Standup comedy thrived in the ‘80s, and as the decade ended, television executives mined that world for every bit of talent they could find. The standup boom was mostly a sitcom bust in the ‘90s, with a few notable exceptions.
Seinfeld, of course, is in permanent syndication and is frequently touted as the greatest sitcom of all time, though it hasn’t fared as well in syndication, Tim Allen’s Home Improvement ran for eight seasons. These shows covered opposite ends of the comedy spectrum. Home Improvement was a broad comedy with cute kids and Allen’s man-grunt acting as a catch phrase. Seinfeld was broad in its own way, but was filled with quirky characters and, most famously, it was “about nothing”.
There were other comedians who braved the sitcom waters. Drew Carey, Brett Butler, Ellen Degeneres, Margaret Cho, Jeff Foxworthy and Anthony Clark all had shows with varying success. There were more, many of which lasted only a few episodes.
By the turn of the century the standup boom was a distant memory and most of these sitcoms were gone. With networks still looking to comedians to pad their prime time schedules, ABC turned to Norm Macdonald. He wasn’t an unknown, having been a cast member on Saturday Night Live for five seasons and being famously fired from the popular “Weekend Update” segment, but he wasn’t a household name.
He was also not the obvious choice for sitcom material. His humor is deadpan with a smile, and he always seems to be joking and serious at the same time. His bits on Saturday Night Live were built around Macdonald delivering a punch line then staring into the camera and letting the laughter build, but for a weekly series there needs to be more story and less awkward pauses.
Along with The Drew Carey Show co-creator Bruce Helford, Macdonald conceived The Norm Show as a series about a former NHL player doing community service as a social worker after being convicted of tax evasion and gambling on hockey. Norm works alongside real social workers Laurie Freeman (Laurie Metcalf) and Danny Sanchez (Ian Gomez). As in any workplace comedy, Norm is constantly at odds with his boss, Mr. Curtis (Bruce Jarchow), but that dynamic dramatically changes when ALF’s Max Wright takes over the position as Mr. Denby. As Denby, Wright is an ineffectual bureaucrat whose blubbering, stuttering rage is the perfect counterbalance to Norm’s cool oblivious demeanor.
Besides the the inclusion of Wright’s Denby, the series pilot works as well as the best episodes of the series. In the episode, Norm has to stop a client from lapsing back into prostitution, a story that works because of the shows allowed in the show’s 9:30PM time slot. When the prostitute, Taylor (Nikki Cox), refuses to leave the massage parlor where she works, Norm tells her, “I don’t think you understand—you’re a huge whore.” Instead of going for a warm and fuzzy recitation of the benefits of respecting oneself, Norm says what he thinks will get the job done fast. He wants to help Taylor, but he doesn’t want to spend much time doing it.
This is essential to the character, as Bruce Helford says in the pilot’s all too brief commentary. Norm does the right thing for the wrong reasons. He wants to help people, but only without inconveniencing himself.
Of course Norm succeeds in getting Taylor out of the massage parlor, and soon Cox joins the cast as an office worker and, as the second season progresses, a love interest for Danny. Faith Ford also joins the cast as Shelley, Norm’s probation officer and love interest, but her initial tenure is short-lived. Ford’s performance lacks the manic energy of the excellent Laurie Metcalf, whose character goes from one emotion to the next with cartoonish-efficiency, or Gomez’s equally sad and hilarious Danny. The second season is also hampered by odd interstitial music that was obviously patterned on the then-recently departed Seinfeld, a cue to the audience that, hey, this Norm guy is funny, too.
A welcome addition to the second season are introductions by Norm and other members of the cast as they explain the ratings system that began appearing on shows at the time. Norm apologizes to viewers for the dirty jokes on the show, and one introduction features two small children acting out the “clean” parts of the episode. These introductions point out the absurdity of the ratings and censorship in general, but nothing is as absurd as the show’s Pokemon opening. It’s a non-sequitor in which Norm faces off against Ash, the boy hero of the original Pokemon cartoon. The two battle in Norm’s apartment and call forth Mr. Denby and Danny both clad in Pokemon costumes. The joke is a little stale a decade after the card game’s initial surge in popularity in America, but anyone with a pulse has to marvel at just how ridiculous it all is.
After Ford’s departure the show hits its stride. It’s conventional in the mode in which the stories are told, but the jokes are strong, and Macdonald, while not the greatest actor, is always charming, even when his character is knowingly being despicable. Artie Lange also joins the cast as Norm’s half-brother, a less-likable version of Norm who does the wrong things for the wrong reasons, like stealing toys for children from a warehouse because a guy owes him money.
The show faced constant time slot issues despite its success at 9:30, and the third season sees a significant drop off in quality. The plots are more pedestrian, and much of the material feels sanitized. Norm, both the actor and character, seems game, as does the rest of the cast, but the same energy isn’t there. Nikki Cox leaves and Faith Ford returns, leading to a constant stream of episodes in which Norm schemes to reignite his romance with Shelley that are only occasionally punctuated by laugh-out-loud jokes.
Somehow, it seems impossible this show lasted as long as it did. There are elements which would appeal to wide audiences—Norm’s lovable pet dachshund, Weiner Dog, Nikki Cox’s sex appeal, even Norm’s unlikely charm. Despite all of that, there is a dark heart beating at the center of this show. It’s more than just disgraced former hockey player Norm Henderson’s gambling and scheming. There are jokes about bad sex and self loathing, personal and professional failures, failed marriages and overwhelming loneliness, and that’s just from the boss, Mr. Denby. There’s the sickly-sweetness of sitcom resolution, too, but it’s a weak salve for all that darkness.
The difference, the thing that makes the show palatable, is that it is not mean, though the humor is often targeted at specific characters. It’s cynical, to be sure, but in a way that feels real. Norm sees the dark part in all of us, especially himself, but he remains optimistic and reluctantly hopeful.
Bonus features include a few episode commentaries by Bruce Helford and Norm Macdonald. Helford says during the pilot, “Norm’s not going to talk about himself,” and he’s mostly right. Helford gives background on the production of the series and the usual “we had a lot of fun” banter, but Macdonald says little, and when he does he sounds like he’s drunk or about to fall asleep.
The theme song from the series is a 1980 Canadian Top 40 hit called “Too Bad” by Doug and the Slugs. The songs is bright and overwhelmingly poppy. Its opening line sums up the fall from grace a professional athlete like Norm Henderson might experience: “Too bad that you’re not as smart/as you thought you were in the first place.” It’s understatement, it’s irony and it’s the kind of plainspoken honesty that makes this show work so well.