Comedian Norm Macdonald finds the funny in taboo subjects like cannibalism, child abuse, and Germany

The comic master challenges fuzzy groupthink at every step
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At Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club on Thursday, June 21. Shows continue at 8 and 10:30 p.m. on June 22 and 23

It’s one thing to speak the unspeakable for shock value, but to do so while being freaking hilarious separates the masters from the wannabe greats in the standup world. Norm Macdonald is a master.

The Canadian ex-pat, who’s playing Yuk Yuk’s this weekend, effortlessly discusses disgusting subjects with such a childlike wonder and clear line of reasoning, not to mention razor-sharp wit, that you can’t be offended. He’ll frame an explicit description of modern porn in incredulous condemnation so the prudes in the audience can at least side with him through their squirming.

Macdonald’s topics on Thursday ran the gamut, from his morning breakfast at the Elbow Room to the shelf life of human sexuality, from cannibalism to Canadian elections, from child rape to the history of Germany, from meteorology to the transgendered. And his “talking”, as he describes his act, is so natural and effortless that you’d think they were all just passing thoughts if they weren’t so carefully crafted.

Throughout the night, Macdonald, who says he’s trying to quit smoking, clutched an unlit cigarette, Baretta-like. He kept threatening to light it before a new idea popped into his head and sidetracked him, leaving the crowd laughing before he got to his next punch line. If he weren’t so genuine, you’d think this was nothing more than a prop, but there was no pay-off and he made hardly any mention of it. So it came across as just another of his funny idiosyncrasies.

Like Doug Stanhope, Macdonald’s faultless logic lets him get away with issues and opinions lesser comics can only dream about tackling. Who else could make the rational case that the urge to sexually abuse kids is less disgusting than some fetishes involving inanimate objects? The outrageousness of the claim might make you miss the fact that Macdonald is not condoning either. Nor is he talking about the actual physical abuse; rather, he’s discussing the compulsion the deviant feels. Luckily, he’s at a stage in his career where an audience will go along with him and not shut down at the mere mention of such provocative material. It’s Norm, after all. He’s harmless.

But it’s not just carnal taboos that run the risk of alienating. Even less inflammatory subject matter can be dicey. He debunks the belief that teachers are the real heroes, calling the notion “horse shit”; states that Canada is “fucking pointless”; and characterizes the cherished belief that children are our future as a “Ponzi scheme”, and actually makes a solid case for all of them.

He says he’s not an “important” comedian, but I came away thinking more after listening to Norm Macdonald for an hour than I do with any of the more didactic and sermonizing comics out there. He challenges fuzzy groupthink without being the least bit preachy, while always keeping the laughs coming.

His opening act was well-matched. Maine-based comedy folksinger Josh Gardner had a bit of that Macdonaldesque, innocently obscene persona going on, too, with songs such as “Save the Beavers”, “Mr. Stinkfinger”, and “I Love Regina”. Their differing acts but complementary sensibilities made for a great night of comedy.

Comments (7) Add New Comment
Jacob Russell
I saw this show and I've also seen his last few apparences in town at the larger venues he usually plays these days. This was the best I've seen from him and the small venue is a huge part of it partly because it allowed him to riff alot more and connect with the audience in a way that just doesn't work in a theatre. I still believe he's one of the best stand ups working today and could easily put his name next to any Louis CK or Bill Burr and not feel like it's out of place. He also has the benefit of being one of the most unique voices in comedy while simultaneously saying very traditional in his basic approach. It's a tough line to walk and he does it very well. Once again, he never removed the mic from the stand, and still killed without flamboyant energy to distract you.
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Rating: +13
Jason
As Jim Breuer says, Norm is a silverback...solid show, great opening comic...and stellar price for ripoff Vancouver...$40 bones with tax!
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Rating: +20
Hazlit
Please do not include standup comedy in the arts section. I'm not sure what to call it, but the general misanthropy of standup "comedy," the juvenile humour that is almost never funny, the average joeness of most comedians--all this contributes to putting it in the "bread and circuses" category--entertainment for those with no taste.
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Rating: +11
Brow-lit
I'm thinking perhaps Hazlit's exposure to comedy has been limited - or of the 'Dane Cook' variety. Some of the purest art forms I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing emanate from great thinkers such as George Carlin, Louis CK, and Richard Pryor. To possess only a mic and a spotlight - and, yet, still have the ability to entertain - rivet - challenge - is, without a doubt, art. (Guy - a thoughtful and well-written article on Norm MacDonald).
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Rating: -14
Tim Rykert
Hazlit is likely a disgruntled theater actor who is sick of stand-up comics making more money than him/her.
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Rating: -6
Eric Fell
Hazlit believes that live performance should not be considered "The Arts."

Hazlit, I hope you never change, because that means all the cool stuff will be seen and done by the rest of us instead of you.
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Rating: +15
GoJo
It's guys like Hazlit that entrench Vancouver forever in the no-fun zone.
You can't smoke in your own home, you can't drink after 11:00 in most places, you can't order food after 10:00... And somehow, now, comedy is no longer an art form!
Congratulations, West Coast prigs... You've made a home for yourselves here!
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Rating: -11
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