You can tell because so much of his greatest work is just him. There’s the opening passage of his special Me Doing Stand-Up, where he immediately pontificates about being haunted by the grim specter of death (“It’s good to be alive, isn’t it? That’s what I say. I find that to be the goodest thing there is, to be alive. And uh, the reason it’s so good, it’s cause it’s so bad to be dead. It’s not like life’s so fucking great, but compared to being smothered in earth…”).
There’s his legendary ultra-clean roasting of Bob Saget, and his interjections on Conan O’Brien’s first Late Night show, where he couldn’t stop running down Carrot Top. Even the Saturday Night Live gig that made him famous mostly featured him telling jokes, bringing a superbly crafted minimalism to Weekend Update that has never been credibly imitated or equaled.
But like most comedians that reach a particular level of fame, Macdonald did dabble in movies and sitcoms. The Norm Show lasted for a respectable three seasons (and A Minute with Stan Hooper did a single season a few years later), but his career as a cinematic leading man was less than robust: two movies and out. The latter of the two, Screwed, is a barely-seen oddity pairing Macdonald with Dave Chappelle and Danny DeVito. It’s funny, in a mangy sort of way, but I can’t in good conscience recommend it. Macdonald’s only real custom-made starring vehicle is Dirty Work, a bizarre glimpse at the type of movies Norm might have made, had he been allowed to become the next Adam Sandler.
Of course, at the time, Adam Sandler was barely Adam Sandler, either. Sandler, who cameos in Dirty Work playing the devil in a hallucination, had a handful of successful comedies to his name, but his first big crossover, The Wedding Singer, was just exiting theaters as Dirty Work showed up, ready to ride a wave of notoriety over Macdonald’s recent demotion from Weekend Update and subsequent exit from Saturday Night Live.
This did not come to pass. Its current 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is, if anything, padded positively from its initial reviews by a handful of appreciative later notices. It opened in ninth place at the box office, then dropped to eleventh, then more or less disappeared from theaters. As a seventeen-year-old in the thick of finals and high school graduation events, I found the time to see it twice. Later, I bought it on VHS, then DVD.
Directed by future roastee Bob Saget, Dirty Work is one of those overlit big-screen sitcoms, tailored to an SNL comedian’s persona in hopes of cashing in with a newly converted fanbase. Macdonald, not having any popular recurring characters outside of his (surprisingly decent) stable of impressions, adapts some of his Weekend Update shtick, most notably his “note to self” bit, to play Mitch Weaver, a garden-variety loafer who finds his calling as the proprietor of a revenge-for-hire business.
So much about Dirty Work is low-rent. Most of the revenge schemes, in particular, feel like they’re aimed at third-graders (car engines exploding popcorn everywhere!), and the individual comic set pieces are stuck together with big gobs of exposition. Even its use of beloved Howard Stern figure Artie Lange as Sam, Mitch’s lifelong bestie feels like a coarse substitute for Chris Farley, who appeared in his final big-screen role in a grody cameo, playing a screaming Vietnam vet whose nose was bitten off by a “Saigon whore.”
And yet: There is a great comic purity to this movie that feels like exactly Norm’s sensibility, even if it had to be toned down to receive a youth-friendly PG-13 rating. While Sandler’s comedies revived the snobs-versus-slobs dynamic of films like Meatballs and Caddyshack, ladled over with increasing amounts of saccharine as Sandler got older, Macdonald made a singular and dirtbaggier version of the same thing, a funhouse reflection of Sandler’s lovable goofs and goons, using Macdonald’s peerless deadpan to deconstruct the zaniness as quickly as he could generate it. (He co-wrote the screenplay with Fred Wolf and Frank Sebastiano.)
The funniest “prank” scene in Dirty Work comes when Mitch and Sam are hired to get revenge on some noisy neighbors by filling a house with dead fish. When the house’s owners come home, Mitch and Sam hide — only to overhear a bunch of mobsters escalate their confusion over the mysterious smell into a bloody, unseen battle royale that leaves them all dead. Characteristic of Macdonald’s strengths on Update, this scene, one of the best in the movie, has him standing absolutely still, unsmiling and unspeaking, as comic mayhem is unleashed off-camera.
If Sandler’s genuine acting talent matured and revealed itself as his movie career continued, Macdonald was even more at odds with traditional screen acting in Dirty Work — which makes the ramshackle movie sillier and funnier. When called upon to emote in any way, he visibly blanches, or looks like he’s trying to keep from cracking up by freezing an exaggerated expression in place. (He copped to as much in a talk show appearance where he admitted he had trouble remembering that his character’s name was “Mitch” and not “Norm.”)
But the high pitch of Macdonald’s “frazzled” voice, simultaneously conveying both his character’s struggle and his own, is funny unto itself, and he’s even better when called upon to enact the worn-out rituals of the underdog comedy. When he’s drawn into a bar fight, his opponent brandishes a makeshift weapon, causing Mitch/Norm to ask: “Hey, how come you get a pool cue?”
Later, Mitch gets revenge on the brawling frat boys by warning them that a rival fraternity is impersonating the police, knowing they’ll get into fight with the real thing if they show up at the fraternity house. “Hello, real cops?” he nonchalantly says into the phone. Again, there’s a metatextual zing to Macdonald’s offhand non-acting: Mitch’s joke only makes sense to himself, and somehow Norm’s self-amusement at this fact becomes infectious.
It’s a quality similar to what made Macdonald’s standup so funny: the paradox of the plainspoken surprise. Macdonald worked hard to tear away the artifice we expect to see in comedy; he once said his ideal joke would have the exact same setup and punchline, and while Dirty Work isn’t as sophisticated or probing as his best stand-up routines, at its best it does perform a similar conversion to the mechanical dopiness of slobs-versus-snobs studio comedies. The punchline isn’t really the acts of grade-school-style revenge Mitch perpetrates; the punchline is really the setup; the deadpan nonchalance with which Mitch/Norm sees the world.
Macdonald would have other, better opportunities to convey that worldview, more in line with his skills as a solo artist. But there’s something mischievous and joyful watching him try to make a movie out of it — especially now that he’s gone. At one point in the movie, Macdonald stretches the boundaries of his late-‘90s acting chops when forced to exclaim, “Who’s that dude?!” Dirty Work is a glorious, ridiculous answer.