When Norm MacDonald was hosting SNL's Weekend Update, his relationship with the studio audience was a serious chunk of his charm. He would repeatedly put the audience on the defensive, making them feel like they shouldn't laugh at something, and then force them to laugh anyways. It was that push and pull that made Norm feel a bit of a badass; he wasn't going to come to the audience, he was going to make them to come to him.
But the audience for Norm's new show, Sports Show with Norm MacDonald, is a different animal entirely, and not in a good way. Almost every joke he told in last night's show was met with hooting, cheering and applause. The audience was filled not with people he had to win over, as he had at SNL, but with people already looking to laugh at everything he says. And that sort of fucked him up.
Not that the show's bad, but it just feels…off. Norm's delivery is traditionally full of measured pauses where he waits for the audience to either catch up with or give in to his jokes. But when an audience is cheering at the mere mention of a subject without even needing to hear the punchline, it throws off everything that makes Norm Norm.
The problem was especially pronounced in last night's show, where the audience was so overwhelmingly obnoxious as to be seriously distracting throughout the entire episode. It was seemingly full of drunk frat boys just looking to yell and shout rather that see a comedy show. It was like the worst elements of a Daily Show audience, but even more weighted towards the cheering than laughing. That being said, you can't place the entirety of the blame on the crowd; if all the jokes you tell elicit cheering rather than laughter, that's on the joke teller as well.
And I'm sure Norm is aware of the issue. Here's what he had to say about cheering audiences in an interview:
When I first began in comedy, I would get people to clap, rather than actually laugh. You just say something that has no comedy in it at all but people agree with it. Like, if the point of your joke is, like, "Buchanan is a Nazi" — I could say that, and I guarantee that I could get people to clap, simply by saying that. But it's not even true!
So I was getting people to clap, but I reached a point where I never wanted to get people to clap, because it was, like you said, pandering. But there's a difference between a clap and a laugh. A laugh is involuntary, but the crowd is in complete control when they're clapping, they're saying, "we agree with what you're saying — proceed!" But when they're laughing, they're genuinely surprised. And when they're not laughing, they're really surprised. And sometimes I think, in my little head, that that's the best comedy of all.
By that rubric, Sports Show isn't quite there yet. And hell, filling a half-hour with desk bits about sports is hard, so it's natural that the show is still finding its footing. But regardless of the jokes getting better, Norm needs to figure out how to deal with an audience that's already aggressively on his side. It's the downside of being a cult comedy hero, I suppose.