The Anxiety Relief of Influence
the writers who ground us, and for some reason Norm Macdonald
Why am I still watching Norm Macdonald YouTube clips?
Sure, I enjoyed some Norm clips now and then before he died. Like many others, I also held nightly, wake-like binge sessions after he passed. But do I need to watch his appearance on Celebrity Poker in this, the Year of Our Lord 2022? Am I really going to re-watch the moth joke?
In the reverent aftermath of his death last fall, there wasn’t much lashing out at anyone for enjoying Norm’s comedy. There were a few blips here and there, but the man had just died! It might feel nice to cancel folks like Mark Twain for enduring so long despite being ground to dust, but it’s hard to drag a barely cold corpse. Don’t even get me started on how hard it is to drag around a warm corpse!1
Despite Norm’s ability to broach a wide range of topics that might offend pretty much anyone currently living, a writer at The Ringer tried to make the argument that Norm wasn’t politically incorrect. That’s almost true, in the sense that political correctness is the wrong rubric with which to approach his success or failure as a comedian. But it’s not the case that he therefore “only punched up.” Norm made jokes that involved 9/11, the Holocaust, Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, and more. The frisson he got from turning the audience into the joke, from implicating their squeamishness as a part of the setup, meant he often played material that killed any number of sacred cows. The jokes weren’t so much on the audience, as about language. All the best jokes are about language. That doesn’t mean he didn’t commit any number of current social sins.
This isn’t, however, another essay that cares about comedians being allowed to do comedy or whatever. Comedians cross lines and they write from stage and they’re a kind of sociopath that must be fed laughs or they’ll die. Fine. But why am I still watching Norm Macdonald clips?
As someone who never quite finished Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, let me confirm that writers feel both anxiety and are easily influenced. There are various ways to discuss influence, all of which are probably covered by Harold Bloom. One day, maybe I’ll read about them. For me, though, the experience of influence has become simpler and simpler: it’s about permission.2 There are certain tics and gimmicks I study in lots of writers, but the authors that feel like influences—the ones whose works’ have taken my hand and steadied me, who have dared and surprised and even galled me—all give their blessing, in one way or another, for me to be weird in exactly the ways I’m trying to sustain.
When I read Muriel Spark, for example, the impulse to have a ball while tearing the flesh of your characters with your teeth seems less insane. I don’t think I’ve read anyone who has so much fun describing the seduction of a teenager by her art teacher, for example, and yet the scene isn’t a whit salacious or melodramatic or (in my opinion) cruel. Muriel Spark has a wicked glee, a mischievous spirituality, which infects and expands me every time I read her.
Obviously, there are writers one loves who aren’t influences. There a lot of writers, even, that I’ve often wished could be influences. It’s possible Flannery O’Connor is swimming through the veins of my short stories, but the more I write, the more she feels like a favorite and not a guide. I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed a contemporary writer more than Susanna Clarke, but I don’t finish her books feeling somehow solidified in my artistic aims. The problem might be that I don’t really haven any aims, just instincts, but she hasn’t been vital in solidifying those either. All of the authors I’d claim as influences are personal favorites, but not all my favorite authors are influences.
As for Norm, he’s taught me that just as you can’t force a writer into helping you, sometimes you can’t resist one either. That dimpled, joke-hawking demon unlocked a little piece of my writing personality that I wasn’t sure should be cage-free. I’m like anyone else. I keep my neuroses in prison, especially if I think people will hate me for them. I don’t feel inclined to push the envelope like Norm did. He didn’t unleash any specific views or foul inclinations. But he did reinvigorate that essential, artistic flex: sometimes, you gotta stop giving a shit or you’ll never find the punchline.
I might still never find it. But when I watch Norm Macdonald clips, when I find a nearly perfect example of his conversational bravado, I find myself emboldened in ways that feel apt, even essential. I feel the same with Muriel Spark, which I think is ridiculous in a way Norm would’ve enjoyed roasting. Him, a model? All his crass material is crass, but his goal was to transcend the material, to hit the funny mark with unnerving purity.
In short, thank God for YouTube.
I was first influenced into this idea by Jenny Offill, who mentioned it in a lecture at Syracuse.