We learned this week that Norm Macdonald, who died Tuesday at 61, had been suffering from cancer for nine years but never went public with the information. In an October 12, 2016, podcast appearance on ID10T with Chris Hardwick, the Canadian comic discussed why he didn’t like either confessional comedy — “You know, how they got molested when they were a kid” — or leveraging one’s misfortunes for personal gain.
I saw a one-woman show once . . . and she goes like, “Well, my mother had breast cancer and now I have breast cancer.” And I’m like, well, that’s everybody. They think it’s so special, when everyone gets cancer and dies. It’s almost like the height of narcissism to think that you’re going to be so brave as to talk about it in person whereas all you’re doing is just garnering sympathy for yourself. How is that brave? It seems cowardly to me.
As an example of bravery, Macdonald mentioned the late character actor Richard Farnsworth, who was “riddled with cancer” when shooting his wonderful 1999 David Lynch movie The Straight Story. Farnsworth — a veteran stuntman before he turned to acting — got an Oscar nomination for the role but declined to publicize his terminal case. He then died a few months later (via suicide, as the pain had become unbearable).
And if he had said he was filled with cancer, he would have won for sure. But instead he didn’t say it, and in fact no one knew it. His family didn’t know it, he kept it from everyone and then . . . he did what they call a stuntman’s death, which is you put a shotgun in your mouth and with your toe you pull the trigger . . . and so that, to me, is courageous. You’re not being a burden to your family. They know nothing about it and then, you’re gone. He wrote a nice letter to everybody in the family and said that the reason he did was he didn’t want to cause people distress. So I thought, wow, how incredible.
In his stand-up, Macdonald said,
I never talked about me, really, you know, I talked about universal me. You know what I mean? That I was afraid of death or that kind of thing. Which is something that everybody is afraid of. So things like that. It was me, but it was everybody. I wasn’t pretending that it was a specific ailment that I had. And if I had a specific ailment — and possibly I do, you don’t know! But I would not talk about it. I hope that I would not discuss it and, uh, just try to, try to, benefit monetarily from, uh, from that. Which other people get, and they get nothing!