Norm Macdonald‘s final comedy special makes it clear that he contemplated his mortality as he secretly battled cancer for nearly a decade.
The late standup recorded Netflix’s low-key “Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special” (now streaming), at his home in front of his computer in the summer of 2020. He wears a navy plaid blazer, baseball cap and headphones that he likes because they cover his white hair that he no longer wants to color.
“I don’t want anybody painting my hair black on account I don’t want to die and then be surprised,” when God says, “‘Well, I made your hair white. What do you think that was all about? I was telling ya to get your affairs in order for God’s sake.’”
“Nothing Special” offers about 50 minutes of the late comedian’s last jokes, followed by about 30 minutes of David Letterman, Molly Shannon, Dave Chappelle, Conan O’Brien, Adam Sandler and David Spade telling stories about their friend. The Quebec City-native, known best for his time as an “SNL” cast member (1993-98), died in September 2021 at 61. His producing partner, Lori Jo Hoekstra told Deadline that her friend kept his nine-year cancer fight to himself because “He never wanted the diagnosis to affect the way the audience or any of his loved ones saw him.”
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Hoekstra is an executive producer for “Nothing Special.” She says in a statement this stripped-down show recorded in Macdonald’s living room “was not originally meant to be the final product,” but “COVID restrictions prevented him from filming in front of an audience.”
“Nothing Special” opens with this message: “In the summer of 2020, he was scheduled to undergo a procedure and as he put it, ‘didn’t want to leave anything on the table in case things went south.’
“At home, the night before going in, he shot this – in one take.”
The special is filled with homemade charm. It’s interrupted by a dog barking in the background, and Macdonald‘s ringing phone, which he answers. “I gotta phone you back on account I’m doing a special on the TV, comedy special,” he tells the caller.
Though there is no audience (and therefore no laughter), one can feel pretty confident a joke about roulette would elicit hollers: “I put $100 dollars on black, and the little silver ball spun around the wheel and everything,” says Macdonald. “And then, it landed on red. And this is what I said, ‘(Expletive) I almost picked that!’” Or when he cracks that his father was progressive because they had a “gender-neutral bathroom.”
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The set is not perfect. It needed finessing. Macdonald loses his train of thought at times (whether that’s part of his routine is hard to say). There are bits that might make some viewers cringe, like Macdonald’s use of the R-word before launching into an uncomfortable bit about people with Down syndrome.
In light of Macdonald’s death, some of his other remarks seem eerie. He encourages the audience to have a living will and warns viewers, “You’ve got to be ready for anything life throws at you in this here world. That’s what I’ve learned, as I’ve aged.” He says of making the most of your life: “You only got so much time. You’ve got to choose.”
Macdonald talks about religion, revealing, “one of my biggest fears is that I picked the wrong religion (Christianity). That I believe, but then I die, and I go, ‘Ah! It’s you! I thought it was the other fella.’”
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“This guy was, in a weird way, reconciling his mortality hilariously in front of us,” Chappelle says, after viewing the special. Letterman agreed. “His circumstance, he nudged into it several times but didn’t linger. And to us, from this perspective, powerfully meaningful.”
Macdonald’s fellow comics say they had no idea about his terminal illness.
“Never let ya know anything,” Sandler tells the group but noted Macdonald “did get emotional” on a tour they did together. “He would just all of a sudden get really teary-eyed and stuff, and he’d be like this is wonderful, just the tour itself. And hanging out, and we have dinners and breakfasts and (expletive). He’d just be so much fun to see. He had so much energy to hang.”
O’Brien worried he’d offended Macdonald because the comic had declined offers to appear on O’Brien’s late-night program. “When he went, everybody in the (comedy) community was, we all thought we were the only one that didn’t know and we were so upset that we didn’t get a chance to tell him what he meant to us,” O’Brien says. “I very quickly realized he would not have tolerated that.”
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Shannon remembers Macdonald “really wanting to understand God” in his later years and making the most of his time with her when they saw each other for the 40th anniversary of “SNL” in 2015.
“As soon as he saw me he was like, ‘I love you, Molly,’” the “Superstar” actress recalls. “He blurted it out, right away. I could feel that he had this urgency to say exactly what was on his mind in the moment because maybe he’ll never have that moment again. I was like, ‘Oh, something’s different with Norm.’”
Chappelle describes Macdonald as “uncharacteristically emotional when we parted company” the last time they saw each other at The Comedy Store. A picture from that night concludes Chappelle’s “The Closer” special, dedicated to Macdonald. Chappelle says Macdonald picked his head up for the photo. “And I realized he was posing for the picture, in hindsight, like a gift. It was a very fitting goodbye.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Norm Macdonald’s final Netflix special recorded during cancer battle