Norm MacDonald is a comedian of moral outrage. Well, maybe not outrage, but at least severe moral curmudgeonliness. In spite of all the jokes about crack whores and O.J. Simpson that made him famous on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” in the mid ’90s, MacDonald’s always laid claim to a certain rhetorical moral authority. And now, after a long absence from the limelight, he’s returned to anchor Comedy Central’s new “Update”-style fake-news program, Sports Show with Norm MacDonald, an extremely funny weekly reminder of what a bunch of assholes professional athletes can be.
To say that MacDonald’s comedy is animated by moral outrage is not to say that MacDonald always gets it right. There are a number of almost unbelievable instances of straight-up homophobia from his run at the “Weekend Update” desk, and in an early episode of the Sports Show, he goes on a too-long, not-funny-enough rant in defense of Tiger Woods’s lechery. But MacDonald’s conservatism is more of a personality tick than a doctrine. In other words, MacDonald is, often to his detriment, uncomfortable with easy cultural distinctions between who’s right and who’s wrong. And this is most visible, and most valuable, when it comes to his treatment of celebrities.
Over the past decade, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have developed as two of the most thorough and impassioned bastions of media criticism in the country, hurling flaming balls of earnestness at journalists and politicians who’ve climbed to the top through hypocrisy, buffoonery, and wacky violations of public trust. And so far, Sports Show seems to be attempting to level the same kind of microscopic critique at the world of professional sports. Instead of Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, MacDonald has a bone to pick with Kobe Bryant and Barry Bonds. MacDonald is not necessarily the good guy, but as he delights in pointing out, neither are these guys.
It’s commonplace to say that professional athletes get away with murder—partly because it’s sometimes literally true. They’re heroes to children and adults, they provide huge amounts of entertainment value for fans and cash flow for owners, and when they’re on the field, court, etc., their personal misdeeds can often seem to disappear (see the recent apotheosis of dog murderer Michael Vick). As a comedian, MacDonald is incapable of forgetting—his epic battles on SNL are echoed on the new show in his similar obsession with Bryant’s recent homophobic slur and half-hearted gestures at repentance—and his willingness to beat a dead horse makes him an ideal candidate to hold these figures accountable even when everyone else has moved on.
Very often, professional athletes’ wrongs are forgotten simply because it’s easier to forget them than it is to integrate them into their glorified public personae. Bryant bought his wife a ring and gave L.A. a championship, and, presto, those rape charges were water under the bridge. Same goes for Ben Roethlisberger, Ray Lewis, and the entire locker room of the New York Jets. MacDonald’s Letterman-esque compulsion to make the same joke over and over again thus works as a way of reminding us of the assorted crimes athletes routinely get away with. Incredulity is a kind of motor force on Sports Show (two excellent regular segments are titled “What the H?” and “Wait, What?”) and Norm spends a lot of time each episode meditating on the patent absurdity of the blank checks issued to athletes by their coaches, reporters, and fans.
This isn’t to say that Sports Show operates in constant gadfly mode or even that MacDonald himself always picks the right side in the stories he reports. On the contrary, Sports Show seems born of a real spectator’s love of organized sports, and a delight in the panoply of weird personalities we have access to through the MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, and everything else. MacDonald is a fan, and as such he’s prone to the same kinds of blind spots he points out in the media. His defense of steroids in baseball, for instance, while at least partially tongue-in-cheek, points out that baseball might simply more fun to watch if Barry Bonds hits 70 home runs a year rather than 30.
So, the jokes on Sports Show don’t always land, and they’re not always timely, but one of the joys of watching this program is that of seeing a real comedian work. (See MacDonald’s hilarious extended bit on Michael Jordan’s “Hitler moustache” in the first episode.) The Daily Show and The Colbert Report tend to mostly evoke the sketch-comedy/improv idiom, snarkfests like The Soup and Tosh.0 traffic more in tweetable one-liners than anything else, the Comedy Central Roast series functions basically as an Elderly Vagina Joke clearing house, and it’s been so long since Jay Leno or David Letterman were working stand-ups that that genre of performance seems a long-departed shadow on their shows. On Sports Show (and in a few other places, notably, the monologues of the still-great Ellen Degeneres Show), however, viewers have the pleasure of watching a practically extinct form of comedy. MacDonald is a stand-up’s stand-up: The material doesn’t always work, but in its texture, its conviction, and its practiced delivery, it deserves to be called material.