The untimely passing of Norm Macdonald at 61 was a sad day for comedy. He was among the most gifted comedians of all time, possessing an innate ability to deliver laughs in ingenious and unexpected ways. Simply put, the man was a pro.
His deadpan sarcasm and offbeat style were immensely enjoyable for anyone who could appreciate it. He came across as authentic and genuine, while his stream-of-conscious meanderings embraced the height of absurdity. Everything he did seemed effortless. From his early start as a standup comic, Norm was a force to be reckoned with. He took over Weekend Update on SNL (94 – 98) as a relative unknown and quickly became one of the most memorable anchors of all time.
Those of us who saw Norm on SNL, his subsequent movie roles, his frequent talk show appearances, and his Netflix show knew that he would say just about anything as long as it was funny. He especially relished in making media types and celebrity elites uncomfortable, but never in a mean way. There was always a childish innocence behind it. His constant Weekend Update jabs at O.J. Simpson and overall irreverent humor got him fired by the top brass at NBC, the only anchor to do so. In the spirit of Andy Kaufman, Norm was a gleeful deconstructionist. But he also took comedy seriously and regularly lambasted the phoniness of the showbiz industry. His underlying message was simple: get over yourselves.
He cut through all the BS with quick wit and dedication to his craft. As a comedian, he seemed especially amused when jokes fell flat. With a glint in his eyes amid an infectious smile, you always knew when he was ready to strike. His appearances on late-night shows like Conan O’Brien and David Letterman were as memorable as his SNL impressions (Bob Dole, Burt Reynolds, Larry King, David Letterman, etc.). You could never really separate the man from his performances.
Norm privately battled cancer for nine years. His struggles with acute leukemia were his burden to bear. According to his longtime producer, “He never wanted the diagnosis to affect the way the audience or any of his loved ones saw him.” Putting comedy first was indicative of his personality.
My preferred SNL era is from the early to mid-nineties. The sheer talent back then was immeasurable. From that period, we’ve lost Chris Farley (33), Phil Hartman (49), and Jan Hooks (57). Not since the passing of John Belushi (33) and Gilda Radner (42) has there been such a collective void. Norm leaves behind a legacy of fearlessness and sharp insight for generations to come.
Across the Hemisphere
In addition to oil exports, comedy remains one of Canada’s greatest natural resources. My personal favorite sketch comedy show The Kids in the Hall (1989 – 1995) epitomized a uniquely Canadian sense of humor. John Candy, Jim Carrey, Dan Aykroyd, and Mike Myers all hailed from the Great White North, along with SCTV alumni Martin Short, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’ Hara, and Eugene Levy. SCTV or Second City Television (1976 – 1984) was like the Canadian version of Monty Python and SNL. I have lots of family in Canada, and they’re funny too, which can only mean that this whole thing is one giant conspiracy. Laughter is universal, or as Roger Rabbit said, “Sometimes in life, it’s the only weapon we have.”
Norm Macdonald was born in Quebec City and later toured the Montreal comedy circuit to early success. He soon found a fan in SNL producer Lorne Michaels, another Canadian, who eventually put him behind the Weekend Update desk. One of my early SNL memories of Norm involved him playing a demon underling with David Spade and Rob Schneider. Patrick Stewart, the host that week, played the Lord of Darkness in uproarious fashion. His repeated threats and badgering of his underlings backfire as the three demons poke fun at his increasingly weak word choices, especially after he nearly chokes on a grape.
Norm / Underling 3: “I mean, I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, you know, because you’re the master of the hoary netherworld there, but, uh.. now, after that grape thing…”
Another great skit involved a bloodied Norm as a car crash victim. Host Sylvester Stallone rushes to his aid, only to endure Norm’s repeated mocking of his most questionable movie roles.
Norm/ Car Crash Victim: “Great. I don’t know which is worse, being in this accident, or being helped by the star of Judge Dredd.”
And then there was this moment:
Paramedic: “Alright, everyone clear! Now, I’m losing him!”
Norm / Car Crash Victim: “Stop.. stop.. stop.. stop.. Stop.. Or My Mom Will Shoot sucked..”
Then there was one of my favorite Weekend Update O.J. Simpson jokes, simple but effective:
Norm: “It was revealed this week that defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran once abused his wife. In his defense he said, hey, at least I didn’t kill her like some people I know.”
And, of course, his classic non sequitur:
Norm: “And finally, the votes are in, and Entertainment Weekly has chosen its funniest man alive. And who is the funniest man alive? You guessed it, Frank Stallone.”
It’s near impossible to find these old clips, but there are enough Norm moments to go around. I remember when he was on The View in the early 2000s and faced incredulous backlash from the shocked panel when he said that Bill Clinton “murdered a guy.” Barbara Walters was beside herself and told him that such baseless accusations had “no place on her show.” Norm innocently held his hands out with a mischievous smile. “What, you haven’t heard? I’m pretty sure it’s public record!” They were too flustered to see that he was just having fun.
Norm’s humor was a treasure. He now joins the legendary status of Richard Pryer, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Rodney Dangerfield, Sam Kinison, and many others. Special thanks to Canada for sending one of your best.