social worker, insulting his boss with icy one-liners like, ”What the hell are you doing there, ass face?” Macdonald seems to have lost the will to quip; his affectless demeanor couldn’t salvage the big-screen stinker Dirty Work, and he doesn’t seem ready for prime time, either.

While preserving his well-known obsessions with gay sex and the word whore, The Norm Show strains to soften up Macdonald’s persona by pairing him with a sunny coworker (played fruitlessly by Roseanne‘s Laurie Metcalf) and even having him save an abused dog. Yet the I’m-better-than-this smirk on Macdonald’s face undermines any possibility of a three-dimensional characterization. He can’t just act — he has to make his performance an ironic commentary on acting.

In this sense, Macdonald suffers from David Spade’s disease. Don’t get me wrong: I think Spade’s the funniest thing on Just Shoot Me, but he’s always seemed a little too hipper-than-thou for a sitcom. He can squeeze laughs out of the scripts’ pat put-downs (”I like Nina a lot — in a carnival sideshow kind of a way”). Yet Spade seems uninterested in fleshing out assistant Dennis Finch beyond the Napoleon-complex surface, even in episodes exploring Finch’s relationship with his fireman dad (Brian Dennehy).

Maybe that’s why Just Shoot Me has struggled against ABC’s Spin City, a show that had none of Shoot‘s momentum coming into this season. Attitude wears thin over time, and viewers may prefer Spin‘s heartier humor and Michael J. Fox’s craftsmanly acting.

If sarcasm is dead, this may not bode well for Craig Kilborn, soon to take over CBS’ The Late Late Show. The gleefully mean former host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show recently visited the man he’s replacing, Tom Snyder. Instead of easing the transition, the interview pointed up the gap between the pre-ironic Snyder and his snider successor. Tom seemed puzzled by Craig’s comic narcissism (what’s the opposite of self-deprecating?), and the usually guffaw-happy crew maintained a deafening silence. Kilby had better hope CBS’ viewers ”get” him, or they may switch over to NBC’s kindlier Late Night With Conan O’Brien.

Why does the smart-ass aesthetic personified by Macdonald, Spade, and Kilborn suddenly seem so passe? I wish I could glibly blame it on Monicagate or the millennium, but it probably just died of old age. Don’t feel sorry for sarcasm — it had a good run, stretching back to Bill Murray’s SNL heyday. Perhaps its passing explains why Murray’s subtle work in Rushmore felt so right, while his recent smarmy SNL gig brought only a distant smile of nostalgic recognition.

Who knows, Macdonald could mature into as fine a film actor as Murray; Norm’s talent runs deeper than his attitude, as his dead-on SNL impressions of Burt Reynolds and Bob Dole proved. Then again, The Norm Show‘s simplistic snarkiness could turn it into this season’s surprise hit. In which case I’ll claim this whole column was meant to be sarcastic.

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