It happened again. The self-reinforcing outrage/apology cycle has spun once more, this time with perennial comedy runner-up Norm Macdonald at its center.
The events unfolded in rote fashion on Tuesday–like clockwork, or three-act structure on an early-2000’s Norm Macdonald sitcom mercy-killed for poor ratings. What is it about promoting a Netflix show in a major interview that makes certain men say terrible things that ultimately achieve the opposite goal of “promotion”? Earlier this summer, the male cast of Arrested Development made Jessica Walter cry in front of a New York Times reporter, spurring all the standard outrage and apology beats. Now, Norm MacDonald has popped off at the mouth while promoting his upcoming talk show, in such a way that the last thing many potential viewers will want to do is hear him say more things. What he’s said already pretty much says it all.
Here’s where I run down the highlights of everything terrible Macdonald said, a brokedown palace of white-male persecution-complex foofaraw.
On whether Trump has been as bad as he’d feared: “I don’t know what [lasting damage] you could point to except, you know, the Supreme Court judge nomination, which is certainly not an anomaly.”
On whether Trump has emboldened racists: “I live in L.A., where I’m always faced with the lunacy of the left. I didn’t know that the same lunacy existed on the right. So I never really bought into this notion that everybody is racist–because there was a black president, you know? But the Sacha Baron Cohen show has been a frightening eye-opener.”
On #MeToo: “I’m happy the #MeToo movement has slowed down a little bit. It used to be, ‘One hundred women can’t be lying.’ And then it became, ‘One woman can’t lie.’ And that became, ‘I believe all women.’ And then you’re like, ‘What?’ . . . The model used to be, admit wrongdoing, show complete contrition, and then we give you a second chance. Now it’s admit wrongdoing and you’re finished. And so the only way to survive is to deny, deny, deny.”
On Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr: “There are very few people that have gone through what they have, losing everything in a day. Of course, people will go, ‘What about the victims?’ But you know what? The victims didn’t have to go through that.”
The interview goes on and on like that for several more infuriating paragraphs, but the gist is this: “Powerful people being held to account” is a bad thing because it might one day affect Norm Macdonald personally, but Donald Trump being president is not so bad because racism, reproductive health, transphobia, child separation at the border, Hurricane Maria, and a host of other issues will probably never affect him. Wow, how lucky are we that a digital spigot spewing more Norm opinions is coming soon to Netflix? Are we the most lucky?
In any case, the exact culture Norm Macdonald railed against, like an old man whose soup has been served not nearly warm enough, came back to bite him in the ass. The backlash was swift. Those overly sensitive snowflakes on the left who get all up in arms about, say, women getting masturbated at, did not care for this interview. The words “Norm Macdonald” were trending on Twitter all afternoon, and not in the way Netflix may have hoped. The Tonight Show canceled his scheduled appearance on Tuesday’s episode, as the online complaints continued to roll out. Finally, Macdonald issued one of those non-apology apologies where he is sorry “if my words sounded like I was minimizing the pain that [Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr’s] victims feel to this day.” For anyone offended by Macdonald’s interview, the only good part of the apology is imagining how pissed off he must have been about having to write it.
To be clear, the reason it sounded like he was minimizing the pain of those victims is because he literally did exactly that. I’ll save you a scroll up, here’s what he said: “People will go, ‘What about the victims?’ But you know what? The victims didn’t have to go through that.”
Yes, Norm McDonald, the victims of getting masturbated at by a powerful colleague or seeing a racist tweet from a successful white woman don’t have to go through the experience of “losing everything” like the perpetrators do. BECAUSE THEY’RE THE VICTIMS. Furthermore, it’s amazing that Macdonald’s idea of “losing everything” roughly translates to “being a multimillionaire in poor public standing for an indefinite amount of time.” Macdonald’s opinion that this sort of punishment seems to not fit the crime reveals a man who has learned absolutely nothing from the very recent reality where powerful people actually have to answer for the things they say and do.
He cannot conceive of what it’s like to be a woman who endures sexual harassment, or a person of color who has been harassed or discriminated against. And yet he feels qualified to bloviate about the proper response to these experiences. It’s a paradox of privilege, a word that men like Macdonald are likely sick of hearing while never bothering to explore the reasons they keep hearing it.
Macdonald gives away the game in one of the lesser heralded moments from his interview. When the topic shifts to comedian Hannah Gadsby’s widely lauded but also polarizing Netflix special, Nanette, he says, “I have never seen the Nanette thing because I never wanted to comment on it. But from what I have read about it, [comedian Hannah Gadsby] is saying that comedy is now not about laughter.”
The spiciness of this meatball cannot be overstated. Macdonald admits he is uninformed about something a lot of people have strong opinions about, yet still insists on offering his hot take anyway. What he knows about the special is strictly from hearsay, and it doesn’t even occur to him that the hearsay may sound like it does because it came from someone who thinks exactly the same way he does. (I don’t know this for a fact, but something makes me think he didn’t form his opinion of Nanette by reading Moira Donegan’s brilliant review of it for the New Yorker.)
Yes, Nanette is in part a critique of comedy and its limitations, but the special is also about how the world treats powerful men, and how it treats the women they abuse. Rather than learn anything on that topic from a women who herself has been abused, Macdonald would prefer to spend his time learning that racism exists from Sacha Baron Cohen. He doesn’t want to engage with Hannah Gadsby’s special to find out why people are talking about it. He just knows that it’s a woman maybe criticizing comedy in some way, and thus he knows enough. He knows that there’s some criticism involved, it might be directed at someone like him, and who needs that? This way, he can remain correct forever and never find out why someone else thinks he’s wrong about something. He’s like a child with his fingers plugged into his own ears, saying “Lalalalala, I can’t hear you,” until the moment he can talk again unimpeded.
Make no mistake, Norm Macdonald’s gunpoint apology doesn’t mean that he’s sorry. It means he was right that people are so easily offended these days that they can’t handle his truth about how people are so easily offended these days. He never has to do any soul searching about what just happened, because he was right all along. Luckily, rather than put fingers in our own ears, all we have to do to avoid more truth bombs from him in the future is not watch his show.