A good way to tell if Norm MacDonald is killing a standup set is to just watch how much he’s giggling to himself. For whatever reason, when the cameras aren’t rolling, the comic icon lets his guard down and drops the trademark deadpan just a bit, but only when he knows he’s really hit on some new bizarre thought — the kind of thought that only he and his cultish, devoted following could find laughable.
Such moments were sadly sporadic at best in the early set Friday night at Cobb’s, as MacDonald weaved in and out of his own world, occasionally stumbling onto a punchline — which are sublime when he finally gets to them. But it requires a lot of work on our part just to follow his mumbling, fuzzy narrative. It also requires prerequisite reading, so to speak; MacDonald must seem like an amateur to the uninitiated, and a genius to fans of his work on SNL and Dirty Work.
To put it in local context, If MacDonald were a building, he’d be the Winchester Mystery House. His stories are hastily structured, the bones of his arguments are incoherent at best, hallways of dialogue abruptly stop, and the architect is clearly under the haunting influence of a dubious past. Approach with caution.
MacDonald, looking thrift store-biz-casual with an un-tucked blue shirt underneath a blazer and matching pants (and blue tennis shoes to kind of match the blue shirt), began his set with a predictable rant about S.F.’s LBGT connotation, a bit as standard between these walls as the two-drink minimum. He did have a clever take on his sex life, though. He’s constantly weighing his options, he says, between the social vs. the non-social dating experience... “but my hand is such a dirty whore.” The angel on his shoulder responds: But you should really go out and be amongst people, and you know, eat a meal. “But then my hand says, ‘I’ll make you a cheese sandwich and then (eff) you.’ ”
Other anecdotes from his personal life were amusing and interesting, mainly from the fact that it’s hard to tell if MacDonald really is the same baffoonish character in real life that we see onstage. As he segued to a portion on current events, he reported watching a lot of sports and also keeping tabs on the news, but he confessed that he “can’t grasp the news.” Was it shtick or honesty? Perhaps it’s better he keep us guessing. It led to considerations of threats to global stability posed by certain countries: “Iraq, Iran, North Korea, I don’t really worry about those countries...Not sure if you guys are students of history, but it’s Germany who declared war against the world...twice! Who are you? Mars?”
MacDonald continued to demonstrate his masterful ability for deconstructing the obvious, questioning the logic of the idea of “the real heroes in this country,” when people refer not to soldiers putting their life on the line or firefighters running into burning buildings, but instead teachers. “The teachers are far bigger than these kids, and if they’re teaching third graders... all they really need is a fourth grade education...I went to one of these places and it seemed like the kids were doing a vast majority of the work.”
Opener Larry “Bubbles” Brown, who described himself as the love child of Rainman and ET, also came equipped with a super dry persona, but a slightly more personal focus — a bit of a woe-is-me aesthetic, but always funny. The local veteran comic has a seemingly unending inventory of one-liners, landing more than he missed. The biggest laugh came on this one: “People ask me, ‘are you pro-abortion?’ No, but I’m pretty good with a coat-hanger.” And so it went.