Culture

Norm Macdonald, R.I.P.

Norm Macdonald at the Fox network presentation at the Television Critics Association Summer press tour in 2003. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)
A fond farewell to one of our greatest comedic minds.

‘In the old days, a man could just get sick and die. Now, they have to wage a battle,” Norm Macdonald jokes in his 2011 special. When an old man dies, people say, “Hey, he lost his battle. . . . That’s no way to end your life.” As if to prove a point, the stand-up kept his cancer diagnosis private for nine years.

Norm Macdonald — dead today at age 61 — refused to wage a battle. It was the last of many refusals: As a young comic, he refused a lunch invitation from Johnny Carson, his comedy hero, for fear that he wouldn’t have good stories to tell. He refused repeatedly to quit gambling on professional sports, a habit that led to three personal bankruptcies. Most famously, Norm refused to stop telling jokes about O. J. Simpson’s murder trial, despite the protestations of NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer — a bit that got him fired from Saturday Night Live.

Later, Norm refused to develop a show for FX because he didn’t like the final version of a script he’d written with Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon. Norm sent a rewrite to FX, which the network stood ready to develop, but the deal fell apart when Simon learned of the unauthorized revisions. The gambit got Norm fired by his TV agent.

He also refused to learn how to drive, which makes perfect, inexplicable sense to his fans.

On the few occasions when Norm did complete a project — Sports Show with Norm Macdonald, which he hosted on Comedy Central, or his recent Netflix talk show, Norm Macdonald Has a Show — he more or less deliberately bombed, never lasting more than one season. Norm was a comic: He couldn’t bring himself to do Hollywood’s song and dance.

On SNL, his deadpan one-liners were designed to infuriate most of the audience: “At the White House this week, President Clinton officially came out against same-sex marriages. What’s more, the president said he’s not too crazy about opposite-sex marriages either.”

A year after leaving the show, Norm came back as a host. “How did I go from being not funny enough to be even allowed in the building to being so funny that I’m now hosting the show?” he asks in the opening monologue. His conclusion: “I haven’t gotten funnier; the show has gotten really bad.”

Norm did his best work in unusual venues. He was a regular on late-night television, creating many of the most memorable moments on Conan and Letterman. Norm Macdonald Live, a podcast he started in 2013, remains a YouTube favorite. He even did color commentary of the Masters Tournament in annual livestreams online. In this respect, he was a quiet trailblazer, making early use of new media in which producers couldn’t tell him what not to say.

Norm got a book deal a few years ago and nearly sabotaged that, too. After promising the publisher a memoir, he delivered an absurdist comic novel that opens with SNL creator Lorne Michaels accepting morphine as a bribe. Based on a True Story was, mercifully, published, and it showcased the standup’s full range of talent.

In one characteristic scene, the Make-A-Wish Foundation grants a terminally ill boy’s request for a meeting with Norm. When the boy arrives on the SNL set, he confides to Norm that he has no interest whatsoever in the sketch show (“It hasn’t been funny since Bill Murray left”), but that his actual dying wish is to club a baby seal to death. A native of Canada, Norm Macdonald is the natural choice to grant that wish.

A rare moment of earnest reflection comes at the end of the book. “If I am remembered,” Macdonald writes, “it will always be by the four years I spent at Saturday Night Live and, maybe even more than that, by the events surrounding my departure from that show.” He continues:

It can be difficult to define yourself by something that happened so long ago and is gone forever. It’s like a fellow at the end of the bar telling no one in particular about the silver medal he won in high school track, the one he still wears around his neck.

The only thing an old man can tell a young man is that it goes fast, real fast, and if you’re not careful it’s too late. Of course, the young man will never understand this truth.

I got to speak with Norm briefly after a 2019 show he did at Caroline’s on Broadway. I asked if he was working on another book. He assured me he was, and that it would be published soon. I don’t know if he was telling the truth.

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