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Friday, December 20th, 2013

Looking Back on Christmas Past with Norm MacDonald

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

In case you haven't already figured it out, the holidays are fast approaching (Writing Tip: Notice I'm not saying which ones so that this article can be read any time of year) and the television is warming our hearts with commercials about family members coming home, wishes of Happy Honda-Days, and sitcom plots that reheat the plot of Dickens’s Christmas Carol. Here at From the Archives, we're going to add to the holiday cheer and highlight a forgotten holiday special from 1999, in which Norm MacDonald and Artie Lange try to save Christmas, but end up in a hospital.

ABC's The Norm Show aired for three years, from 1999-2001, and was created by Bruce Helford, who also co-created The Drew Carey Show, which shares a similar sensibility. Primarily an office comedy, Norm's program has a similarly dark-yet-silly tone, featuring a main character that is forced to live an adult life despite being a child at heart. The Norm Show was MacDonald's return to television after being removed from his Weekend Update post at Saturday Night Live after being deemed "not funny" by NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer. After writing and staring in the hilarious, but financial failure, Dirty Work, The Norm Show's first season was one of the top rated sitcoms on ABC. However, frequent schedule changes as the show moved from Wednesday to what is commonly known as "the Friday night death slot" lost this audience and after three seasons, the show was canceled.

The premise of the show is pretty straightforward: Norm played a NHL hockey player who was banned for life from the sport after years of tax evasion and gambling, and must work as a full time social worker to serve as his community service. Here he meets coworkers Laurie (Laurie Metcalf), the dopey sad sack Danny (Ian Gomez), and reformed prostitute Taylor (Nikki Cox), all supervised by his boss, the constantly cranky Mr. Denby (Max Wright, better known as the dad from Alf). In the second season, Dirty Work co-star Artie Lange joined the cast as Norm's degenerate half-brother.

The episode "Norm Vs. Christmas" aired on December 15, 1999 as part of the second season. In it, the constantly sarcastic, almost Bugs Bunny-like Norm is given the somewhat unexpected character trait of being the biggest fan of Christmas you ever did see. He thoroughly decks the halls of his office, bringing in a Christmas tree far too large for the room, its top bending down halfway to the ground. He's also in charge of the office Secret Santa pool, which gives Danny the perfect opportunity to buy a present that shows the gorgeous Taylor that he's secretly in love with her. Norm pokes fun at Danny, agreeing with his attraction to her: "I think she's a real diamond in the rough. Once she takes her glasses off, let's her hair down, she'd be very attractive." In spite of his attitude, however, he promises Danny he won't say a thing. Moments later, as she passes by, he says hello to her, then chuckles to himself, looking back and forth between the two of them, raising her eyebrows.

Enter Mr. Denby, who finds the Christmas decorations in poor taste given the fact that they are working in a government building. Norm protests, asking, "What does Christmas have to do with religion?" When told that it celebrates the birth of Christ, he responds with surprise. "Really? Jesus Christ?" His solution, as we see later, is to leave all of the decorations up, but also provide a small table featuring icons from all religions, "even the bogus ones." At the office Christmas party both of our stories kick into gear. Danny has purchased Taylor a $5,000 diamond bracelet as her Secret Santa gift, but after giving it he realizes that this could make him look like a creepy stalker, so he instead says it was just a pretty piece of costume jewelry. Meanwhile, Norm learns that Laurie hates Christmas after rocky childhood experiences, and he and Artie plot to get the spirit of the holiday back for her.

Cut to Norm and Artie clumsily jimmying open a window with a crowbar. Once inside, they begin to decorate the apartment in the dark. Artie, dressed as Santa, announces that he needs a three-pronged outlet to plug in the dancing fruitcake and wanders down an off-screen hallway. Then, almost instantly, we hear Laurie shout "WHO'S OUT THERE?" followed by a gunshot. It's really wonderfully timed and a sudden turn that I was not expecting.

In the emergency room, a group of children who were there caroling are traumatized as Artie, still in Santa garb, is wheeled past. Laurie feels terrible, but Norm attempts to console her. "Don't worry about it, Laurie. Artie gets real crabby when you shoot him."

Meanwhile, Taylor, who is also in the emergency room because a coworker's brother was non-fatally shot (?), comforts a young girl in a wheelchair who is worried that the real Santa has been shot by giving her the diamond bracelet from earlier. Danny gets the girl alone and attempts to buy it off of her, but she refuses. With no other cards to play, he tells her that he was going to give it back to the Boogey Man, but he'll just have to get it for himself. She throws the bracelet to the ground and runs off screaming.

In the hospital room, Artie forgives Laurie, and they hug. (Before you chalk this up to a standard sitcom moment, Artie grabs Laurie's butt.) Our characters have received what Norm refers to as the second greatest gift of Christmas: forgiveness. (The first greatest is cake.) Back in the waiting room, Norm and Laurie share stories of Christmas tragedy from their childhoods. As they trade back and forth, Norm reveals that he accidentally burned down the hobo camp he and his family lived in. When Laurie accuses him of making his story up, he says that maybe he was, "but that's just so you wouldn't win." Later, Laurie returns home to find her house completely Christmased out. Norm steps out from the hallway, telling her not to shoot, then presents her with the first greatest gift of Christmas: cake.

The Norm Show wasn't a game-changing show that changed the face of television, but it does feel like a transition show between programs like Home Improvement and the modern, more intelligent sitcom like 30 Rock or Parks and Recreation. The show balances the dark with the heart-warming, but isn't afraid to have a lead character shoot another one on Christmas. From The Norm Show, MacDonald would jump to a number of other television projects that didn't prove successful, and has recently begun his own podcast, and according to recent Twitter activity, has begun writing something that we will hopefully get to enjoy soon. While The Norm Show didn't last as long as it probably could have, at the very least, during the time it was on it was able to be true to itself and find a unique voice that set it apart from the rest of the television landscape of the early 2000s.

By shooting Santa Claus during primetime.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

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