The central conceit of Mark Normand’s work is the absurd contrast between his on-stage persona and his comedy material. Mark’s delivery is awkward and affable; goofy even. He talks like he’s just some guy, the kind who’d apologise to a table for bumping into it. Except that guy happens to be making some of the most vicious, mean-spirited remarks you’ve ever heard, in the same tone you’d use to wish someone a pleasant morning. It’s black comedy tinged with hot pink and vivid tangerine. He’s saying all of these horrible things, but he’s also suggesting to you that he doesn’t mean any of it. It’s a performance, not real life. That tension between persona and subject—and the cognitive dissonance it elicits—is what makes Normand’s latest Netflix special Soup To Nuts so incredibly compelling.
Normand resorts to all the tropes of the disaffected modern-day comedian: the idea that American society must have it easy given that the only thing they have to get angry about are jokes, unlike, say, Ukraine. How language has changed to the point where identity politics will take precedence over real human connection. His friend is no longer just a friend; he’s a “Black friend”, and Normand needs to watch his words now. He throws around trashy stereotypes about Jewish and Black people with glee. He jokes about disabled people. He insults people in the crowd when they tell him they’re from Pakistan or Mexico. And yes, he makes sure to highlight the absurdity of both the left wing and the right wing, by doing an imaginary, politically biased weather report from both perspectives. Some good old horseshoe theory; comedians seem so rapt by its charms today.
But that’s not where Normand’s own politics stand, not really. Early on, he talks about a time when someone asked him to apologise for a joke. He mumbled an unconvincing “sorry” in response. On being told that his apology didn’t sound like he meant it, Normand responds: “I know. I didn’t mean the joke either, you queef.” (The insult is a callback to a recurring bit on farts and queefs.) This is basically a mission statement: he’s telling us that everything on Soup to Nuts is a joke. And he’s trying to figure out how far he can push it.
This casual, off-hand approach to joke-telling is what sets him apart from a lot of comedians who also use offensive subject matter in their work. You look at Dave Chappelle or Bill Burr, and you get the sense, in their delivery, that they’re trying to reach people through the veneer of comedy. They’re seeking to uncover some elusive pure emotion that’s buried under superficial constructs. They’re angry, and they want to make sense of the world. (This isn’t to say I agree or disagree with them whatsoever; just that their work indicates this purpose.) Far too many comedians are now so deeply consumed by the culture wars that, particularly in Chappelle’s case, their work is almost entirely defined by it.
If anything, Normand is a comedy nihilist. Behind the jokes are just more jokes.
Normand, on the other hand, is deeply uninterested in lecturing or providing any kind of societal commentary. He’s aloof. He’s not turning the mirror back, or any such thing. These are jokes for jokes’ sake. It’s not political grandstanding, nor is it provocation. It’s all in service to discomfiting laughter. There’s no bitter ideologue hiding behind these jokes, seeking some universal truth. If anything, Normand is a comedy nihilist. Behind the jokes are just more jokes. And his rapidfire, ratatat delivery means he’s able to pack a freakishly high amount of these electric one-liners and punchlines in the 50-minute runtime of Soup to Nuts. In fact, often the crowd is still laughing at the first punchline while he’s moved three premises ahead and talking about an entirely different thing all together.
The presence of Jerry Seinfeld looms large over this special (in terms of spirit, if not material). The cold open of Soup to Nuts starts with a reference to the New York comedian, whom Normand has opened for at several gigs. Here, he spends a considerable amount of time talking about relationships and women, and the fundamental ways in which men and women differ. It’s an entertaining section where he leans into battle-of-the-sexes humour—a Seinfeld hallmark—without ever quite lapsing into resentment or incel-dom. And the set has a fun little bit that, again, seems to be a Seinfeld homage. He relates an anecdote about a woman who asks him if he’s gay. When he responds in the negative, she says, “There’s nothing wrong with being gay.” He says he knows that but he’s not gay. And then they go back and forth with that exchange, repeating the same thing over and over.
At several points in the special, Normand signals an awareness of the polarising nature of his material, making sure to emphasise his own liberal(ish) stand. When it’s getting too hot and heavy, he reels it back in just a bit to assure the crowd that he’s not actually a bad guy. Like when he digs into a bit about transgender people and bathrooms. As a comedy fan who’s seen so many of their beloved comedians falter on this very subject, you’re almost conditioned to groan: “Oh brother, here we go again.” But Normand treats the subject with understanding and generosity, and precious little bigotry, neatly inverting the whole routine into a quick toilet humour bit. He tries to check all his excesses with frequent self-deprecation and an occasional reminder to himself, though not explicitly stated, about his own privilege.
Soup to Nuts ends up asking, inadvertently perhaps, an eternal question: suspension of disbelief notwithstanding, how far is too far in comedy? There will never be a consensus answer to this, with questions of morality often at odds with free speech and aesthetics. Normand himself trips up from time to time too. For the early bits, he’s careful to tread the fine line between dark and offensive, but that distinction starts to blur once he’s in full flow. Then there’s the position of dark humour in contemporary politics: it’s been co-opted by very particular kinds of right wing and libertarian groups who use it as a license to offend freely. Would you want to signal to those groups? These are dilemmas that will determine how much leeway a viewer allows Mark Normand. If you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt though, you’ll have loads of illicit-flavoured fun with Soup To Nuts.