Let's talk about Norm Macdonald, divisive comic genius

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“Norm splits people,” says Nerdwriter at the top of his latest video essay on stand-up icon Norm Macdonald. He’s not wrong. Macdonald has spent his career alienating audiences with jokes that repeatedly test an audience’s patience, whether it be through an “offensive” punchline (revisit his time hosting SNL’s Weekend Update) or a long, winding setup (see any number of his recent late-night appearances). It’s easy to say that Macdonald’s genius lies in the idea that he “doesn’t give a fuck,” especially when watching his hilarious internal sabotage of this YouTube red carpet comedy show, but here Nerdwriter argues the opposite.

Macdonald disarms people because he’s so cunningly blurred the line between the man and his character. Just look at his recent “memoir,” a brilliant and frustrating narrative that spins off the seeds of what sound like real stories into bizarre, dreamlike digressions. This fuzzy duality extends to multiple sides of Macdonald’s process, which is intentional. As the essay points out, it’s Macdonald’s “folksy, dopey innocence” in performance that works to mask the sophistication of his joke-writing, which he often undercuts with shockingly obvious punchlines or bursts of crass profanity.

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You can’t pin Macdonald down, nor can you easily characterize him. As such, his work carries an innate spontaneity that most other comics sacrifice by separating themselves from their character.

Now, please watch him try to sell a cast-iron grilling grate on his podcast.

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.

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