Macdonald's death from cancer was "functionally" a Norm Macdonald joke, says Lili Loofbourow. "'I didn’t even know he was sick!' many have written, repurposing the punchline from a joke where Macdonald pretends to have just found out about Hitler and plots to kill him, only to learn he’s already dead," says Loofbourow. "That he’d been sick with cancer brought inevitable references to Macdonald’s bit about how we talk about the disease. 'My Uncle Bert is waging a courageous battle,' he said. 'He’s lying in a hospital bed with a thing in his arm watching Matlock.' Macdonald lamented that the battle metaphor positions the sick person as the loser: 'I’m pretty sure if you die, the cancer also dies at the same. So that to me is not a loss, that’s a draw.' References to Macdonald’s 'draw' with cancer were being posted within minutes of the news of his death. It was all so on the nose it felt risky to believe any of it: Macdonald was a legendary stand-up and consummate bullsh*t artist in a variety of genres. His remarkably literary 'memoir” was despite its title, Based on a True Story, and its promise to be 'the truth, every word of it, to the best of my memory,' at least half lies. I was waiting for news of his death to be just one more. Death is final, after all, and Macdonald took great care to not be definitive about much of anything." Loofbourow adds: "I’d failed to appreciate how firm Macdonald’s anti-confessional commitments were, and not just in standup. It takes an almost unthinkably unusual personality to keep a struggle with leukemia secret from friends for nine years. That chosen loneliness was undertaken for basically artistic reasons: 'He kept it quiet because he didn’t want it to affect his comedy,' his brother Neil said when the death was announced. It’s clear in interviews that this cost him something: 'I’ve heard people go onstage and talk about cancer or some sh*t, and I go, ‘Isn’t this what happens to everybody?’ he said to Vulture’s David Marchese in 2018. '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.' He wanted to tell funny cancer jokes, so the cancer needed to have happened to an 'Uncle Bert.' If there’s such a thing as authentic bullsh*ttery, bullsh*t you’d sincerely die to defend, maybe that was Macdonald’s thing."
Bob Saget pays an emotional tribute to Norm Macdonald, calling him "one of the most important people in my life and one of the sweetest": “We loved each other," says Saget, who first met a teenage Macdonald while performing in Canada. “I can’t accept that he’s gone, and that’s the shock we’re going through,” Saget said. “Sixty-one. It’s a sin for all of us that he’s gone. He cared about people a lot. And he felt the human condition so deeply that it affected him in different ways.” Saget said that although Macdonald never told him he was sick, “I felt it. I knew something was wrong. I think a lot of us felt it. His mind was still amazing. I had been texting with him. And I knew that the last month was a turn in whatever was going on.” Saget added: “Two weeks ago, he texted me, ‘How are you? What are you doing? Are you doing stand-up?’ And I answered him with much too many words. And then I didn’t hear back. And then last week I got a text and just said, ‘I love you.’ I didn’t say much back. I just said, ‘I love you, Norm.’ And that was my last communication with him.”
Macdonald liked to play with the tension between fact and fiction: "He was not a comedian who used the minutiae of his life as a subject, at least not in any way that might be accounted reliable," says Robert Lloyd. "Most comics deliver a mixture of fact and fiction, of course, but Macdonald especially liked to play with the tension between them. He could make it hard to tell just where autobiography ended and the bit began, whether the bit was taking you to some sort of real-life revelation or whether the personal anecdote was all just a bit...Clearly he was not the ill-informed dummy he often made himself out to be, ignorant of current events — indeed, there was something deceptively cerebral, even conceptual about his humor, even as it might edge toward the cornpone, as in the long, involved, digressive shaggy dog stories that were a hallmark of his talk show visits."
Based on a True Story: A Memoir might have been Norm Macdonald’s biggest bet: "It contains almost no true stories," says Kaleb Horton. "It’s a pack of preposterous lies, a collection of tall tales and shaggy-dog stories that put its author’s finest talk-show bits to shame. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, of course; the audiobook is a must. It’s also a novel, a metafictional sendup of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, with a ghostwriter named 'Keane' as its Charles Kinbote. Like Kinbote, Norm’s Keane can’t resist hijacking the text, and his deluded self-insertions transform a simple job (stamping out a hacky celebrity memoir for a quick payday) into a twisted labor of obsession and jealousy that ends in murder."