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'Norm Macdonald Has a Show' — but will it survive his self-inflicted controversies?

<em>Norm Macdonald Has a Show. </em>(Photo: Netflix)
Norm Macdonald Has a Show. (Photo: Netflix)

Stephen Colbert is in an intelligent but ceaseless battle with President Trump, Jimmy Fallon is spineless, Jimmy Kimmel has become Mr. Likable, and Conan O’Brien is having a late-midcareer crisis (on the verge of downsizing his show to a scant half-hour). In this context of talk shows in 2018, Norm Macdonald immediately vaults to the top of the talk-show heap with the debut of Norm Macdonald Has a Show on Netflix, starting Friday.

Midway through the first episode, guest David Spade pauses to wonder whether he’s appearing on a “test show” — a run-through for the real thing: That’s how casual Macdonald makes the proceedings go. Much of the time, it’s as though you’re overhearing casual chitchat between Norm and whoever his guest is, and the list for this 10-episode series includes Drew Barrymore, Jane Fonda, Chevy Chase, and his Netflix colleague and producer-boss, David Letterman. Macdonald has successfully transferred the relaxed yet often concentrated, even intense, atmosphere that made his podcast Norm Macdonald Live so irresistible and brought it to the Netflix version of television.

I’ve watched four episodes, and every one of them is hugely entertaining and frequently surprising. Barrymore speaks of working with Nancy Reagan on the latter’s Just Say No anti-drug campaign even as Drew continued doing drugs, and she and Norm bond upon the discovery that they both extravagantly admire the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. The interview with Jane Fonda is especially striking — she’s funny, flirty, and frank, whether she’s talking about the guns she owns or her happy embrace, at age 80, of oncoming death.

The artistic success of Norm Macdonald Has a Show is now threatened by the controversy that erupted earlier this week, when Macdonald gave an interview to the Hollywood Reporter to promote the show and ended up offending people for expressing excessive sympathy for Louis C.K.’s and Roseanne’s career-canceling sins. He then did himself no favor by going on Howard Stern’s show to clarify his comments and offending some listeners for casually using the term “Down syndrome” as a synonym for stupid. Two other things occurred in the wake of this. Jimmy Fallon asked Macdonald not to make a scheduled appearance on The Tonight Show, which is both remarkable and all too predictable: Fallon supposedly runs a talk show — you’d think he’d seize the opportunity to talk to Macdonald. Instead, Fallon turned coward, unable to navigate a flashpoint conversation. Macdonald did appear on The View on Thursday — again, it was a previously scheduled booking — and did his best to convey repentance and contrition. But doing so strangled his comedic impulses — he was almost frozen with hesitancy, lest he not appear sufficiently chastened.

It will be regrettable if these mini-transgressions cause lasting damage to Macdonald and this new show. It’s a showcase that might enable a new audience to become attuned to Macdonald’s rhythms as a comedian. Anyone who enjoyed his 2017 Netflix stand-up special Hitler’s Dog, Gossip and Trickery knows that some of the pleasure is listening to the way Macdonald sets up his punchlines, the satisfaction he takes in crafting deceptively rambling setups that suddenly crystalize as a gleaming joke. And anyone who’s seen him as a guest on other people’s talk shows knows that he is perpetually capable of surprise and a sneaky eloquence. (Just watch him deliver a consummate shaggy-dog story on Conan here.) I’m looking forward to watching the other six episodes of Norm Macdonald Has a Show and hopeful that, once the brouhaha subsides a bit, Netflix viewers will enjoy the opportunity to binge Macdonald in his natural habitat, as an apolitical comedian of the first rank.

Norm Macdonald Has a Show is streaming now on Netflix.

Watch: Norm Macdonald apologizes (again) for latest controversial comments:

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