When you’re Norm Macdonald, you surround yourself with things that interest you.
These days, that often means a playing cards at a Vegas casino, as he competes on “Poker After Dark.” Sometimes that means working on new ideas with his longtime producing partner Lori Jo Hoekstra. And as the legendary comic told IndieWire, sometimes that even means indulging in some newfound online fascination. “I watch YouTube all the time. I go down YouTube holes where I’ll just watch every Orson Welles video and just gorge myself on information,” Macdonald said.
It’s that kind of interest — somehow laser-focused and scattershot at the same time — that guides the latest act of Macdonald’s career: Netflix talk show host. Premiering this Friday on the streaming platform, “Norm Macdonald Has a Show” is a collection of 10 half-hour interviews with a wide mix of entertainment subjects. Macdonald speaks to actors such as Drew Barrymore and Michael Keaton, but he also has interviews a country singer (Billy Joe Shaver), a blockbuster director (M. Night Shyamalan), a TV judge (Judy Sheindlin), and the man who oversaw his ’90s stint on “Saturday Night Live,” Lorne Michaels.
IndieWire spoke with Macdonald about the new show, as well as insidious laugh tracks, invaluable advice from fellow comedians, and why he’d still have Louis CK as a guest on his show someday.
You have free reign to talk to people from across the industry and pick out a guest list. Do you gravitate more toward people who you have an existing relationship with, or is it more fun to talk to people that you don’t know very well?
It’s better with people you don’t know, because when you get people you really know well, you have this weird dynamic that sounds like you’re insulting each other all the time. I always thought I wanted to be a talk show host. But I think looking back, I just wanted that because you’re supposed to want that. But it’s impossible for me to interview people I’m not interested in.
When I started doing this, I realized, ‘Oh my God, Letterman’s so brilliant because he has more contempt for show business than anybody.’ For him to be able to interview these vapid actresses while they told stories about how their third swimming pool is too expensive and he’s able to make it look like he’s enjoying himself is such a talent. So when they ask you, ‘Who do you want as your guests?’ you run out of people real quick that you’re actually interested in.
There’s always the case that somebody that you’re interested in isn’t the right fit for the show. Is there something that you’ve noticed that makes for a really good guest, a quality in them versus something in you?
The guys I’m interested in are usually older guys. Older guys have better stories because they have more stories. They’ve been around forever. They don’t care because they’re barely in show business and they can tell the truth.
So my dream guest is Robert Blake. I always loved Robert Blake because I used to see him as a kid on Tom Snyder, you know, before the trial. He was a fascinating guest. Back then, on Carson, when I was a kid, the first guest wouldn’t be the biggest star. It would be because they were entertaining. The Buddy Hackett, Pete Barbutti. Or Robert Blake. So I was trying to get guests like that. Guys that can just tell stories.
I like a ‘guys that know they’re the best’ kind of guy, you know what I mean? I don’t like false modesty that much. Guys that can talk at a high level about what they do that’s extraordinary. They’re able to make me understand it. I feel Tarantino would be like the perfect interview because he’s got so much energy, so much passion, so much commitment and he could explain to you things because he has just as much love for his movies as you do.
And especially now that he’s making a film set 50 years ago, which seems to be a time period that you really find interesting and draw a lot from.
Once you’re in show business, anyone who becomes famous after they’re in show business is not interesting to you. It’s only the people when you were a kid. So if I was on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and Tom Cruise came — well, he became famous before I did. But, let’s say . . . Tiffany Haddish comes on or something. It’s not like, ‘Oh my God!’ because I was already in show business. A couple times on ‘SNL,’ we’d have Charlton Heston or Bob Newhart. And I was like, ‘This guy was famous before I was born.’ So yeah, I do gravitate towards old people, for sure. Just because you know everything about these guys and their careers.
I really want to get this race car driver on the show, but we had to get guys that were famous. But remember the movie ‘Rush?’ I don’t know if you ever saw that movie. It was about two race car drivers that battled each other. This one guy, he crashed his car and almost died in a fire. But then he came back and he’s one of the most fascinating guys I’ve ever heard of. He’s a burn victim, right? But for some reason, you’re not repelled by his look because he’s so charming and charismatic and like a man, a manly guy. He’s a highly attractive, compelling figure. Anyway, he’s not on the show. I don’t know what I’m talking about him for.
You said you prefer to talk to people you don’t know, but as you look to a potential next round of guests, you had a working relationship with Louis CK prior to everything that happened last fall. Is there a set of circumstances where you would ever have him on the show?
Oh, in two seconds, yeah. The day I was going up to the office at Netflix for the guest pitches, I had just spoken to him on the phone. I didn’t know what his thing at Netflix was. I said to somebody that worked there — not Ted [Sarandos] — ‘I was just talking to Louis.’ They said, ‘Can you get him?!’ And I’m not going to ask him. I’ll tell him I have a show, so that he knows. But I’m not gonna ask that.
But yeah, I’d love to do it. I was talking to him when he went on at the Comedy Cellar the other night. I was glad. It was funny, because I’ve been in contact with him, I thought it was going to make no press at all. Cause it’s just the Comedy Cellar, you know? Just go do a set for the 200 people that are there. They’ll tell you if they like you or hate you. Louis is a tough guy. He can take it. But he told me he’s never had stage fright in his life until now.
With guests you have on the show, is there any sort of conversation about what is or isn’t on the table or is there an understanding that if you’re coming on the show, we’re going to talk about everything?
Whatever comes up. It’s just like two people talking. If somebody says ‘Abortion!’ and the other person goes ‘What? I don’t like that,’ you leave it in.
One of the things that stands out from these episodes is that you have the note cards in front of you with jokes. Sometimes you get halfway through a joke, realize it’s not working and just toss it aside. And sometimes you power through and make it work for you. Is there something inside that lets you know when to power through and when to make the fact that you’re bailing out the joke itself?
Well, first, I have no audience. Four or five people, like a Tom Snyder feel. An audio guy, whatever. A few people, just so there’s that pressure. Because in standup, you’ll write a ten minute bit, go on stage and as you’re doing it, it’s like you’re so compressed under the pressure that you go, ‘This line’s wrong! It’s going to be boring.’ Suddenly, when you’re in front of an audience, it’s not on paper anymore and you just know from intuition, it’s just not gonna work.
But I don’t want to give myself the best jokes, because then it’s not fair. You got Bill Maher and he does the “New Rules” and then forces everybody to watch, like from two feet away. You know what I mean? Like a congressman has to watch while he does a jizz joke. So I don’t want to do that. I tried to give the best jokes to the guest. Especially if they’re not comics.
Was there ever any thought to bring this in front of an audience or is this the kind of environment you like to work?
Lori was going, ‘Well, if we do another show, it should be with people we like.’ And that’s brilliant because every job you have, at least in show business, there’s one person you don’t like. And then that becomes the only person you talk about. For every 15 people, the one person they don’t like, everybody’s talking about that one person, secretly. I don’t know what it is about human nature. So we just hired people we liked. It was incredible. So the people that are in the audience, they’re not kiss-asses, they’re like our buddies.
Because now you get audiences and they’re complicit with the game. They think they have a role. Not like a standup audience where you have to earn the laugh. They’re complicit. I was on sitcoms and I’d go, ‘You gotta turn down that laugh track.’ It would be better if there was a laugh track. These people laugh five times as long as the laugh track because they lather them up and give ’em free pizza and a warm up guy virtually tells them ‘When that guy stops talking, laugh.’ I remember doing scenes, I’d be talking to Laurie Metcalf, she’d say something and they would laugh for eight seconds. And then you’re just frozen. You can’t do anything. You just sit there, staring at a person. It was so bizarre.
What we wanted was just naturalistic. If there’s no laughs, that’s cool. I feel you can be alienated at home with a laugh track. I hate when I’m at home and I’m like, ‘Is everyone like this except me?’ Like, think about this: Every joke on television, every joke works. When you think about it, that’s insane, right? If you just run around hearing jokes, and every one you laughed at it, you’d think you were going crazy! Or if you laughed at watching TV as much as the studio audience, you’d be an idiot. It’s alienating, you’d go, ‘Why are these people so fucking wildly entertained?’
I always give ‘SNL’ credit for that. I think that they got hurt because of it, because if a sketch doesn’t work on ‘SNL,’ it bombs. And that’s the only thing on TV that’s bombing! Everything else is bomb proof. Because Lorne doesn’t go up there and hold a sign that says ‘LAUGH.’ But then it makes when it works great and it’s just sounding natural and real. Like Letterman in the ’80s. The audience would sometimes not be there at all. Sometimes their standup sketch would bomb. It was fucking awesome.
A lot of times, in conversations with comedians, it seems like whenever a lot of them get to a point in their career where they’re at a crossroads, they use another comedian as their guiding force. Like ‘What would Carlin do?’ as a way to figure out whether they should take one road or another road. For some people, you’d be that person. Do you have someone, whether it’s a comedian or a performer, that serves that same purpose for you?
Yeah. I would say Sam Kinison. To me, Sam Kinison was the last original voice in comedy that I’d ever heard in standup. He was a big influence personally on me, when I first started. I met him a year in and he let me open for him, before he broke. I remember he was starring in a movie called [‘Atuk.’] And he told me, ‘I just have to rewrite it.’ They’d send him the script and he’d do all these rewrites. And then he’d send it back. And they just went back to the original script. So when he got to set that day, this was his first movie ever, he goes, ‘I can’t do this shit. They changed it all. What happened?’ I’m not trying to bullshit him. And I said, ‘Goddamn, how can you do that? It’s a movie. I’d just say whatever, I just do whatever the guy told me.’
And he said [Macdonald does his Sam Kinison voice], ‘I’d rather never do a movie than a thousand fucking Dan Aykroyd movies!‘ I love Dan Aykroyd, but you know what I mean? The idea of just doing it ’cause it’s offered. But I still do that and it’s not like I learned. I’m the fucking Kentucky Fried Chicken colonel. I’ll sell chicken. I don’t give a fuck.
I remember Bill Hicks used to make fun of Jay Leno, which I thought was kind of audacious because Jay Leno was like a million times funnier. And then he’d say, ‘You stopped being a comedian when you started doing Doritos commercials!’ And I’m like, really? That disqualifies Leno from being funny? I mean Hicks was doing it from a bar where they sold beer, presumably. So you can say he was working for Budweiser.
So I guess I can’t say that because I don’t practice it.
You’ve been a part of a few projects that may have been ahead of their time. Is there one that you’d like to go back and revisit now that you have this relationship with a company that’s willing to take a chance on things that may not have worked in the past, but may find the right audience here?
I would do that, sure. I’ll do something with Ted after this. We’ll probably do the show again. but people will decide that. If not, I’m sure I’ll work with Ted again. He was my friend before, before the show, you know. He’s the most powerful guy ever, and it’s still shocking to me that he’s my friend. But I text him every day. He’s, like, the coolest guy.
Sometimes I think I should go to parties. I’ve been to maybe eight parties, but out of those eight parties, I got like two jobs because some guy goes, ‘Oh, he was at the party the other night! Why don’t we get him?’ They just remember that you’re alive, right? You’re just not in their mind if you don’t go to parties. So I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got two jobs out of eight parties. That’s like 25 percent.’ I should just go to parties all the time. People figured that out before me. But I still couldn’t do it.
“Norm Macdonald has a Show” premieres Friday, September 14 on Netflix.