Norm Macdonald’s Weird, Wonderful Twitter Book Club

Justin Bieber receives somewhere between 60 and 100 Twitter mentions per second. So in the time it took you to read that sentence (and now this one), hundreds of hopeful dispatches have crossed his screen. What inspires these expectant tweets? Is it just the urge to be noticed?

In a way, it’s perfectly natural. Think of the celebrity you admire the most — the one you sometimes imagine bumping into at a bar and hitting it off so well that you have drinks together. The conversation is easy and you manage to come off as respectful, but not fawning. You reveal, self-deprecatingly, your encyclopedic knowledge of his work and it doesn’t come off as creepy. You’re just hanging out, and he just happens to be famous, but you don’t really think about that any more.

Now imagine living this fantasy out, albeit virtually, through an online book club. There’s a few of you, and you’re all literature fanatics. The ringleader is one of your favourite celebrities, and he’s so well read he puts your old English lit professor to shame. It goes better than anyone expected. You read books like Anna Karenina and The Great Gatsby, and delve into the short stories of Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, and John Updike. And then things get a little weird.

This is the story of Norm Macdonald’s book club.

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You’ve probably heard of Norm Macdonald. He’s most famous for being the Weekend Update guy on Saturday Night Live in the ‘90s, before getting unceremoniously sacked. He’s had a few different gigs since then: a moderately successful sitcom, a quickly cancelled sports show on Comedy Central, and numerous appearances on late-night talk shows.

He’s done better than most nightclub comics, but he never reached the stratosphere that SNL alums like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler did after leaving the show. You get the impression that Macdonald never really wanted to.

The book club started shortly after Macdonald joined Twitter, which he initially used to live tweet events like the Oscars. The 2011 Academy Awards were exactly the kind of train wreck comedians love.

“It was pretty easy to just do jokes constantly on how horrible everyone was,” he told David Letterman a few nights later.

After his big Oscars night, Macdonald quickly built up a following of several hundred thousand people. This might pale in comparison to Bieber’s 34 million followers, but it’s still a respectable number for a comedian.

Following Macdonald on Twitter, much like watching his comedy act, isn’t for everyone. He tweets in bursts, swamping the screen and veering all over the place, from topic to topic. Some comedians have capitalized on the social network with one or two finely honed jokes per day, but Macdonald is just as likely to diligently live tweet a golf game as say something funny.

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One night, in the spring of 2011, Macdonald mentioned his love of literature, and someone suggested he start a Twitter book club. A new account was created (@NormsBookClub) and the club was born.

There were only a few thousand people who noticed it at the time, and the club never really grew. It was powered by a few dozen devotees.

Macdonald may not be the celebrity who first pops into your mind in the fantasy scenario at the bar, but if you’ve ever seen him on a talk show he must be on your list somewhere. He’s also the perfect level of celebrity for something like an online book club. If he were more famous, the club would be inundated with fans and quickly become unruly.

I spent the first few months reading the books and then the conversations that followed, growing increasingly amazed at how well read everyone was — especially Macdonald.

* * *

The week we read Updike’s “A&P” was when the book club really shined. The story is devilish. Updike’s at his most deceptive, and it’s a quick, fun read.

Sammy, the protagonist, is a young cashier at an A&P grocery store driven to distraction by the sight of three girls shopping in bikinis. The store manager lectures the girls for their skimpy clothing and Sammy, in a fit of chivalry, fights back in their defence then dramatically quits his job. Read superficially, it’s a coming-of-age tale told in the first-person voice of the young hero.

The book club’s process was cumbersome, but effective. Macdonald would pick the book or story then set a date for discussion. When the time came, the regulars would tweet their thoughts to him and he would retweet them for everyone to see. When the discussion ran its course, Macdonald would weigh in with his own thoughts.

In a series of tweets about “A&P,” he told us how he saw the story:

Seen in this way, the story soars. It’s not a grade-school coming-of-age tale, but a complex consideration of the artist’s place in society. Sammy’s gesture seems grand, and it is, but it’s lost on everyone around him. The manager still sees him as a punk kid and the girls didn’t even notice. Sammy is left peering forlornly into the store, knowing that his act was both admirable and unnoticed.

So goes the life of the artist, leaping to unimaginable heights, far out of sight. If Macdonald’s interpretation is correct, Updike made his point by cloaking his theme in Sammy’s story and leaving about 90 percent of his readership to miss the point. His point about artists going unappreciated goes mostly unappreciated.

* * *

The world might turn a blind eye to genius, but a great artist keeps going anyway. Hemingway once said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector,” and for a good comedian it’s no different. Writers and comics may crave compliments and adulation, but deep down they have to know what they’re doing is good, whether anyone likes it or not.

Other comedians talk about Macdonald with a kind of baffled incredulity. He seems to be completely immune to what people think of him. On the Howard Stern Show, Artie Lange remembered when Macdonald was meeting Fox executives about his sitcom. One of them said, “Norm, I want to let you know that your show is one of the highest-tested shows we’ve had in Fox history,” and then moved on to Jason Bateman, who was meeting them about his own show. Someone came looking for the executive and asked Macdonald where he was. Macdonald replied, “Oh, he’s over there telling Bateman his show is the highest-tested show in the history of Fox.”

When Bob Saget was being roasted on Comedy Central, he asked Macdonald to take part. Macdonald resisted initially, but Saget pestered him so much that he finally gave in.

“I guess I don’t like roasts,” Macdonald later told Marc Maron on his WTF podcast.

A Comedy Central producer had told him to be shocking, Macdonald said, which gave him an idea. Macdonald consulted a book of old jokes his father had given him when he was young. For the average Comedy Central viewer used to profane and crude roasts, it was certainly a shocking performance, though not in the way they’d come to expect:

Cloris Leachman is here. Cloris, if people say you’re over the hill, don’t believe them. Why, you’ll never be over the hill. Not in the car you drive…

It was met with scattered applause and one man laughing.

Greg Giraldo is here. He has the grace of a swan, the wisdom of an owl, and the eye of an eagle. Ladies and gentlemen, this man is for the birds!

More baffled silence with one guy laughing again.

Stewart Lee, the British comedian, once said the only thing worse for a comedian than no one laughing is one person laughing. It suggests that what you’re doing has some artistic viability, but little commercial appeal. Lee was talking about himself, but he may as well have been talking about Macdonald. Instead of taking shots at his friend, Macdonald skewered the whole predictable premise of the roast. It wasn’t popular at the time and, as he explained to Maron, he spent the whole roast staring into “the angry eyes of Alan Thicke.”

* * *

Bringing this attitude to literature, Macdonald panned Fyodor Dostoevsky and cherished Tolstoy. He berated Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller (describing Catch-22 as “highly cowardly writing”) and revered William Faulkner. The book club members sometimes bristled at his strong opinions. Here’s a typical series of tweets from Macdonald during a discussion, each in reply to various thoughts on Anna Karenina:

Book club members were either totally wrong or exactly right. There was rarely a middle ground.

* * *

If “A&P” was the immaculate discussion, The Great Gatsby was the messy car crash after a series of near-misses.

Gatsby is a book with enough depth to keep a book club talking for months. This particular book club, however, got caught up in an inane discussion about rich people and poor people, prompting our celebrity book master to storm out twice. Since the club revolved around Macdonald, everything ground to a halt if he wasn’t punching the retweet button. When he came back, the discussion stuttered to life again.

Gatsby, one member said, is more relevant now than ever before. Fitzgerald’s vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty is the American dream, which is now represented by Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton — except now the indignities of the rich are broadcast to us, rather than hushed up or quietly gossiped about. Gatsby lived a beautiful myth and that made it a reality. Now, people live a myth and that makes a reality show.

As Macdonald pointed out, Daisy treats her child like a plaything, a tiny, personal amusement. It’s grotesque behaviour in the context of the novel, but nothing compared to the terabytes of photos and videos of our children on Facebook. We do it out of pride. We’ve got it backwards, just like in East Egg, where gluttony and sloth are virtues rather than sins in Fitzgerald’s a-religious world.

It’s probably fitting that, other than a few moments of insight from the regulars, the book club couldn’t wrap its head around the great American novel. We never even mentioned the irony of discussing the book on Twitter, the platform of choice for so many modern-day Daisys.

* * *

I never got over the novelty of chatting with my favourite comedian about my favourite books. Some members would go to Macdonald’s comedy shows and he would always make sure he met them afterwards. A Tumblr was created to post pictures of these meet-ups, and sometimes the photo would feature a bookish person holding Anna Karenina, one of Macdonald’s favourite books.

On his birthday, the club gave Macdonald a card. He said it made him cry.

Religion was one topic the book club couldn’t handle, though. The arguments about it got heated and ridiculous almost from day one.

Reading literature was what turned Macdonald toward Christianity, and on Maron’s podcast he spoke about how hard he tried to believe.

“The only real joy I get […] is I read a lot of literature,” he said. “Faith keeps coming up.”

He told Maron that, reading Tolstoy, he couldn’t get away from the Christianity embedded in every aspect of his work. Tolstoy was a Christian, and “this guy knows everything.” What more convincing do you need?

In every great novel, faith is the only salvation, Macdonald said. His problem was getting it. He didn’t know how to “just suddenly believe.”

Macdonald brought these questions up constantly in the book club, but atheists swarm like locusts on the internet. It became hard to discuss the religious aspects of any book because the atheist contingent wouldn’t abide it. Then came the big fight about the rich and poor. Then things got even weirder.

* * *

Over the course of a few days, people started getting blocked by the @NormsBookClub account. Eventually, there were only a couple hundred users left and about 3,000 blocked. Some people took it personally, some agitated to be let back in, and some didn’t even seem to notice. (On Twitter, getting blocked is a fairly low-key affair. You generally don’t realize it’s happened until you try to interact with the person who blocked you.)

After some confusion, Macdonald explained that he had been receiving some odd letters and he’d hired an outside agency to block people from the club. He’d submitted a list of people to be spared and some regulars had been forgotten. He never went into detail about the letters.

It didn’t make a whole lot of sense. How would following him on Twitter be some kind of grave threat to his security? The person was mailing him letters, so they knew his address. How would knowing his thoughts on “Hills Like White Elephants” make things any worse? Plus, Macdonald still had his main Twitter account, where he is followed by hundreds of thousands of people he doesn’t know.

* * *

The book club has limped along ever since, with Macdonald appearing only sporadically. After a long absence, he came back to respond to the question, “What quality literature has come out in the last 10 years?”

After another long silence, he came back to chat about an Alice Munro story the book club had read. Recently, he suggested the club discuss Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

* * *

Talking to Maron, Norm said his biggest problem in comedy was ending the show.

When I do my act, I never think of a fucking ending. I just unravel […] I know people are like, “Where’s the big ending?”

The book club more closely resembles Macdonald’s career than his act. Just when you think it’s over, he pops up and gives us hope that he’s back for good. A man so well read must know that tidy, happy endings are boring anyway.

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Stuart Thomson works on the web desk at the Edmonton Journal. Read his blog, or follow him on Twitter.