RIP Norm Macdonald, 1959-2021
The Canadian humorist Norm Macdonald died today from cancer.
Macdonald’s dry, loose, deadpan style of humor was not for everyone, but I loved it. He was a cast member on Saturday Night Live when I was in high school, serving as the Weekend Update anchor and doing impressions on the show until 1998, when he was fired.
I got to see him live that year, at the University of North Florida’s homecoming thing. He was an ill-cast headliner, and the show seemed to simultaneously tank and soar as droves walked out to his postmodern/postdroll riffs on dropping acid and pigfucking. (He managed to offend the university president to the point where the dude up and left within about 10 minutes of the set.) Watching Norm Macdonald live was like an unedited extension of watching him on TV—this was a guy leading you out into some weird weeds, dropping non sequitur breadcrumbs as you went. The frustration for much of Macdonald’s audience, was, Hell, hey, where are we going?–what is this all adding up to, where’s the punchline, what’s the point? The point is the wandering of course, a sentiment that Macdonald would roast I think.
Years ago, at one of those stupid Comedy Central roasts—maybe it was Bob Saget or William Shatner?—the comedian Jim Norton described Macdonald’s loose, shuffling set as “like watching Henry Fonda pick blueberries.” Macdonald’s response is perfect:
The looseness never added up to anything like stardom (when I saw Macdonald live, still bitter from his firing at NBC, he complained that “they fucking hate me there”), but he did star in the 1998 Bob Saget-directed comedy Dirty Work (great silly stuff), as well as 2000’s Screwed (which isn’t that great). He also starred in an ABC sitcom called Norm opposite Laurie Metcalf. (I watched it sometimes over antenna TV my last years of college; at its best it was a send up of TV tropes and audience expectations, but it was hardly ever at its best.)
Norm Macdonald did plenty of voice over stuff and small role appearances, but his best stuff was his stand-up comedy and his late night appearances. He was a staple on both Letterman and Conan O’Brien, a postmodern Charles Grodin, making me sneeze beer through my nose way too late at night in the late nineties and beyond.
In the last decade of his too-short life—
—and here I just have to say, I always thought of the guy as old, old, impossibly, cantankerously old, and I now see he died way too young at 61, that he’s only two decades older than me, but I guess that’s how life works, old is just some goal posts we push away—-
In the last decade of his too-short life, Norm Macdonald continued to do his thing—stand-up and voice gigs and standby late night spots. Like every other motherfucker in the past two decades, he had a podcast, Norm Macdonald Live. This “The Aristocrats!” style bit on the serial murderer Albert Fish is one of my favorites from that era:
It wasn’t until last year, during Early Lockdown Times, that I watched his 2018 “interview” show Norm Macdonald Has a Show on Netflix. The series surpasses cringe comedy or anti-comedy or whatever you want to call it. It reads like someone who genuinely doesn’t care if the project gets renewed (which it didn’t). The best episodes are the first, with David Spade, and the fourth, with David Letterman. Spade is not bright enough to figure out that the show is a goof on showbiz, a big fuckyou to the idea of careerism in comedy; Letterman figures it out immediately and plays along, to a point. Calling what he did “anti-comedy” misses the point. He and his sidekick Adam Eget were laughing plenty.
Macdonald’s legacy might be complicated. His jokes were often very, very dark, and in the past few years, out of step with the zeitgeist. But I always found something simultaneously and impossibly oblique and sharp in what Norm Macdonald did. He wasn’t for everyone, but he spoke to me, and I’ll miss him.