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