Norm Macdonald has said that his ideal joke would have the same setup and punchline, a prime example being his old Weekend Update line about Julia Roberts’ marriage to Lyle Lovett coming to an end when she realized that she was Julia Roberts and she was married to Lyle Lovett. This platonic ideal of deadpan minimalism isn’t often achievable in a practical sense, but a strain of it seems to have informed Macdonald’s late-period career. He started out doing pretty normal comedian stuff (provided you are an exceptionally lucky comedian): stand-up, Saturday Night Live, starring vehicles opening in movie theaters everywhere for as long as studio executive will tolerate it (in Macdonald’s case, two movies), a self-titled TV sitcom that will air for as long as network executives will tolerate it (in Macdonald’s case, three seasons), a comedy album.
But the usual comedian track dead-ended for Macdonald, with curtailed TV projects and a semi-joking, semi-serious desire to host a network talk show unfulfilled. So these days, he mostly does comedy in minimal forms that don’t involve many collaborators (at least none that are visible): his fake memoir Based On A True Story and his continuing stand-up career. His Netflix special Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery is his first broadcast hour of stand-up since True Story’s publication last fall (and only his second hour overall!), but it’s not like he’s returning to his first love for a victory lap after an Amy Schumer-style breakout. It’s Norm doing his job.
In this version, it’s a no-fuss, no-frills job. Audio of Macdonald’s one-hour routine begins without introduction over footage of him walking in nature, before the image fades into him already on stage—there are no big announcements, no roaring cheers. There’s actually very little audience visibility at all. Director Liz Plonka doesn’t cut to any crowd reaction shots, and other people in the room are only occasionally seen on the edges of the frame in low-angle shots, where the stage lights catch a few faces at the front of the crowd.
As with Schumer’s recent Netflix special, there are bits of recycled material in Macdonald’s mostly new hour, when he touches upon the death of his father and a related analysis of whether what doesn’t kill you truly makes you stronger. But while he addresses the process of writing his book and mentions how dull a true account of his life would be (mostly “finding and consuming food,” by his reckoning), the special doesn’t really overlap with the hilarious fabrications of his comic novel. It feels, in its way, more personal than the book, at least in the most traditional, literal sense of the word.
In that realm, the new set features nothing quite as inspired as his longer passage about his father’s fatal heart attack in 2011’s Me Doing Stand-Up. But Macdonald doesn’t refrain from going dark, as he expounds upon his understanding of the impulse to commit suicide and explains how easy it can be for someone to decide to go down to the “rope store” and then over to the “rickety stool store” to prepare, while weaving these observations into a bit about autoerotic asphyxiation. Although his material is often bold, Macdonald’s style remains decidedly and appealingly old-fashioned (and crisper here than it was in his previous special). Professing to have “no opinions,” his presidential material stays entirely with the likes of Washington and Lincoln, his take on world affairs focuses largely on World War II (and his disbelief that Germany is still “allowed to be a country” after two world wars), and he repeatedly offers an ironic preface of “I don’t wanna get too political” ahead of riffs that are mostly absurdist, like his condemnation of Big Acid, the company behind sales of LSD.
Bits on LSD flashbacks, the moon landing, and the evils of Nazi Germany could all be musty, but here take on a sort of older-comedian classicism when Macdonald manages to find fresh premises and punchlines for Hitler jokes. He also talks a lot about aging, and it’s the old-guy material, when he gets into how things used to be, where Hitler’s Dog is a bit more clever and less regressive than his brilliant but uneven previous special. Macdonald sounds playfully reflective about, say, the advent of previously unthinkable mobile phone power, instead of going to the kids-these-days well.
It’s all part of his general strategy to not get too worked up. Even when his jokes call for something more than his familiar delivery, he reduces gesture and verbiage down to an absurd minimum. In a bit about waiters who use a weirdly sexualized tone to describe desserts, he starts with specific language and ends up with a hilariously creepy-perv cry of “Aaaaaahhhh!” It’s far from the wildest gesticulation you’ll see from a stand-up comic, but it’s funnier than a lot of bigger moves from more physical performers. Macdonald doesn’t move around a lot on stage, but his stillness fits his delivery, and there are subtle pleasures in the way his voice will occasionally crack in excitement or self-amusement.
Macdonald is far from the best-known former Weekend Update anchor, to the point where it’s probably not fair to even define him by a job he did for a little over three years. But he may be the anchor whose tenure left him best-suited for what he’s actually done after his time at the Update desk. Chevy Chase’s smugness, Dennis Miller’s faux erudition, and Jimmy Fallon’s cuteness all managed to curdle in other contexts, but Macdonald has grown as a comedian. Part of this special’s title comes from Macdonald’s characterization of his act as “gossip and trickery, like some cheap magician.” Like a lot of his material, it’s an ironic description with a ring of truth. It’s trickery of a sort, but it’s his job.