Comedians frequently shoot taboo targets, but that wasn’t what Norm Macdonald was doing when he tackled Down syndrome while recording what became Netflix’s new ‘Nothing Special’ stand-up special.
“I love people with Down syndrome,” Macdonald said, in an audienceless performance filled with his familiar pauses and puzzled expressions. “I wish I had Down syndrome, and I’ll tell you why. They’re happy. You know what I mean? …
“What’s wrong with that?…People get mad at them…and they feel sorry for them. Now who is the wrong person in this scenario?”
The former ‘Saturday Night Live’ star – who died on September 14 after a secret nine-year battle with cancer – recorded nearly an hour of material during the coronavirus pandemic, before yet another surgery in the summer of 2020 He said he “I didn’t want to leave anything on the table in case things went wrong.
This Netflix finale offers fresh musings on mortality and morality that, along with Macdonald’s direct language and haunting imagery, turn into meditations on how modern people deceive themselves. The X factors of his art were religious faith and his love of literature, ranging from Mark Twain to Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
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“Macdonald showed respect for just about everyone except himself and people like OJ Simpson and Bill Clinton,” said Rich Cromwell, a television professional and essayist for The Federalist. “He was not a Christian comedian, that’s clear. But it was part of who he was and he treated faith with respect. …
“This material with Down syndrome is a perfect example of that. He didn’t turn this into an open argument about abortion, but he is clearly saying that all life is worthy of respect, even if some people don’t deem that life worthy. He says people with Down syndrome are God’s children no matter what.
“Nothing Special” ends with a panel of top-notch reactions – David Letterman, Adam Sandler, Conan O’Brien, Dave Chappelle, David Spade and Molly Shannon – who knew Macdonald as a friend and colleague. This special was full of “third rail stuff,” O’Brien noted.
Macdonald riffed on his own “degenerate” gambling sins, his fear of plane crashes (“Ashes to ashes, stuff to stuff, as the scriptures say”), cannibalism, bitch-shaming, racism, transgender issues and his fear of dying and finding out he chose the wrong religion. It also discusses living wills and gives doctors explicit instructions not to pull “that plug in the wall” when in a coma.
“This guy was, in a weird way, coming to terms with his mortality — hilariously — in front of us,” Chappelle said.
Obviously, Shannon said, it’s important to know that “over the last 13, 14 years…he really got into reading about God and Christianity and really wanting to understand. …”
“Where was he going? Spade asked.
“God. Death,” Shannon said. “He thought about death and really wanted to understand God.”
Macdonald was never preachy about his own answers to life’s big questions, noted Titus Techera, head of the American Cinema Foundation. But he believed that these questions, and the answers, were eternally important.
“Perhaps Norm thought our ordinary lives were both obviously insightful and infinitely obscure – we don’t really know why we do what we do, whenever we stop to raise the question, and we don’t even know not when or why we might stop asking ourselves such a question,” noted Techera, writing for the Acton Institute.
“His comedy has the character of this confused exploration which is the beginning of self-knowledge, but at the same time a rejection of what we recognize as problematic in our lives. He knew perhaps better than other comedians that we’re ashamed – both because we don’t understand each other and because we suspect that what we’d understand with a little effort is no reason to to be proud – then we laugh.
As Macdonald said on that special, “Many people think Christians are self-righteous, but they’re not. We sin all the time.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking at full speed. He noted, quoting God: “I made your hair white, what do you think it’s about? I was telling you, get your affairs in order, for God’s sake.
The sobering result: People “only have one life”, he added. “You only have a limited time. You have to choose, you know? You have to choose.