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Norm Macdonald was a comedy chaos agent and the greatest talk show guest of all time

  • "You are born knowing that Saturday Night Live was better before you were born," says Rob Harvilla in an appreciation of the late comedian and SNL star, who died Tuesday of cancer at age 61. "And even clueless ’90s teenagers could sense that the show’s true iconoclast superstars—also including Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and Chris Rock—wouldn’t last on the show for long. Too brazen, too raw, too volatile, too 'completely wrong.' Destined to be fired and destined for greatness. Sandler and Rock, of course, became true superstars; Farley died of a drug overdose in 1997. True greatness, true volatility works like that: It’s all or nothing. Except with Norm. He found, of course, a middle ground, a proud comedy extremist with phenomenally broad appeal, and a widespread rep as, indeed, one of the funniest people alive without any conventional breakout A-lister moment, no blockbuster movie, and no undeniable hit TV show. Any of that would’ve only diluted his genius, or at least tried. So I am grateful for everyone on Twitter right now flagging his great vintage SNL skits, but I gotta say I have virtually no memory of Norm in any plain old sketch: To my mind he was, from the onset, a chaos agent, a cheerful and deadly ghost in the machine, an Andy Kaufman–adjacent destabilizer. A comedy purist in the sense that he was disconcertingly willing to get down in the mud. He got demoted from 'Weekend Update' in early 1998, supposedly for making too many O.J. Simpson jokes, and jumped right onto David Letterman’s couch to talk all about it. ('I’m serious! I talked to a guy who said I’m fired.') He left SNL for good soon thereafter. He starred later that year in Dirty Work, a riotously mean-spirited black comedy that best paid tribute to the Norm Macdonald mythos by bombing. He returned to host SNL in ’99 and put on Burt Reynolds’s hat. That year he tried a sitcom, Norm, that lasted three years. From there he had more time to devote to his true calling, which was being the single greatest talk-show guest of all time."

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    • Lorne Michaels and SNL pay tribute to Norm Macdonald: “Today is a sad day. All of us here at SNL mourn the loss of Norm Macdonald, one of the most impactful comedic voices of his or any other generation,” Michaels said on behalf of the show in a statement posted to social media. “There are so many things that we’ll miss about Norm – from his unflinching integrity to his generosity to his consistent ability to surprise. But most of all he was just plain funny. No one was funny like Norm.”
    • Seth Meyers reflects on how Macdonald made an impact on him: Speaking on Late Night, Meyers admitted he had "to beat Norm's delivery out of me" when he first started anchoring "Weekend Update." Meyers also shared his favorite "Weekend Update" joke of all time, as told by Macdonald. Meyers recalled Macdonald telling him that SNL was "the last place on TV where you can bomb," adding that as a result "he didn't care if he was bombing." Meyers added: "I think for so many of us, we came up watching Norm and we thought we were on the inside with him when we were watching him tell these jokes that we thought were great and that no one in the room thought was good. And you just felt this connection to him. And that ability to just stare into an audience unblinkingly telling the jokes that he believed in." 
    • Bob Dole tweets he'll miss Norm Macdonald: It was 25 years ago that Macdonald played the then-Republican presidential candidate on SNL for the 1996 presidential election. Dole, now 98, tweeted a photo of him with Macdonald as himself: "Norm," he wrote, "was a great talent, and I loved laughing with him on SNL. *Bob Dole* will miss Norm Macdonald."
    • Kevin Nealon calls his "Weekend Update" successor "without a doubt, one-of-a- kind": "So clever, daring, well-read and smart as a whip," Nealon wrote on Instagram. "His comedy was brilliant, irreverent and at times biting. We all loved him on SNL's 'Weekend Update' and I don't actually think he ever got credit for coining the phrase, 'Fake News.' Norm and I often toured doing stand-up and occasionally golfed together. A few years ago we took a road trip to Palm Springs and he insisted on blasting Johnny Cash tunes the entire way, windows down with his bare foot dangling out. Luckily I was driving. Thank you for your unique brilliance and charm, Norm. I miss you already."
    • Bob Saget recalls meeting a 17-year-old Macdonald in Ottawa: Saget directed Macdonald in the 1998 movie Dirty Work and was roasted by him on Comedy Central. "Devastated," tweeted Saget. "Met Norm in Ottawa when he was in my audience at 17 years old. Been close for decades. We have lost a comedic genius. No other voice in comedy has been as uniquely prolific, brazen, dark, hilarious, and heartfelt. Love you forever, Norm."
    • Macdonald weaved the dumbest punchlines into comedic masterclasses: "Norm Macdonald was responsible for some of the worst punchlines in Hollywood history," says Andrew R. Chow. "'There are times when Bob has something on his mind—when he wears a hat!' the comedian proclaimed stone-faced at Comedy Central’s Roast of Bob Saget in 2008, as Saget, his target, chuckled with clear confusion and discomfort. As the room grew quiet, unmoved by the joke, Macdonald decided not to move past the clear dud, but instead to double down: 'No thoughts at all—JUST A HAT!' But it was exactly this type of delivery and commitment that made Macdonald, who died on Tuesday after a long, private battle with cancer, one of the most unique and irreplaceable voices in modern comedy. Macdonald thrived on the edge of convention and in moments of silence and discomfort; through his unique approach, he weaved the dumbest punchlines into comedic masterclasses. And while other comics turned their desire to provoke into an excuse to bully or punch down, Macdonald’s transgressions were usually more conceptual: he thumbed his nose at the art form of the joke itself."
    • Norm Macdonald was the best/worst talk show guest of all time: "It’s one of the ironies of late-night talk TV that the people who are typically handed the reins of that most formulaic, corporate synergy-heavy branch of television are usually comedians, a group of people who do not, as a rule, like being told what to do," says William Hughes. "And yet, more often that not, they do it: Playing nice, promoting their owners’ projects, and generally coloring within the comedy lines that keep the people signing the checks, and the stars they funnel toward TV’s collective late night couches, happy. Norm Macdonald was constitutionally incapable of playing that game, which might explain why he didn’t get a talk show, at least not until the far looser worlds of podcasts and streaming TV made it a possibility—and why, at the same time, he was such a frequently sought-out guest on the talk shows of others. Casually capable of precision cruelty, and endlessly mischievous, Macdonald was the embodiment of the chaos so often scrubbed out of the late-night world, and which its most iconoclastic hosts—especially Conan O’Brien and Dave Letterman, both devoted fans—clearly, dearly craved. It helps explain why so many of the moments being passed around online today, in the wake of Macdonald’s death, have come from his numerous talk show appearances, dropping in to let his more ostensibly successful friends live vicariously through a man who would relish explaining the logic of a premature ejaculation joke for an audience of millions."
    • It feels pointless to try to write anything like an obituary, because everyone had their favorite Norm: "SNL Norm, sitcom Norm, standup Norm, bit-role Norm, talk show guest Norm, ESPYs Norm, book Norm, roast Norm," says Barry Petchesky. "I can only tell you my Norm: the guy who I saw do a live set once, and mostly ruined the form for me because it was clear how much better he was at it than 99 percent of even the other professional standups; the guy who did shit I literally did not realize you were allowed to do on basic cable; the guy who said stuff that made other comedians try desperately to keep a straight face, and fail. You’ve got your Norm, and if you don’t, there’s no better way to spend the rest of your day than going to YouTube and searching for Norm and watching any and everything that comes up. Because everything he did was funny! Everything! Scores of people around the world are currently sitting in their homes, chuckling and muttering, 'Ladies and gentlemen, this man is for the birds!' because that’s the first thing they think of when they think of Norm. What other comedian could have planted a punchline so dumb into the heads of so many people? Something about the voice, and the delivery, and the deadpan-with-a-barely-suppressed-hint-of-manic package elevated all material, and made him the only person alive who could possibly have pulled off his best stuff. And now he’s not alive, so all that might’ve been can no longer be, but we’ve still got a lifetime of work to go back to. Share your favorite Norm bits, and watch ’em again. He was truly one of the funniest people to ever do it."
    • Macdonald discussed cancer in general in a 2018 conversation with Vulture: "I wouldn’t pretend to ever know the truth. But comedy in its highest form always reveals something. Maybe you could call that a truth. But what I don’t like is the idea that suffering, or pain, or being a victim — you could say that leads to art, and maybe it does, but it’s not art in itself." When told there are good and bad forms of every art, Macdonald responded: "But I’m telling you this: I’ve heard people go onstage and talk about cancer or some shit, and I go, 'Isn’t this what happens to everybody?' They seem to think they’re singular in their story when their story is the most common story that could possibly be, which is suffering and pain."
    • Macdonald perfectly explained in 2011 why you shouldn't say "battling cancer": Macdonald, who died of cancer, may have already been diagnosed in 2011 when he said in his Comedy Central standup special Me Doing Stand Up: “In the old days, a man could just get sick and die. Now, they have to wage a battle,” Macdonald began. “So my Uncle Bert is waging a courageous battle — which I’ve seen, because I go and visit him. This is the battle: he’s lying in a hospital battle with a thing in his arm, watching Matlock on the TV. It’s not his fault, what the fuck’s he supposed to do? It’s just a black thing in his bowel. The reason I don’t like it is because in the old days, they’d go: ‘Hey, that old man died.’ Now, they go: ‘He lost his battle.’ That’s no way to end your life: ‘What a loser that guy was! Last thing he did was lose. He was waging a brave battle, but at the end, he got kind of cowardly with what happen. Then, the bowel cancer, it got brave. You’ve got to give it to the bowel cancer, they were in a battle.'”
    • Macdonald was subjected to a "journalistic intervention" in a 2016 Washington Post profile: "The former SNL star can be his own worst enemy. Or maybe he’s a mad genius. Or both," wrote The Washington Post's Geoff Edgers, who spent time alone with Macdonald. Edgers added: "This article isn’t being done because he has an entertainment product to plug, though, in the months after the Oscars, Macdonald will finish his book. Based on a True Story: A Memoir comes out in September. This profile is actually a journalistic intervention. It is about trying to understand why a brilliant, original voice remains virtually invisible at a time when, as his admirer Conan O’Brien puts it, 'every United States citizen who is registered to vote has a talk show.' Comedy Central President Kent Alterman describes Macdonald’s absence from the airwaves as 'one of the great injustices in the world.' 'How,' he asks, 'is Norm Macdonald not on the air?'"
    • Macdonald was every comedian's favorite comedian: 'In the end, he simply and truly provided comedy greatness," says Sean L. McCarthy. "And that has been reward enough for anyone lucky enough to see or hear him."
    • Macdonald helped save SNL during its "dark times" of the mid-1990s: "The great advantage of the digital age is that, with a keystroke, you can watch Norm Macdonald in the many genres in which he left his mark — but, if you ask me, his death leaves a major void in the world of 'smart' comedy, the kind of humor that makes you think — and laugh — at the same time," says Michael Starr. "Norm Macdonald didn’t just perform in this style — he owned it."
    • Norm co-creator Bruce Helford recounts his decades-long friendship with Norm Macdonald: The Conners showrunner first met Macdonald when he guest-starred on Roseanne. They went on to co-create The Norm Show, AKA Norm, which aired for three seasons on ABC from 1999 to 2001. "We did his Norm show together, which is one of the best shows I’ve ever done,” Helford said. “And it was because he was so brilliant and irreverent and he pretended he didn’t care, but he cared very much and worked really hard to create something unique. He was so admired by other comics because he had that rare gift — a voice that no one else had. Macdonald reteamed with Helford on the 2018 Roseanne revival, with Macdonald serving as consulting producer. “We’ve been close all these years and I will miss him very much,” Helford said. “I remember a joke he made about cancer: ‘You always read about people battling cancer. It’s not a battle. There’s this big black thing and then it kills you.’ But he fought hard and we got to enjoy him that much longer. He also didn’t know how to drive.”
    • ESPN's Rachel Nichols says Macdonald recently gave her a pep talk: "Just so sad about this," she tweeted. "Norm was funny and brilliant and relentlessly kind. He reached out to give me a bit of a pep talk recently, which felt so generous at the time, and even more so now that I realize how much his health was failing. Man, will he be missed."
    • David Spade remembers his last show with Macdonald: "Non stop laughing with these 2 guys as you can imagine," Spade captioned a photo of him, and fellow SNL alums Macdonald and Dennis Miller. "Would never think it was the last time I’d see him. The comedy world took a huge hit today.
    • Scott Aukerman recalls Macdonald running out of jokes on stage: "Saw him do the funniest dismount at a theatre stand-up show where he ran out of jokes or just didn’t want to end on a big closer so he brought the openers back on 'to do some improv,' and walked off the stage. Legend," wrote Aukerman on Instagram.
    • James Corden remembered the time Macdonald was on the show and did a bit about Micky Mouse: “It wasn’t a planned bit, he said: ‘Micky Mouse is huge at Disney World," Corden recalled on The Late Late Show. "If you see Micky Mouse at Disney World, you’re like yeah, go, kids! If you see that same Micky Mouse at 7-Eleven, you’re holding the kids back.'”
    • Macdonald's already taped his Yaphit role for The Orville Season 3: “To so many people in comedy, me included, there was nobody funnier than Norm MacDonald,” tweeted Seth MacFarlane. “You always hoped he would hang around after the work was done, just so you could hear his stories and get a laugh. So hilarious and so generous with his personality. I’m gonna miss him.”
    • Watch Macdonald roast then-President Bill Clinton at the 1997 Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner
    • Here are Macdonald's most memorable SNL moments, from Burt "Turd Ferguson" Reynolds on Celebrity Jeopardy to "Cobras & Panthers" to his 1999 SNL monologue
    • Conan O'Brien's YouTube channel posts Macdonald famously mocking Courtney Thorne-Smith and Carrot Top's movie Chairman of the Board
    • Macdonald once hosted a red carpet show in sweatpants
    • Aaron Rodgers paid tribute to Norm Macdonald when he guest-hosted Jeopardy! in April with a Turd Ferguson reference -- which caught Macdonald's attention
    • Norm Macdonald summed up his life in 2016 memoir Based on a True Story, saying it was impossible for him to be bitter: "Norm always seemed so pleased that he'd written a book. I think it's because his comedic persona was a smart guy pretending to be a dumb guy who really wants you to know that he's a smart guy," tweeted comedy writer Nell Scovell. In his book, which could double as a eulogy for his life, Macdonald wrote: "I think a lot of people feel sorry for you if you were on SNL and emerged from the show anything less than a superstar. They assume you must be bitter. But it is impossible to be bitter. I've been lucky. If I had to sum up my whole life, I guess those are the words I would choose, all right. When I was a boy, I was sure I'd never make it past Moose Creek, Ontario, Canada. But I've been all over this world. Except for Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, and South America. Oh, and Antarctica. But that's really splitting hairs. I mean, how many people have been to Antarctica?" Macdonald said that he "never expected to be any (thing) more than a common laborer," declaring that he would have still been "lucky to have achieved that." He added: "But I was blessed with so much more. I'm a stand-up comedian and have been for over a quarter of a century. I've performed thousands of hours, from a small club in Ottawa, Ontario, all the way to a small club in Edmonton, Alberta. Sometimes I get big laughs and think I'm the best stand-up in the whole world, and other times I bomb, and I think I'm not even in the top five."

    TOPICS: Norm Macdonald, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Late Show with David Letterman, Norm, The Orville, Saturday Night Live, Aaron Rodgers, Bob Dole, Bob Saget, Bruce Helford, David Spade, James Corden, Kevin Nealon, Lorne Michaels, Rachel Nichols, Scott Aukerman, Seth MacFarlane, Seth Meyers, Standup Comedy




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