Norm Macdonald and the Art of the Contradiction

NKN_2543.NEFProbably the greatest significance of Norm Macdonald’s new Netflix standup special Hitler’s Dog comes with the sparklingly succinct way Macdonald answers the industry’s political correctness controversies, at least from a comedian’s perspective, by situating some of the most repugnant and inflammatory remarks possible in the mouth of a made-up character, the titular dictator’s canine. Of course onstage it’s just Macdonald, in a suit humbly paired with dad sneakers, speaking the corrosive words. So, silly though they sound, with the wrong edit you might mistake them for Macdonald’s own views. “This is why we ask that you don’t use recording devices,” Macdonald says as a bumper to the bit.

Macdonald seems to be suggesting comedy comes from the same pocket of theatrical what-if as fiction or song, a hypothetical place, and shouldn’t be confused for advocacy—or anything to be argued with. You can find a song or a movie’s content objectionable, no doubt, but don’t treat it like it’s really real; that Macdonald manages to communicate this without either polemic or defiance is an achievement of restraint.

Macdonald has worked in similar material before, like on Dennis Miller’s radio show when he toyed with the idea of a Holocaust-denying ventriloquist’s dummy, but here Macdonald folds the routine in with further explorations into the nature of reality, honesty, or the difference between immediate experience and imagination—so that the playing with masks gains in this case an added dimension in quite philosophical terrain.

For example, early in the special Macdonald muses on the existential horror of compulsive honesty, prompted by George Washington’s boyhood myth of the cherry tree. Later he revisits the struggle to tell the truth with a novel approach: “I thought of a way of not lying and I’ll share it with you if you like,” Macdonald says. “You can tell the truth, word for word absolutely true, but when you do it you use a sarcastic accent.” It becomes a gag about identity theft and heinous crimes all concealed by such a facetious “confession”—but again and again, between bits about autoerotic asphyxiation or the Six Million Dollar Man’s hearing aid, Macdonald returns to the subject of how arrangements of language and this interplay between literal and deceptive truths shape our minds’ interpretation of the world.

Though reliably sharp-witted, Macdonald makes his reputation as a coarse anti-intellectual. In this set, when you expect his next word will be “intelligence” or “information,” Macdonald goes instead for the untutored-sounding “smartness.” He insists that at gatherings he steers toward anyone he can find to “talk about Jughead comics for a couple hours” and indeed Macdonald claims before winding up the show, “Nothing I’ve said really is of substance.”

However, this carefully projected obtuseness hides another Macdonald who is indeed an avid reader, especially of classic literature. His parents were teachers, and Macdonald frequently cites Tolstoy as his favorite author. Last year he casually dropped his abridged rendition of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat” into a text message exchange with an interviewer. Writing in The Week, Lili Loofbourow described Macdonald’s own book Based on a True Story as a story “pretending hard” not to be ambitious but called it an “experiment in hyperliterary comedy” filled with “difficult beauty” and “waves of lyricism,” comparing the faux-memoir to both Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and Pale Fire.

Likewise in Hitler’s Dog, Macdonald tangles with Friedrich Nietzsche (“That which does not kill you makes you weaker, and will probably kill you the next time it shows up”) and Albert Camus (“Imagine if you woke up and you realized you were wrong about everything”) and enters at one point into a treatise on figurative language, claiming to distrust metaphors because of their lack of reciprocal correspondence between dual real-world and imaginary meanings: “I like the ones where the metaphor part is true and the literal part is true.” In so doing he sounds a lot like George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in the 1980 critical theory classic Metaphors We Live By: “Conventional metaphor … pervades our conceptual system and is a primary mechanism for understanding—put[s] us at odds with the contemporary views of language, meaning, truth, and understanding.”

Elsewhere, Macdonald’s linguistic games and clever use of opposites remind me of cognitive philosopher Douglas Hofstadter’s meditations on the Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem—how language allows living minds, unlike formal systems of logic, to contain self-contradictory statements and access self-reference, for example. Macdonald demonstrates this absurd capability with his final series of sentences, first announcing what he is not going to do to close the show and then saying the opposite sarcastically. Because of the difference in tone, both statements have the same apparent meaning even though their words directly contradict one another—and both surface interpretations turn out to be wrong.

Of course, such indirection is the basis of comedy—the factor of just kidding. But few performers manage to be so transparent about their technique without resorting to metahumor. As with the segment on metaphors, Macdonald exposes how the same combinations of words may or may not be true according to different sets of conditions. His jokes seem to show how standup itself works, like Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that “the medium is the message”—even as Macdonald turns both medium and message inside-out with self-contradiction. “In all great deceivers,” Nietzsche says in Human, All Too Human, “one thing is noteworthy … they are overcome by their belief in themselves.”

“Most of my act is just gossip and trickery,” Macdonald declaims during the act, providing the program its subtitle, but it seems rather a lot longer on trickery than gossip. When Macdonald is in the middle of a routine about the virtues and vices of “magic phones,” he describes resorting to Wikipedia on the device to impress a party guest with his art-historical knowledge of the impressionist Claude Monet, declaring: “You know what I liked about him was his paintings? I liked the way he painted. He was a painter and I loved how he used the paint to make paintings.”

It’s Norm pretending to be dim again, unable to go beyond the surface of things, but at once using a penetrating linguistic trick to unite like McLuhan or Nietzsche the substance of art with the act and material and identity all at once. Later Macdonald recounts the difference between instant digital photography and the old days of delayed photo processing and the feeling of wonder at re-encountering images you don’t even remember taking: “You needed that time for that picture to make any sense or have any resonance. Nowadays you go, ‘Would you like to see a picture of you standing right where you are one second ago?’” In pointing out how the reproduced immediacy separates reality from the act of forming memory, Macdonald joins Neil deGrasse Tyson in saying how true meaning emerges in the gap between a record of what something literally is and how our mind grows to interpret it, rather than faithfulness between the two.

Macdonald’s tricky performance then shows the lie in his preference for perfect symmetry of literal truth and metaphorical truth. It’s the difference between a transcript of a comedy show and the living experience, and few recordings have ever been a better advertisement for the real thing.

Lars Russell lives in the middle ground between magic markers and permanent ones. He has written for SB Nation, SPIN, The Stranger, Loser City, The Onion, Outside and The Huffington Post and tweets about football and new African music at @beat_valley.

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