Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m sharing some thoughts on the three-season Norm Macdonald multi-cam known for the majority of its run as Norm (1999-2001, ABC), which is currently available on an out-of-print DVD release. As you’ll note, I’m retaining the straightforward, casual structure of my commentary as it would have appeared in a Potpourri entry, because the brevity is clarifying and helps focus important ideas…
NORM (March 1999 – April 2001, ABC)
Premise: A hockey player who was kicked out of the league for tax evasion and a gambling addiction has been sentenced to five years of community service as a full-time social worker.
Cast: Norm Macdonald, Laurie Metcalf, Ian Gomez, Max Wright, Artie Lange, Nikki Cox, Faith Ford, Bruce Jarchow, Amy Wilson, Patricia Belcher, Kate Walsh
Writers (Notable): Bruce Helford & Norm Macdonald, Bruce Rasmussen, Rob Ulin, Cheryl Holliday, Dave Caplan, Frank Sebastiano, Lloyd Garver, Brett Baer & Dave Finkel, Lawrence Broch, Matt Tarses
Thoughts: SNL veteran Norm Macdonald tries to translate his humor to the sitcom format with help from Drew Carey Show creator Bruce Helford, who’d already crafted a loosey-goosey ABC series for that blue-collar comic and had worked with Macdonald himself on Roseanne, bringing over many scribes from that classic here — not to mention the always reliable Laurie Metcalf as costar. Initially titled The Norm Show in its first season but shortened thereafter, Norm boasts a solid cast — one that improves over time; bumping up, for instance, once Max Wright debuts midway through One — in a straightforward ensemble workplace structure that feels a lot like Drew Carey. Indeed, Norm definitely seems like a sibling of that series, with a whimsical spontaneity that indulges stunts and gimmicks — tricks that, at their best, feel fresh and exciting, but at their worst, are lame and crassly commercial. Tonally, if seeking a distinction, I think there’s more of an improvisational bent to Drew Carey and a flimsiness with its given circumstances that can undermine the “situation” (especially later). Norm, which never got to enjoy a long run, remains a little more faithful to its created world in these short three years and instead has its fun with comic irreverence and occasional absurdity through its storytelling and the idea-driven notions employed. And, yes, this is very much an idea-driven show, for despite a strong collection of performers in Macdonald, Laurie Metcalf, Ian Gomez, Max Wright, and then starting in Season Two, Nikki Cox (as an ex-hooker who appeared in the pilot and then was bumped up to a regular before leaving for her own series in Three), Artie Lange, and Faith Ford (who recurred in Two and then took over Cox’s full-time spot in Three), scripts don’t use their basic personas to motivate story like most character-rich ensemble workplace comedies should.
In this regard, success is predicated on the strength of the comic idea — and in particular, how a comic idea flatters the premise and/or the sensibility reflected by this star. That is, just as The Drew Carey Show displayed Drew Carey’s standup style and Roseanne reflected Roseanne Barr’s, Norm should honor Norm Macdonald’s — only, I don’t think Norm ever fully does embody him as well, for while I do think this show tries to be odd, anarchical, and unpredictable like its leading man, its generic design and utilization of familiar tropes traps his ethos — not accentuating his humor, but containing it. A large part of this is probably due to the network and what it would allow, particularly via the storytelling, which, beginning during Two but especially throughout Three, becomes reliant on clichéd romantic maneuverings, with Norm and Ian Gomez’s Danny bouncing around love interests — including Kate Walsh as the recurring Jenny — and scripts following rom-com shenanigans, just like we saw on Drew Carey, without much thought as to character… or even comedy. In fact, the only way Norm can reliably get laughs is to use its social worker premise to inspire funny guests, which is okay, but not the best form of situation comedy. What’s more, it’s mostly predictable and unoriginal, and it doesn’t take advantage of the brilliant regulars (mainly Macdonald and Metcalf). Accordingly, I’d call Norm a B-side Drew Carey that doesn’t work as well for its star or showcase him well enough to make this a near-classic. Perhaps it wasn’t allowed to do so… And while its brief first season is the most rebellious — with the kind of apathy to depravity that feels most emblematic of Macdonald’s act — the most promising season is the second, for it’s got the most ideal cast and the storytelling is not as bad as it’ll become in Three. However, it’s never a great example of the genre or a comedic must-include for our study of it. I feature Norm here only because I enjoy Norm Macdonald and this terrific cast and crew, who have proven themselves elsewhere.
Episode Count: 54 episodes produced over three seasons, airing as 10 + 20 + 24.
Key Episodes: I could single out two dozen entries, but here are the 16 that I am specifically glad to have in this blog’s figurative rolodex of highlighted offerings…
- #3: “Norm Dates Danny’s Dad” (04/07/99) – boasts a memorable comic idea
- #5: “My Name Is Norm” (04/21/99) – amusing notion with darker themes
- #8: “Drive, Norm Said” (05/12/99) – Vicki Lewis guests
- #9: “Norm, Crusading Social Worker” (05/19/99) – Abe Vigoda guests
- #12: “Norm Pimps Wiener Dog” (09/29/99) – Kathy Kinney guests; fun logline
- #14: “Norm Vs. Death” (10/13/99) – ethos-validating irreverence about death
- #19: “Norm Vs. Norm” (11/17/99) – Garry Marshall guests, very funny ending
- #22: “Norm Vs. Christmas” (12/15/99) – anti-sentimental holiday show
- #23: “Norm Vs. The Evil Twin” (01/05/00) – Laurie Metcalf’s best showing
- #24: “Norm Vs. The Oldest Profession” (01/19/00) – Cloris Leachman guests
- #31: “Norm Vs. The Sacrifice” (10/03/00) – solid ensemble workplace outing
- #34: “The Norm Law” (10/20/00) – good use of premise for story
- #39: “Norm Vs. Tennis” (12/01/00) – hilarious tennis centerpiece
- #42: “Norm Vs. Freud” (01/05/01) – Dr. Phil guests, excellent Max Wright entry
- #50: “Norm Vs. Deception” (03/09/01) – fine Norm/Laurie camaraderie
- #53: “Norm Comes Back” (03/30/01) – Stephen Root and Craig Ferguson guest
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Becker!