Friday September 17, 2021
Norm Macdonald (1959-2021)
One of the great talk show guests, saving us all from boredom and bullshit.
On Tuesday my friend Adam posted a video of Norm Macdonald's final standup on the Letterman show—the last standup anyone did on Letterman—and talked about how great it was and how much it meant to him. I smiled. So Adam. I liked it and moved on. I didn't know why he had posted it. I didn't know it was the first of many eulogies I would see that day for Norm Macdonald, who died that day, age 61, after a very non-public 10-year battle with cancer. I spent much of the day watching those videos. I mourned the death of Norm Macdonald by laughing a lot.
I'd actually done a deep YouTube dive into Norm about a month or two ago. It might've begun with that 1997 Conan show where he and Conan spar over Courtney Thorne-Smith, and Norm triumphs beautifully. Although that's not quit it, is it? They admit to crushes—who didn't have one on Courtney Thorne-Smith in 1997?—but while Conan does his usual “woe is me” bit, Norm keeps hijacking the conversation by disparaging the star of Courtney's new movie, Carrot Top. I don't think many comedians had much respect for Carrot Top. Conan didn't seem to, either. But he's the host, and he's the one with the Courtney crush, and when he asks if there's a scene in the movie where she and him embrace, she plays along, talking it up, saying “Oh yeah, lots of making out. Nothing but making out. It's like '9 1/2 Weeks' but Carrot Top.” To which Norm butts in: “Is it called '9 1/2 Seconds'?” And then the brilliance for me: While everyone is laughing, and people applauding, he says directly what was implied. There's a YouTube video that's just called “Norm Macdonald Explains the Joke” and this is an example of that. He says: “Like he's premature ejaculating.” Man, I love that. That's so my temperature.
And it continues. That's the great thing. Conan asks her what the movie will be called and again Norm butts in with his own idea for a Carrot Top movie title: “Box Office Poison.” At this point, semi-laughing, Courtney objects—it's her movie, too!—and Conan defends her, and eventually she says the title: “Chairman of the Board.” To which Conan says to Norm: “Do something with that, you freak.” And he does. He says “I bet the 'board' is spelled B-O-R-E-D,” and Conan completely loses it. It's one of the many examples of why Norm was considered one of the great talk show guests. Not for nothing, he was right, too: the reviews for “Chairman of the Board” were scathing, and the movie bombed. It's currently got a 2.3 rating on IMDb.
I often thought of Norm as my guy—like Rich Hall in the '80s, another standup who feels like he should've been bigger. A lot of Norm's humor was dry, witty and esoteric but told in an everyman's voice—full of “you know”s and “there”s. Here's Jason Zinoman in The New York Times:
My favorite Norm Macdonald joke — and trust me, there's serious competition — is one he told as anchor of Weekend Update on “Saturday Night Live” in the late 1990s. Papers in front of him, he reported with a cheer: “Yippie! Jerry Rubin died this week.” Looking down, he apologized for his mistake and tried again: “That should read: 'Yippie Jerry Rubin died this week.'”
He was famously/infamously fired from “Saturday Night Live” because the head of NBC was an O.J. Simpson fan and Norm made too many O.J. jokes as host of “Weekend Update.” (My favorite: “In a brilliant move during closing arguments, Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran put on the knit cap prosecutors say O.J. wore the night he committed the murders. Although O.J. may have hurt his case when he suddenly blurted out 'Hey, hey, easy with that, that's my lucky stabbing hat!'”) But in a 2011 interview with Marc Maron on the WTF Podcast, he says the problem was more internal than that. SNL honcho Lorne Michaels, a fellow Canadian, gave orders in an elliptical manner that Norm didn't get. He says he needed Lorne to say specifically what he wanted, Lorne didn't do that, Norm got fired. When he returned to host 18 months later, in his opening monlogue, he shit all over the show with a smile on his face.
It's interesting. In the podcast he seems timid, all but talking into his sleeve; Maron has to keep drawing him out. But a lot of his standup was fearless. I don't think there's anything more fearless than showing up for one of those roasts where everyone is supposed to be vicious with one another and doing antiquated, tepid one-liners. But that's what he did. And he did it because he didn't like the bullshit of the roast. He was told he had to be vicious and he was like, “Oh, I'll do the opposite.” Always a good instinct. But even knowing it going in, I can't watch that routine. It's too painful.
Though he didn't announce he had cancer, a lot of his comedy over the last 10 years dealt with the topic—or the way we deal with the topic. The language we use: “Losing” a battle with cancer, for example. “I'm not a doctor,” Norm said, “but I'm pretty sure if you die, the cancer dies with you. To me, that's a draw.”