We live in a time when one comedian after another has been so badly bitten by the political-correctness bug that he’s lost not his wits but his wit. Humor, it’s been said, is the ultimate enemy of tyranny; so when people whose job is to make us laugh at our culture’s sacred cows choose instead to march in lockstep behind its high priests, it’s time to worry.
Fortunately, most of the comedians who’ve tamed themselves in the name of social justice and ultra-sensitivity to victim-group sensibilities – the first three names that come to mind are Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, and Chelsea Handler – were never that great to begin with. There is no little irony in the fact that all three of these women became famous less for being witty than for trying to be shocking – for doing raunchy material of the sort women aren’t supposed to do. Then, suddenly, all three of them changed their acts and started lecturing us all about what kind of things we should and shouldn’t say.
With such clowns turning into killjoys all over the place, it’s important to give a nod to those gutsy practitioners of the craft who still dare to think funny and defy the Thought Police. As it happens, two of the very best have recently come out with books and standup specials that showcase their continued willingness to transgress, disgruntle, and outrage in order to give us a laugh or two.
First up: Norm MacDonald, whose “Weekend Update” segment, during his years (1993-98) on Saturday Night Live, was that show’s highlight. Nowadays, when SNL ventures into politics, it’s invariably heavy-handed and predictably PC; in his day, Norm – many of whose SNL bits can be viewed on YouTube – routinely swam against the tide. He tirelessly skewered then-President Bill Clinton as a shifty poon-hound and Hillary as a congenital liar and battleaxe. He joked about fat women and the Million Man March.
One of his choice targets was celebrities’ moral posturing. (“Talk-show host Ricki Lake was arrested for vandalism after demonstrating against fur. She said wearing fur was in bad taste, then returned to her studio to tape a show entitled ‘Why Whores Get the Clap.’”) During the O.J. Simpson trial, he served up gags predicated on O.J.’s guilt; after the verdict, he led with this: “It’s official. Murder is now legal in the state of California.” It was Norm’s O.J. items that reportedly led to his firing by Don Ohlmeyer, an NBC exec who was pals with O.J. – and who threw a post-trial party for the jurors.
Other, less talented SNL alums went on to wildly successful careers making bad movies. Norm starred in one silly, uneven, but highly risible flop, Dirty Work (1998). He made the fresh, freewheeling sitcom Norm (1999-2001) – which disappeared fast, even as insipid fare (Friends, Two and a Half Men) thrived. His 2011 comedy special Me Doing Standup is a masterpiece. (“In the old days, a man could just get sick and die. Now they have to wage a battle. So my uncle Bert is waging a courageous battle….And this is the battle: he’s lying in a hospital bed with a thing in his arm watching Matlock on the TV.”)
During the last four years, Norm has been hosting an on-again, off-again podcast. He interviews fellow comics, most of whom are most interesting mainly for the different sides of Norm that they bring out. Nowadays a lot of celebrities think they’re a lot smarter than they really are; Norm is an extremely smart guy who plays dumb. Watching him interview far-left idiot Russell Brand is fascinating: Brand labors, as ever, to come off as an intellectual, but is so full of himself that he spends a whole hour talking at Norm without ever realizing how much smarter Norm is than he is.
Recently Norm came out with a book, Based on a True Story: A Memoir. Now, if you look at Norm’s “Weekend Update” segments, you’ll notice that he cast a baleful eye on tell-all books. For example: “Hollywood prostitute Divine Brown has written a book describing in lurid detail exactly what she did with Hugh Grant. The book sells for $25, but for $35 she’ll show you.” And: “James Hewitt, who was Lady Diana’s’ secret lover, says he will never, ever disclose the contents of more than 100 love letters that she sent to him. This according to Hewitt’s new book, I Banged a Princess.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Norm’s memoir isn’t really a memoir; it’s a shaggy-dog story in which Norm uses his career as a very loose framework for a whimsical tale that finds him (among much else) traveling to the Arctic to help a dying boy fulfill his last wish – to club a baby seal to death. Occasionally he tells an anecdote that appears to be more or less factual – for example about working with Don Rickles – but even then he puts a facetious spin on it. Sonny Bunch’s review in the Wall Street Journal may oversell (“the best new book I’ve read this year or last”), but like everything else Norm does, it’s something no serious comedy fan should miss. Ditto Norm’s new Netflix comedy special, Hitler’s Dog.
Doug Stanhope has some superficial things in common with Norm. For the PC box-checkers, they’re both straight white males in their fifties. Neither ever went to college. It’s hard to imagine either of them amounting to much of anything in any other profession if they hadn’t stumbled into comedy. Both started doing standup early on, and both developed into breathtakingly original observers of the human condition and great joke writers with terrific timing.
Each is quirky in his own way, but their personae could hardly be more different. Norm’s is diffident; Doug’s is brash. Norm, while not a formal member of any faith, believes in God, openly disapproves of Bill Maher’s war on belief, and is unapologetically pro-life; Doug is a strident pro-abortion atheist. Deep down, Norm, while mercilessly ridiculing all kinds of stuff, respects conventional social norms; Doug is a radical libertarian individualist who doesn’t expect anything for free and doesn’t feel he owes anybody else a damn thing. Norm, reluctant to invade his own or anyone else’s privacy, has written a memoir that isn’t a memoir at all; Doug, inhabiting the opposite end of the spectrum (he posts his Bisbee, Arizona, home address online, and encourages fans to drop by), has done the literary equivalent of opening a vein.
When he’s talked about his mother, Norm has depicted her as a wholesome housewife who’s every bit as corny as Kansas in August (think David Letterman’s mom); Doug’s mother, who is the title character of his book, Digging Up Mother: A Love Story, was a mess – a promiscuous, much-married barmaid who sent him grocery shopping when he was five and took him along to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings when he was nine. But if she hadn’t been who she was, Doug wouldn’t be who he is.
Yes, she was a horribly neglectful parent who knew nothing about setting boundaries – a trait she bequeathed to her son (who, fortunately, is not a parent). But she could also always laugh about everything, however grim – an attribute he inherited. She never really got her act together, and for several years Doug didn’t either – he held down a series of dead-end, semi-shady jobs, lived in dreary flats in Hollywood, Vegas, and elsewhere, hung out with deadbeats, and changed girlfriends almost as often as he changed socks.
Somewhere along the way he realized he could make a living doing what he was already doing – making wisecracks. And through it all, the one constant in his life was his mother, who, in her imperfect way, tried to be there for him. His book begins with an unforgettable account – at once touching and gut-busting – of how, when she was suffering from terminal emphysema and ready to call it quits with a fistful of morphine, he helped dispatch her with cocktails and a steady stream of jokes. The book ends with the heartbreaking text of a Valentine’s Day card she sent him once, proving that whatever her failings, she adored him.
And again and again, his standup proves he adored her, too. In Sicko (1999), he complains about her habit of showing him endless pictures of her cats – even while the same cats were sitting there right next to them. His very best standup bits, however, aren’t about her. In Oslo: Burning the Bridge to Nowhere (2011), he turned observations gleaned from wandering around Oslo for a few hours into twenty minutes of the sharpest commentary on Scandinavian culture I’ve ever heard. In his latest special, No Place Like Home (2016), he devotes an uproarious half hour to the difference between the way people view mental illness (his longtime girlfriend is bipolar) and the way they view mental disability.
Comedians: the very best of them can touch your heart and your funny bone at the same time, taking you far deeper than the mere politics of the day into the very marrow of the human experience. Both Norm and Doug do that. Long may they (and the dwindling number of equally brave and gifted jesters who continue to ply the comic’s trade) boldly resist the ongoing – and deadening – politicization of every variety of art.