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Comedy Stray Notes September 19, 2021
Reflecting on Norm. Recommendations for a great magic show, pilot and tweet you should check out. Plus, a review of an incredibly underrated sitcom.
• The comedy world took a monumental blow earlier this week with the untimely, early passing of Norm MacDonald. In fact, to me, this last Tuesday was “Hug A 28-45-year-old” because he meant so much to that elder Millennial/Gen X age group. He was considered by many to be their favorite comic but everyone had a different reason for why they loved Norm. For some, it was his stand-up, which was his trade. For others, his controversial, four-year stint at the SNL Weekend Update desk in the mid-90s where he made intentionally on-the-nose jokes about OJ Simpson and was eventually ousted for it was what their frame of reference was for him. Many know him for his legendary appearances on talk shows like Conan where he would tell street jokes and lecture other guests about misguided career choices. Then, there’s his famous appearance at the Bob Saget Roast. Norm also had multiple talk shows with his name in the title (one was simply called “Norm MacDonald Has A Show”), judged “Last Comic Standing,” wrote an absurd half-biography half-biography parody called “Based On A True Story,” cried on his final Letterman appearance, his film “Dirty Work,” his two sitcoms, his Bob Dole/Burt Reynolds/Larry King impressions or just that face. The face that was known for glee as a young man and a knowing stoicism later. He simply got his comedy DNA on every facet of show business he could and will certainly be missed and mourned for years to come.
My Norm personal interaction story is a simple one. I had just started working at the Tempe Improv in the fall of 2010 as a doorman. The job was simple- check IDs, put wristbands on customers before the show, and then stand in the showroom and watch the show from the side of the room to make sure there’s no funny business. My main recollection from Norm’s weekend of shows was his unique pronunciation of the word “Dollop” which he repeated so many times that it became funnier with each new utterance. After one of the shows, he stood outside to shoot the breeze with the young staff. For a moment, no one was talking his ear off and I had his attention for a moment. I said something banal like, “SNL was crazy in the 90s, wasn’t it?” and he replied, “Oh, I’ve got stories.” I thought this was a promise he would tell me said stories later in the weekend but that never happened. I’ll always wish I heard them.
This week, after Anna broke the news to me (she whimpered, “Oh, no. I’m so sorry,” while we were both working remotely), I made it my solemn duty to re-listen to his seminal appearance on WTF. Not having heard this talk in a decade, the conversation has aged interestingly. Norm has many great insights like “the guy on the sitcom needs to be charismatic. Comics with good jokes are hired to write;” “SNL was full of comics who couldn’t act when I was there;” “I hate cleverness because people laugh at things that conceal what they’re actually laughing at” which was his explanation for why he makes his punchlines so plain and then the cherry on top is a fantastic story about how he learned how to actually be from funny and present onstage from Sinbad. He also uses many outdated offensive terms that put a blemish on an otherwise fascinating look into the mind of a comic genius. So, there is that.
Then, later in the week, the narrative shifted. Many women bravely came forward online and shared their stories about Norm harassing them. Some accused him of inappropriate touching and an opener of his told a tale of him belittling her onstage for no real reason. I’m sure these stories don’t exist in a vacuum; there are likely many others. So while we should mourn the loss of an all-time great (and one of my favorites), we do need to recognize that he had faults. Comedians may be incredibly funny people but they’re not perfect.
Norm, comedy is not the same without you; your legacy as a performer is something every comic aspires to and your misconduct is something we can all learn from to make sure it’s never repeated.
• Other than the Norm news which seemed to stop the comedy world dead in its tracks, I did catch a few great things this week that are worth looking into.
- Last Sunday evening, Danny Braff invited Anna and me to Harrison Greenbaum’s SCAM Magic Show in Midtown. Other than a quick Google search, we went in completely blind to the event. This was the right call and if you want that experience, skip ahead to the next paragraph. If not, let me tell you a little bit about the show. First, your party is led to a downstairs bar where you meet a cloaked Secret Society of Magicians who give the crowd a bit of goofy historical context for the show explaining that the Society has existed for centuries. There are also Taylor Swift jokes. Soon, the crowd is split into small groups and taken to rooms where a number of magicians perform sleight of hand, updated rope tricks for 2021, an unbelievable seance and a simplified shell game that removed all extraneous elements and still baffled my feeble mind. Meanwhile, in between acts, there is a clever escape the room-like mystery that is both dramatically and comedically satisfying. If you’re a New Yorker with visiting parents who have seen it all, you can’t do better than bringing them to this show. It’s got the comedy factor for you and wow spectacle for them. Plus, there’s a show after the show. I couldn’t ask for more.
- As a speech and debate alum (otherwise known as “speechies”), I’ve been patiently waiting for pop culture to catch up to the bizarre, insular competitive high school ecosystem that is maybe a bit too niche for the general public. My hope is that Sam Morrison and Kenice Mobley’s excellent pilot “Speech and Debate” takes the torch and introduces the world to the club that is so much stranger and more interesting than it sounds. In the episode, they wrote and performed at Union Hall, Sam and Marcia Belsky play narcissistic team captains who introduce new innocent overachiever teammate Kenice to the fold. Although she’s naive and in over her head, she ends up teaching Sam’s character quite a lesson about speech’s seedy underbelly. However, what I loved most about this pilot was its reverence for the source material. Sam and Marcia lovingly explain each speech event and debate type with humor and simplicity that cuts through the noise and makes it so anyone can understand. Best of all though was the excellent line, “Speech makes shy useless kids into loud, mean boys.” I’d never heard it put more succinctly. Can’t wait until this is on streaming. If interested in a recording "Speech and Debate" email Sam Morrison at email@example.com.
- You know a Tweet has gone viral when it shows up in a group text thread. That was the case this week with Brian Bahe’s semi-tragic, 100% hilarious Tweet about getting let go from his work. I’m not going to spoil the joke though. You’re going to have to click that link if you want to see what the big deal was here. Go ahead and like the Tweet and follow Bahe too for all-around top-notch content.
• Finally, I wanted to shout out one TV show. It’s just one, I swear.
“Miracle Workers” (2019- ): As a major Simon Rich nerd who loved “Man Seeking Woman” more than any other 2010s sitcom, having completely missed out on “Miracle Workers” felt like a major oversight on my part. I’d seen all the promotional materials and knew the gist but I’d never plopped down and seen the thing (Full disclosure, I still haven’t seen the show in its entirety; I have yet to check out the new, heavily advertised “Oregon Trail”-themed third season). Now that it’s on HBO Max, it’s hard not to watch the easily digestible 20-minute episodes in quick succession.
What makes this show special is that every season goes to a completely different universe but maintains largely the same cast. The first season takes place in Heaven and stars Steve Buscemi playing an incompetent stand-in for God who dreams of creating a lazy river-centric restaurant. Then, there are the actual miracle workers played by the tense, socially awkward Daniel Radcliffe and can-do spirited Geraldine Viswanathan who perform the mildest of miracles- mainly they find lost keys. At first, the series seems a bit lightweight and maybe even a little tonally off; it’s just missing a grounded reality for us viewers to latch onto. Later, when we learn how inept Radcliffe is spending all of his time obsessing over what it would be like to “get burgers” with friends, “Miracle Workers” finds its sea legs. The thrust of the first season’s narrative is getting an impossibly awk earth couple together as part of a bet between God and the miracle workers; if they don’t become a couple, it jeopardizes existence. It’s a fun conceit literally counting down the minutes to the end of the season.
It should also be said there are some choice jokes that work within the confines of this universe. My favorites were learning that Buscemi’s God is a trust fund kid which leads to his parents saying about him, “You started nine planets but only got one of them to work” and then God defending his creations explaining, “A cow is a big dog you can drink from and a dog is a small cow you can be friends with.”
Also, there are cameos from comedy MVPs Titus Burgess, Chris Parnell, Tim Meadows, John Reynolds, and Angela Kinsey. Love seeing home run hitters secretly assembled on a show where you had no idea you were about to see them do their thing.
Season two is a completely different vibe; the show moves to the Dark Ages and lampoons our modern times through an ancient lens. Radcliffe plays royalty; Buscemi shovels excrement and Viswanathan plays his ambitious daughter. The narrative throughline isn’t quite as linear as Season One but the jokes are sharper. Some favorites include a medieval class beginning with,
“The Earth is flat, the devil is real,” Fred Armisen playing a one-hit-wonder rocker who only likes to play new stuff and an uncomfortable Harvest Day dinner that was clearly a stand-in for arguing with Trump-supporting relatives. IF YOU LIKE YOUR COMEDY TO BE SMART, NERDY AND PRECIOUS, I’VE FOUND THE SHOW FOR YOU (Streaming on HBO Max).
That’s all she wrote for me. Enjoy your scroll!