Breaking the Norm

Breaking the Norm

Jamie Kilstein
Jamie Kilstein

Norm Macdonald became famous as a comic who said offensive things. From blatantly calling O.J. Simpson a murderer on Saturday Night Live, to a Conan appearance where he talked about oral sex with his wife who was in a coma. We loved it. He was one of the most beloved comedians of all time and a comic’s comic. I even went back to watch that Conan clip taped in “liberal Hollywood” after a girlfriend sent it to me and noticed that the crowd went nuts. Coma sex and all.

Norm Macdonald was also just booted from The Tonight Show for… saying offensive things.

Here’s what happened.

While promoting his new, not-canceled-yet Netflix show – Norm Macdonald Has a Show – he gave an interview to the Hollywood Reporter where he said he felt sorry for Louis C.K. and Roseanne and he is happy the #metoo movement has slowed down. You can watch the whole interview here, and it’s worth pointing out that he wasn’t defending Louis C.K.’s and Roseanne’s behavior, merely asking whether it merited such severe punishment.

Weird thing to say when promoting a comedy show? Sure. Weird thing for a journalist to ask a comedian promoting a comedy show? YUP! But that’s what gets clicks nowadays. Ask someone famous to comment on an issue that is riddled with landmines and strapped to a time bomb made of other smaller time bombs and watch as this poor asshole stutters their way into a Twitter mob beat down or a show cancelation.

So why would Norm say this? Is Norm Macdonald a sexist monster who goes to bed at night praying for the health and happiness of Harvey Weinstein? I don’t think so.

Both Louis and Rosanne are very close friends of his and Roseanne was the person who gave him his first writing job. Admitting that you feel bad for people who watched their whole career disappear in a day is not a bad thing to say or think.

It shows empathy. Something that is missing in a society that wakes up to scream at strangers who disagree with them on the Internet every day.

What got Norm into trouble was saying that what Louis went through is worse than what his victims went through. That did it. The interview went live, then got retweeted, then someone else copied-and-pasted it to another blog, then someone retweeted that, and before Norm knew what had hit him he was staring into a toilet of overflowing shit muttering, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no…”

Is watching your career implode in 24 hours worse than having someone masturbate in front of you? That’s an insane question! Both things are bad! Never in the history of the world has anyone been asked, “Would you rather lose your job or have the comedian who talks about his kids jerk off in front of you?” They are very different things. You can feel bad about one, both, or neither.

But is it worth canceling his Tonight Show appearance and trying to get his show canceled before it even airs? (Ironically, he said the show was purposefully not political or topical.) No! It’s worth at least one follow-up question before burning him to the ground.

When he did get the chance to respond on The Howard Stern Show he tried to clarify what he meant.

Yeah, that’s not what I was saying, when this went down with Roseanne I called her the next day and she was crying the whole time. I was worried about her. She seemed really in a bad place. I said, “I can’t talk to you about this, I’ve never been through anything like this and I know Louis and he’s been through this and has had everything taken from him…You should talk.” And [the reporter asked,] “What about the victims?” and I said, “Well, the victims haven’t gone through this.” This particular event. Of course, the victims have gone through worse than that. But am I going to get a victim to phone Roseanne?

Then, like any good comic, he doubled down and screwed up his apology by saying “you’d have to have Down Syndrome” not to feel sorry for victims of sexual abuse. Later saying he instantly knew he’d made a mistake – “It’s always bad when you have to apologize for the apology,” he said – which, by the way, is both hilarious and the politically correct way to phrase it.

Yet none of this would have happened if he didn’t have to submit to a Game of Thrones shame walk from show to show apologizing for having an opinion. Like an accused sex offender, he does the perp walk out from behind the curtains, staring down at the floor, makes his way over to a gleeful host and attempts to make amends for the sins he has brought down on himself. Speaking freely.

We now treat people who dissent from the progressive orthodoxy about certain offenses as being no different from the people who actually committed the offenses in the first place.

If you Google Norm today one of the first headlines is from Entertainment Weekly and reads, ‘A miserable Norm Macdonald goes on The View.’ Another headline is just a quote from him saying, ‘I did something unforgivable.’

Unforgivable?!? Jesus Christ! That’s what a priest says after being kicked out of a church for molesting children. (Just kidding – he would never be kicked out.) It’s not what a comedian should say after expressing an opinion. Apparently, Jimmy Fallon pulled the plug after being told that Norm’s senior producers were so upset they were crying at the thought of him being on the show. Which rightfully horrified him.

Weirdly, no one at The Tonight Show cried when Donald Trump went on the show (even though, you know, Trump’s the guy that put Mexican kids in cages) or Barack Obama (drone strikes guy). But a comic saying he feels bad for his friends? That’s really upsetting, obviously.

If Norm Macdonald went on a drunken tirade and spewed, “All the women of #metoo deserved it and what are you going do about it?! Nothing you FOOLS! I made Dirty Work! THE GREATEST COMEDY OF ALL TIME!” then blocked a door, whipped it out and started masturbating… then okay! Don’t book him on The Tonight Show to follow Jimmy Fallon juggling. But that’s not what happened. What happened was a comic was giving his opinion on his friends and that opinion doesn’t fit into the liberal mainstream talking-points bubble.

Shit, there will be people who are mad at you for sharing this article by me defending Norm, who got in trouble for defending Roseanne. I may even have to apologise myself, and then some other comic will write a piece defending me… and it will go on and on forever like a version of Groundhog Day that takes place in hell.

Now some might say it’s different because Norm wasn’t saying it in the context of making a joke. Others might say something like, “Oh my god, it wasn’t even that offensive. When did we turn into a country of babies who can’t stop shitting ourselves then rolling around in it and crying?”

But who am I to judge?

I used to get just as outraged about comedy. Not because I was actually outraged but because all of Twitter was outraged and I would have sucked dick for retweets.

I once performed an hour-long show called Jamie Kilstein Hates Standup to show how woke I was.

It was a nice safety cushion. I could act like an edgy hipster asshole, while also taking some pressure off myself in the laughter department.

“Oh you didn’t find that funny? Neither did I. I hate standup! Didn’t you read the title? IDIOT!”

The week before all of this Norm shit happened, Vulture put out an article called ‘How Funny does Comedy need to be?‘ Myself and other comics read and reacted to the piece in horror. The answer should be “Very! Very funny! All the time!” and that should be the end of the article.

As a new wave of comics who don’t rely on punchlines blow up, a lot of people are going after the old guard. There can be both. There should be both. Norm came up in dark nightclubs where the point was to be as shocking as possible. Get people to let their guard down. Laugh at things they know they shouldn’t. His off-stage persona reflects that.

Norm Macdonald is an amazing comedian. By all accounts, he’s an amazing friend as well. This started because he expressed some sympathy for two people he knew who’ve been through something most people could never imagine. Phrasing it in a clumsy way should not warrant the kind of backlash he is getting. But we have become addicted to shaming – addicted to clickbait – and it needs to stop. Let’s stop being a soundbite culture. A pile-on culture. Let’s start seeing people as people again and not Twitter icons whose lives we want to destroy. And for fuck’s sake let the comics just make jokes so we can all sit back together and laugh.

ComedyArt and CultureNorm Macdonald

Jamie Kilstein

Jamie Kilstein is a comedian and writer. His Substack can be found at: jamiekilstein.substack.com