When we found out Norm Macdonald died, my wife and I set our hearts on doing one thing and one thing only that night. No, not toasting his demise! We watched Dirty Work (1998), the only feature film to star Norm. The ex-Saturday Night Live (1975-Present) star had an immensely loyal fanbase maintained through podcasts, guest spots, and whatever else Norm found himself doing. After getting fired from SNL, Dirty Work was his shot at a more traditional comedic career. It was, uh, not well received. But his fans loved it and still do, a tension one can see plainly on the film’s IMDb page, where its meta-score is only 24, but the user reviews are all joyous praise. My wife and I, members, if somewhat new ones, of the latter group, saw it as a fitting send-off.
So, why didn’t it work for audiences?
It’s got the sort of barebones comedy plot, tinged with a bit of romance and a lot of crass humor that characterized a lot of 90s comedy. Adam Sandler anyone? Bob Saget (yes, that Bob Saget) is the director. Even if unproven, Saget’s name should be a draw (then again, it was the 90s). Artie Lange plays Sam McKenna to Norm’s Mitch Weaver, a sure draw for the shock jock crowd (even if he hadn’t joined up with Howard Stern yet). Chevy Chase, Chris Farley, Gary Coleman, Adam Sandler, Don Rickles, and even Jack Warden all show up. Now that’s what I call something for everybody! A little bit for Howard Stern fans. A smidge for the SNL-heads. And (of course!) a bone for the Shampoo (1975) fanatics out there. The movie is even based on a Roald Dahl short story!
Who could reject a movie with such a pedigree? Most people, because ultimately, Norm Macdonald’s style of comedy isn’t for everyone (or anything even remotely approaching everyone). He’s not Tom Green bad (though they were friends), but he doesn’t miss that status by much. The premise—that Mitch and Sam are two broke losers who start a revenge-for-hire business to pay Sam’s dad’s medical bills—is a clear set-up for big visual gags and moments packed with zing. You know, maybe like an anvil or piano falling on a guy or a fake gun that, when you pull the trigger, releases a little flag that says “bang.” But that’s not Norm’s style. The jokes are deliberately just a bit off (like the man himself), so dumb they’re smart, even anti-comedic.
Take, for example, the revenge they take on their manager (Don Rickles) at the movie theater where they briefly work. He is—you guessed it—full of insults and rules with an iron fist. Everything builds to the night of a big premiere, when the manager is extra antsy and domineering because higher-ups will be in town. Mitch and Sam wait till he gets up to fetch refreshments for Superintendent Chalmers to his Principal Skinner. They then change the reel to Men in Black (Who Like to Have Sex With Each Other). Our heroes chuckle it up as a stampede of angry viewers rushes out of the theater, just in time to crush their erstwhile manager. Get it? The porn parody’s title just adds an extremely straightforward parenthetical. Your expectations sure must be deflated, huh?
Later, Mitch and Sam find themselves in jail. Mitch expresses his concern for the situation, but Sam doesn’t get it. Trying to be polite I suppose, he whispers what “prisoners do to each other all the time.” Sam’s response? “I’ve never heard of that.” Befuddled, Mitch stares back: “how could you have never heard of that? That’s what prisons are most famous for!” Just then, a group of men comes up and takes Mitch away, telling Sam to sit back down as he tries to stand (rejected again!). A brief, non-carceral interlude follows until we’re back in the holding pen, now with the camera pulled further back so we can see more of the room. Pulling his pants up, Mitch walks away from us toward Sam. After an about-face, he launches into a stern rant, wagging his finger at his attackers as a group of disinterested macho prisoners looks on: “You fellas have a lot of growing up to do; I’ll tell you that. Ridiculous! Completely ridiculous! Can you believe these characters? Way out of line! Way out of line! I have a good mind to go to the warden about this. You know, what hurts the most is the lack of respect. You know, that’s what hurts the most. Except for the other thing, that hurts the most. But the lack of respect hurts the second most!” In bad taste? Yes. Crass? Absolutely. Not allowed in 2023? I’d say so. But that’s what’s remarkable. Norm takes the stalest, least funny joke of the 90s, the sort of cheap laugh repeated ad infinitum in the least-entertaining dreck, and puts the emphasis on a breach of conduct. Can you believe this character?
Much of the comedy surrounding the action takes a similar tack. Chevy Chase, for example, plays Sam’s dad’s doctor. He’s a hopeless gambling addict (not unlike Norm in real life) who cuts a deal with the boys in the hope that they’ll pay up fast enough for him to survive his own debts. He’s so out of control that he bet on Mr. T against Rocky in Rocky III (1982). His bedside manner isn’t much better. The doctor breaks the news of his father’s illness by asking Sam if he’s a betting man. “Sure,” he responds, only for Chevy Chase’s character to hit back with (paraphrasing) “Well, if someone were to make book on your father’s odds—you know, if he’ll die—then I would bet on death. He is almost certainly going to die.” Not really a ha-ha gag, is it? Still, I laugh every time I see it.
Norm was a man, who, even while dying of cancer, hid it from everyone; meanwhile, he introduced a new joke: “I don’t get why they always say somebody ‘lost their battle with cancer.’ When you die the cancer dies. I’d call that a draw.” He wrote a “memoir” in which he is a foul, drunken lout whose life story is scribbled down by a failed author turned ghostwriter named Charles Manson (he had the misfortune of having his big book on family come out right when the news of the murders broke. Aw shucks!). Manson becomes more and more like Norm, transforming into his double, until he’s killed in Norm’s place (he’s got gambling debts, you see). The final chapter is written in a nearly incomprehensible idiot scrum of run-on sentences and vulgar language. Get it? Norm’s dumb according to Norm. And this is his own “memoir”! I’d hate to hear what other guys say about him…
If you liked Norm’s comedy, you’ll like Dirty Work; you might even like it if you don’t like Norm’s bit—who knows? It’s the one such artifact we get, the only testament to Norm helming the silver screen. He wasn’t without his problems, of course. His views on #MeToo were of a feather with a lot of other male comedians in his age group, saying it went too far in certain respects. I can’t say I agree with that. There are even accusations that he sexually harassed women at comedy clubs (something that has remained really underreported. I can’t even find much else in the news about these allegations). He was mean and his style of humor could easily become a kind of bullying (and did!) when taken too far. As Norm himself might say, “Norm sucked.”
But he was also the guy who went on The View (1997-Present), called President Clinton a murderer and refused to drop the topic for the rest of the segment. Norm then went on to ruin a cellphone gag he’d been asked to do by the producer backstage by reporting to the audience exactly what the plan was. Barbara Walters did not seem happy. It doesn’t cancel any of the bad stuff out, of course. But I am glad we got to see the hosts of a daytime talk show attempt a straight-faced interview with that cheeky trickster.
Norm never did really “succeed” as a comedian, not in the traditional sense. But as far as relics go, one could do worse than Dirty Work. Sarcastic, crass, unaffected, and (at times) misguided and offensive—exactly how Norm would’ve liked to be remembered.