[10 November 2003]
I was among the minority of viewers who found Norm Macdonald’s shtick on Saturday Night Live amusing. As the anchor of “Weekend Update” during the mid-‘90s, Macdonald’s repertoire consisted primarily of saying his largely adolescent material with an amateurish deadpan, as if he were a walk-on at the local Chuckle Shack or Ha-Ha Hut. Like David Letterman (whom Macdonald aped on SNL), his act was that he had no act. But Norm lacked Dave’s wit, and soon grated more than he entertained. After telling perhaps his 10,000th O.J. Simpson joke, he was sacked from the show by NBC.
Macdonald—like many lower-tier SNL grads—lived off the diminishing hype for a while. Thus, Norm worked his way from unfunny cameos in movies like Billy Madison (1995) to stardom in unfunny movies like Dirty Work (1998), and then to his own unfunny sitcom on ABC a few years back, The Norm Show. While these attempts to make Macdonald a household name comparable to Adam Sandler (or even, shiver, David Spade) have failed, he’s been given one more chance.
But after the debut of A Minute With Stan Hooper, that small minority who found Macdonald humorous, well, you can bet that they’ve been whittled down to a splinter group on the order of professional bowlers or Vegans For Bush/Cheney. Unfunny Norm has been surrounded by a group as unfunny as he, creating an entire unfunny world of their own, a sort of Unfunny Matrix. Unplug yourself while you can.
Here Macdonald plays the title character, a curmudgeonly Andy Rooney-type who is given one minute a week on a national news program to spout off. (Hence, the title.) Weary of city life, Stan and his wife Molly (Penelope Ann Miller) relocate to a small town they once traveled through in Wisconsin. With their sophisticated New York ways, they’re, uh, fish out of water. Let the hilarity ensue.
To paraphrase David Spade when he did his “Hollywood Minute” routine on SNL: I liked it better the first time—when it was called Newhart. The similarities are closer even than they appear. The man who created Newhart, in which Bob Newhart ran an inn in a small Vermont town, is Barry Kemp, who serves as Stan Hooper‘s executive producer. Kemp also produced the long-running hit Coach, another situation comedy about an acerbic man in a small town. That’s certainly its own kind of oeuvre.
Stan Hooper‘s producers have done one thing right, in handing the comedy over to supporting players. Macdonald plays the befuddled straight man, shocked to find out that small towns have cappuccino or that the two men he thinks are brothers are, in reality, gay marrieds. The show never gets much more sidesplitting than that, and frequently fails to match even those middling comedic peaks. For one thing, there is a never-ending spread (wedge? wheel?) of cheese jokes. Yes, it’s Wisconsin. They dig cheese. We get it. (The jackhammer laugh track makes sure we do.) The American Dairy Association may not know whether to pay for product placement or initiate litigation, but cheese lovers aren’t getting shortchanged. They’re the only ones.
The running gimmick is that Stan will now broadcast his “minute” from this small town, ensuring that each episode will involve a desperate search for material, a quandary that must already be familiar to the show’s writing staff. Settling in, he and Molly rent a gigantic Victorian house for $500 a month. (This is Hollywood’s fantasy of small town life. I live in a small town in Colorado and would disembowel a deer to pay $500 a month for my phone booth-sized cabin. And I don’t hunt.) Surprisingly, and with virtually no explanation offered, the house comes with its own butler. He’s named Gary (Brian Howe).
This makes Stan Hooper the first sitcom to go beyond simply plundering Seinfeld to steal from Seinfeld‘s parody of itself, “Jerry,” the comedy Jerry and George created to pitch to NBC. The pilot episode of “Jerry” involved a judge ordering a man to serve as Jerry’s butler after a car accident. In Seinfeld‘s TV world, that pilot wasn’t picked up by NBC. But as Fox has proved over and over again, it doesn’t mind sifting through the television dumpster once in awhile.
Macdonald doesn’t have much help. Miller, always a bit of a lightweight back in her cinema heyday, even in serious dramas like Carlito’s Way (1993), now looks like she needs to be tied down to prevent her from drifting into the ionosphere. Two generic teenage lovers (Eric Lively, Reagan Dale Neis) seem to have been cast only for the distant chance of providing some sort of tie-in with The O.C. The largest disappointment, however, comes from veteran comic actor Fred Willard, who plays Fred Hawkins, the town’s cheese mogul. (Told you.)
Willard, who has enjoyed a career uptick from his appearance in Christopher Guest’s series of mockumentaries, likely offers the show its best shot at success. The problem is that Willard’s reliable comic style, playing a dim-witted, slow-talking rube, parallels, rather than complements, Macdonald’s low-key delivery. When the two trade barbs, the lines come out so sluggishly and robotically, it’s like something out of The Stepford Wives.
I’d like for Macdonald and Willard to have a fighting chance, if only for the sake of nostalgia. But don’t expect Stan Hooper to last much longer than Stan’s weekly segment on his news show. That’ll give Macdonald two failed sitcoms. From there, the only thing left for his career will be a daytime talk show. An hour with Norm Macdonald? That might be 59 minutes too much.