By Darren Franich
September 10, 2018 at 05:24 PM EDT
Credit: Eddy Chen/Netflix

Norm Macdonald has a show, which is a frequent topic of conversation on Norm Macdonald Has a Show. The Netflix series debuts on Friday, and Netflix itself is a regular part of the conversation. Four of Macdonald’s initial guests are siblings on the streaming service: Santa Clarita Diet‘s Drew Barrymore, Grace & Frankie‘s Jane Fonda, The Do-Over‘s David Spade, and David Letterman, who has that show with the endless title we all watched two episodes of.

“We’re both on Netflix!” Macdonald tells Letterman. “Isn’t that cool? We’re like a brotherhood!” He points to a glass-door refrigerator stamped with a red NETFLIX logo in the corner of his studio: “Ted Sarandos got me that.” Sarandos is the Chief Content Officer for Netflix, which means he is one of Hollywood’s ranking overlords this eon. Apropos of nothing — a phrase Macdonald must love — he talks with Barrymore about “this new paradigm that Ted has created here at Netflix.”

Is Macdonald part of that paradigm, or just a fortunate beneficiary of a ludicrous boom economy? Macdonald’s first guest is skeptical. “What else is Netflix recommending? Because they’re really not nailing it right now,” says Spade, midway through a deliriously slapdash pilot episode. “We just got the numbers, and it’s not doing well,” he continues, “Ted’s freaking out.” Conversely, Spade notes, The Do-Over “did well on Netflix, even though they don’t tout it every day.” That might be a joke — Spade’s bone-dry delivery has gone positively desiccant in middle age. But Letterman, who’s credited as a “Special Counsel” on this series, doesn’t sound like he’s joking when he offers some midseason assurance: “The Netflix people, they really love this show.”

“Love” seems like a strong word, but there’s a lot to enjoy here. Norm Macdonald Has a Show is a very meticulous mess, built with the opposite of frills. For 25-35 minutes, Macdonald sits at a desk, speaking to just one guest. Sidekick Adam Eget will say things, too. There’s no audience, but the crew laughs. There are no breaks, but Macdonald will pretend there are breaks. (He makes Spade tell the same story twice.) The vibe is “filmed podcast,” which makes sense: Norm Macdonald Live ran for three intermittent seasons this decade, with Eget as a co-host. There is one running segment, where Macdonald and the guests read (horrible) jokes off index cards.

It’s an appropriately low-key setup for Macdonald’s particular brand of humor. He’s still an original, somehow deconstructive and conversational, snarky yet humane. He was part of a couple notable SNL classes, gap-bridging Sandler to Ferrell, but he has a unique style that defies imitation. (Colin Jost claims inspiration, but that’s not Macdonald’s fault.) You can tell he wants his show to polar-oppose everything talk shows are now: anti-timely, personal not political, fully seated. Barrymore refers to doing James Corden’s show “the other night,” which happened in March, so how’s that for topical? There are no “bits” anyone would describe as “viral.” It takes precisely one minute in the first episode for Macdonald to namedrop The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder, a sainted example whenever anyone of a certain age discusses the lost art of talk in talk shows.

The episodes I’ve seen can be a bit too low-key, though, and repetitive. Do we need another show where comedians of a certain age recall the glory days of network television, the old days of NBC money, drink every time they say “Lorne Michaels”? Lorne Michaels is one of the guests. Barrymore talks about how fun it is to host Saturday Night Live. “We shared a room with Mike Judge at SNL,” says Spade. “Sure we did,” Macdonald confirms.

These are the bits of Norm Macdonald Has a Show that make me nervous, when you feel you’re watching the mummified carcass of 1993 star in a beer commercial that never ends. The series launches the same day as new seasons of Bojack Horseman and American Vandal. Those two twisty sitcoms reflect one of Netflix’s comedy techniques, an investment in exciting young talent and eccentric material that could never properly exist in the older broadcast model. But then also sometimes Netflix does the complete opposite, leafblowing money towards every kind of established comedy voice, giving them no obvious notes and no apparent runtime requirements.

Macdonald is finding his footing here, though. The leisurely conversation style lets him get away with questions so provocative that even just saying them is hilarious. “Do you miss cocaine?” is what Norm Macdonald asks Drew Barrymore, right after they discuss the fall of Chatroulette and the horror of sexting and what monkey brains tastes like. “Do you consider your mortality more than you used to?” he asks Jane Fonda. “You been thinking about your mortality a lot lately?” he asks David Letterman. I don’t know what kind of talk show you’re interested in, but I am interested in a talk show where famously accomplished people ponder the void.

And the Jane Fonda episode is, simply, one of my very favorite things that’s happened on television this year. Fonda has her dog, Tulea, on her lap most of the show. Macdonald is vaguely flirty (they initially seem to bond over speaking French) which would seem painfully weird if Fonda wasn’t so completely in the driver’s seat of this conversation. “Uh, who, ye, you love…who do you consider sexy?” is the first stammering question Macdonald asks her. Fonda laughs, flashes a Jim Halpert grin at the camera — and says “Blake Shelton.” Informed that he’s been declared People‘s Sexiest Man in America, she moans, “That’s so cliché of me.” From there, they’re off: ex-husbands, her favorite novel, which knees have been replaced, memories of Henry, the off-the-cuff revelation that Ted Turner maybe invented CNN when he was stoned, the words “Did he do you?” uttered by the star of Klute.

“You’re weird,” Fonda tells Macdonald early in the interview, looking nervous. And then, four minutes later, she says, “I think I like you,” laughing. Both reactions feel accurate. B

Norm Macdonald Has a Show

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