Democracy Dies in Darkness

Act Four | Opinion

Norm Macdonald is right to shun topicality

September 12, 2018 at 12:32 PM

Comedian Norm Macdonald in 2015. (Yana Paskova for The Washington Post)

When formulating his new talk show for Netflix, Norm Macdonald told the Hollywood Reporter that he “decided very early on there can be nothing topical” about the program. The former “Saturday Night Live” star and best-selling author cited Jon Stewart and the sad fact that every talk show feels the need to go political nowadays. Looking at the lineup of guests for the first 10 episodes of Macdonald’s program — which includes Judge Judy, Jane Fonda, Chevy Chase and David Letterman, among others — you get a sense that Macdonald drew up a list of those he wanted to chat with and built a show around that.

It’s a brilliant idea, given that Macdonald has found success in the world of podcasting, where he does exactly the same thing: chat with interesting folks while firing off impossibly tight jokes now and again. But it’s doubly smart, given the remarkable silly and restricted state of our discourse. At this point, any effort to delve into topicality in a way that diverges from the accepted orthodoxy is met with howls of protests and social media outrage.

Consider the reaction to Macdonald’s Hollywood Reporter interview, which dropped yesterday. In it, Macdonald talked about the #MeToo movement and how people could be destroyed at the drop of a hat. It’s a subject near and dear to Macdonald’s heart, given his friendships with Louis C.K. (whose Oscar-contending movie was shelved and whose award-winning TV show was memory-holed from streaming services FX Now and Netflix following his admission that he masturbated in front of women when they preferred he didn’t) and Roseanne Barr (who was fired from her tremendously successful sitcom and will see her iconic character killed offscreen before the show returns following a racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett).

“I’m happy the #MeToo movement has slowed down a little bit,” Macdonald said. “It used to be, ‘One hundred women can’t be lying.’ And then it became, ‘One woman can’t lie.’ And that became, ‘I believe all women.’ And then you’re like, ‘What?’ Like, that Chris Hardwick guy I really thought got the blunt end of the stick there.” He also noted that he facilitated a phone call between Barr and C.K., during which they commiserated about their travails.

For this, along with halfhearted critique of Hannah Gadsby’s one-woman show, “Nanette,” Macdonald was pilloried. You can get a taste here; if you want more, just search “Norm Macdonald” on our greatest aggregator of public anger, Twitter. “The Tonight Show” swiftly canceled Macdonald’s appearance. Needless to say, Macdonald’s detractors hope that isn’t the only Macdonald-related thing canceled in coming days.

Macdonald seems to understand his role in this morality play, having apologized on his Twitter account for causing offense and minimizing the pain of others. I have no particularly strong feelings on whether he actually needed to apologize: Macdonald’s suggestion that #MeToo victims “didn’t have to go through [losing everything in a day]” was odd and, judging by the careers of Ashley Judd and others, likely incorrect, but showing empathy for old friends and colleagues is simply human.

Still, the whole affair feels like confirmation that Macdonald was right to avoid topicality: It’s hard to imagine anything more pointless than giving an iconoclast like Macdonald a talk show and then asking him to talk about things that will only generate negative headlines on social media. The world doesn’t really need another John Oliver or Samantha Bee or Trevor Noah regurgitating the day’s correct and proper thoughts with a slightly caustic spin or a slightly dirty word in order to earn modernity’s last acceptable form of praise: clapter. Why on Earth would Macdonald wish to risk earning the ire of everyone who spends all of his or her time searching for things to be angry about when he could instead spend his time talking to people who have actually contributed to the arts, people who have improved movies and TV and brought hours of entertainment to millions of people?

Nothing Macdonald said lessened my interest in his Netflix show, but I’m an easy sell. Hopefully the rest of you who are bored of shows taking easy shots at the doofus in the White House will tune in, too. Topicality is overrated — and kind of pointless in our hyper-connected, unceasingly angry age.

Sonny Bunch is the executive editor of, and film critic for, the Washington Free Beacon.

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