First, I wanted to start this off with this lovely excerpt from Norm’s Based on a True Story— an ostensible memoir packed with loads of obvious, hilarious bullshit– posted today by Sean O’Neal:
I think about these two and a half pages from Norm Macdonald’s book constantly. When I reviewed it, I wrote that they would “make for a fine eulogy”—and I swear I didn’t mean anything by it. But they do. pic.twitter.com/vxLRAd2OeP
— Sean O'Neal (@seanoneal) September 14, 2021
(I recommend reading his review of the book, too.)
I’ve been lucky.
Born and raised in Quebec City, Norm Macdonald worked on his standup craft in the Ottawa clubs, getting his first major break appearing on Montreal’s Just For Laughs comedy festival in 1986; from there his standup career eventually took him to a 1990 appearance on Star Search. From there, he got hired to write for The Dennis Miller Show, then Roseanne, before getting hired for Saturday Night Live, where he did the work for which he was most famous.
Norm Macdonald was a comedian, first and foremost. He had no interest in doing standup as leverage to a talk show or sitcom or anything else; he just wanted to tell jokes. And he wanted those jokes to be as funny as possible. He was in later years critical of the confessional style of modern comics, of the subversion and deconstruction of standup (itself a relatively young and, thus, relatively unconstructed art form), and while he himself was philosophical in his outlook (as evidenced by that passage from his book), he hated the idea of the comedian as the modern-day philosopher. “There are modern-day philosophers.” (This great Vulture interview from 2018 gives him a chance to expand on some of his thoughts.)
Norm was perhaps the most fearless and uncompromising comedian I’ve ever seen, certainly the most of his era. He absolutely did not give a fuck if you liked his joke if he thought it was funny, and he wasn’t about to let you in on it. Sometimes that meant bluntly doubling down rather than shying away from a joke: When the SNL audience murmured and reacted with disapproval to one of his “Weekend Update” jokes about Michael Jackson, he shot back “You know he’s a homosexual pedophile, right?” Sometimes that meant a bit as audacious and unrelenting as his roast of Bob Saget. If you want to understand the difference between fully committing to the bit and pulling back, compare that roast to Andy Samberg’s roast of James Franco, a similar attempt at anti-comedy that uses self-deprecation to pull its punches and let the audience in on the joke. Norm never pulled his punches, even when his audience was not having it; his job hosting the 1998 ESPYs is both hilarious and clearly to the displeasure of many of the attendees. (It would be more than a decade before ESPN tapped another comedian for the role.)
Of course, never pulling his punches was why, despite being the best “Weekend Update” host Saturday Night Live has ever had, he was fired from the job anyway. The long-held story is that Don Ohlmeyer was furious with Norm for continuing to do jokes about his close friend O.J. Simpson, and Norm, of course, was not going to stop doing that as long as he thought they were funny. He didn’t forget, either: 18 months after he was fired, with Dirty Work and Dr. Doolittle in the rear-view mirror and Norm premiering on ABC, SNL had him on to host, and he delivered a savage, brutal mockery of the show in this monologue. Again, never letting the audience knowing he was kidding– or the cast and crew themselves; the booing you hear is from the show’s writers!
Norm will almost certainly be most remembered for “Weekend Update,” but while he rarely liked to perform in sketches on SNL, he had a number of terrific celebrity impressions, finding the funniest aspects of the target to caricature, or perhaps more accurately, the essence of what made those celebrities funny. His Burt Reynolds on “Celebrity Jeopardy” is certainly the most well-known– heck, “Turd Ferguson” alone– but he had a number of other classics in his repertoire: His patently ridiculous David Letterman; his cantankerous Bob Dole; his severely banal Larry King; his oddly sexual Charles Kuralt.
In later years, reflecting on his SNL firing, Norm would acknowledge that he was both insubordinate and not an audience-pleaser, which is a difficult way to build a commercially viable Hollywood career, but then, Norm never seemed to want that– he just wanted to be funny. And even though he had a couple of sitcoms (Norm, A Minute with Stan Hooper), a couple of movies (Dirty Work, Screwed), they weren’t really the best vehicles for his work or what he wanted to do. Sports Show on Comedy Central may have been the closest to his ideal vehicle– essentially a half-hour “Weekend Update” but exclusively for sports.
Sports might have been Norm’s second love after comedy, as well as being a natural outlet for his gambling habit, which unfortunately often took an addictive turn– Norm claimed to have lost everything he had several times in his life from gambling. On the other hand, as a gambler myself, I understand the appeal and the thrill of it all, one of the oldest human activities, and Norm’s ability to admit his fondness for it and his human frailty there made me appreciate him all the more. (To say nothing for the affinity I feel for how Based on a True Story shows his Bob Dylan and Hunter S. Thompson influences.) As did his ability to be grateful for his life, even after considering all he’d won and lost, time and again: I’ve been lucky.
Fittingly enough for someone who had no interest in building a commercially viable brand, Norm’s last tweet was not a joke or a promotion for a new project, but a comment on that weekend’s golf tournament.
As much as anything in his post-Weekend Update years, he was famed for his talk-show appearances. He was a longtime favorite guest of both David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, with his 1997 appearance on the latter’s show ranking among the funniest talk-show-guest segments in history. (And, depending on how you feel about the Moth joke, might not even be Norm’s funniest appearance on Conan.) Norm had his own one-season talk show on Netflix, Norm Macdonald Has a Show, in 2018, which was effectively his podcast translated to a higher-production format. (Perhaps most notably from that season, Letterman, a longtime friend and booster of Norm, walks off the set during his interview.)
In the 21st century Norm found more success in his podcast than he had in any of his sitcoms, which makes perfect sense (and not just because of his incredible and consistent failure to properly read ad copy)– talking to other great comedians about comedy and just trying to be funny was much more suited to his temperament, and he had a murderer’s row of guests: Jerry Seinfeld, Gilbert Gottfried, Bob Einstein, and Martin Mull are but a scant few names from the guest list.
Other comedians loved Norm: Much in the same way the SNL alumni of the early-to-mid-90s all agree that Chris Farley was the funniest among them, so many of Norm’s peers in comedy agreed that he was the funniest standup, the one who could made the comedians laugh harder than anyone else, the one who had a preternatural gift for deadpan timing, for the perfect word choice, to think on his feet when he wasn’t getting the desired response, to completely commit to the joke.
The outpouring of remembrances today, from peers to fans alike, speak to Norm’s gifts as a comedian and how singular they were. His deadpan delivery was brilliant in its minimalism and subtlety: He had a rare gift for the perfect word choice and the most efficient way to deliver a joke. He’d said more than once that his idea of the perfect joke was one where the setup and punchline were the same, and his favorite example of such was his Julia Roberts-Lyle Lovett joke on “Weekend Update.” (Another great example: “Yippee! Jerry Rubin has died. I’m sorry, that should read, Yippie Jerry Rubin has died.”) Even in his later years, Norm still had a gift for delivering a minimalist punchline as bluntly as possible.
Norm was beloved in large part because of that comedic brilliance; I think it speaks to his point about deconstruction and subversion of comedy that some of the notable examples of such mentioned in that 2018 Vulture interview have dissipated from the public consciousness, whereas I can still watch the same Norm Macdonald “Weekend Update” bits or interview segments every few months and laugh just as hard. It’s hard to make people laugh, genuinely, and it’s harder still to have the kind of singular gifts for it Norm Macdonald did– and, shoot, it wasn’t just me, or you wouldn’t be able to find so many clips and compilations on YouTube and elsewhere.
To be that funny, to be that outstanding at the craft– from writing to delivery to timing to the confidence to commit to the joke– it’s inspiring. To commit not to telling personal anecdotes or stories that happen to be funny but to simply telling the best jokes as simply and directly as possible, to not trying to subvert or reinvent the form but perfect it– that’s rare, too. It’s why Norm is every comic’s favorite comic. It’s why people will still watch his jokes from twenty-five years ago about news stories we’d have long since forgotten otherwise. Norm Macdonald made people laugh, often and hard, often in ways they didn’t know they could laugh, because of that commitment and talent, because he’s one of the best craftsmen of comedy who ever lived, and it’s why his work endures.
Norm also released three albums in that time: The first, Ridiculous, is more of an audio sketch-comedy album, whereas Me Doing Stand-Up and Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery were proper standup specials, with corresponding televised specials on Comedy Central and Netflix respectively.
Listening to Me Doing Stand-Up, Norm’s 2011 special, is especially poignant now. Norm’s first real line is “It’s good to be alive,” and from there he segues into talking about cancer, and how he hates that nowadays people can’t just “get cancer and die,” they have to “wage a battle” against cancer. (Me Doing Stand-Up is full of that deadpan literalism, finding humor in the peculiar language we choose– another example is his observation on the wild lack of anonymity in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.) When it was announced that he died, it also came out that Norm had been dealing with cancer for nearly a decade, choosing to keep his condition private but for a handful of very close friends. It’s hard not to think he didn’t want to be treated like someone Waging A Battle– and to Norm’s point about our language and its euphemisms, and how deeply entrenched some of them are, I had a surprisingly hard time writing the preceding sentence without using “battle.”
Norm Macdonald was a Christian, although he wasn’t particularly outspoken about it nor was he fond of organized religion. Norm’s faith seemed to boil down to two major aspects: being kind, and a belief in a higher power. Considering his gambling addiction, and his previous problems with alcohol (which he successfully kicked later in life), I imagine the idea of so much of life being up to the fates, out of his hands, made a lot of sense. He was often blunt and brutally honest talking about comedy, show business, or other comedians; he was equally capable of being honest about his own faults and regrets, and deeply grateful for the opportunity he had to be a comedian, to tell jokes like he always wanted. Even though his comedy could often be pointed, brutal, or mean, the rare glimpses we got of Macdonald the real man showed a deeply human side, in touch with the joys and the highs and the pain and the suffering of being alive, someone who understood of the importance of making each other’s loads a little lighter, and who had a singular talent for doing so in such a rare and unique way.
I think that deeply human side can be best summed up by those two lines: It’s good to be alive. I’ve been lucky.
Norm Macdonald is survived by a son, Dylan, with his ex-wife Connie Vaillancourt, and in the many, many memories of all of us who can still remember out of nowhere a line he delivered twenty-five years ago and start laughing again like the very first time.