February 2, 2022

The Illusive Brilliance of Norm MacDonald Remembered

12 min read

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By: Michael Gursky

Norm MacDonald: SNL alumni, Canadian cut-up, fearless stand-up, debatably the greatest “Weekend Update” anchor, and general unique comedic genius. Norm MacDonald presented as a self-sabotaging recluse with a childlike innocence, out to joke and entertain himself, openly disinterested in whatever phoniness came with having a successful entertainment career.

Closely following Norm’s legacy and appreciating his past work felt special. Individual, even. Immediately after his unexpected passing at 61 this past month, it’s evident this was the case for thousands of people, both inside and outside comedy.

The outpouring of love for Norm MacDonald after his passing on Twitter has been positively overwhelming, with seemingly every working person in stand-up and entertainment voicing their love for Norm, his shtick, and his antics. Everyone with a taste for funny is still sharing clips of some of Norm’s greatest moments, like his beloved moth joke from Conan or when he derailed a YouTube awards show.

I’ve spent countless hours of my time watching Norm compilations on YouTube over the years – Joke clips, stand-up segments, and Norm’s hysterical appearances on the Dennis Miller radio show and so many other places. Though millions also clicked those videos and watched through compilations, consuming Norm felt like being part of a cult fan-base appreciating a fascinating and underrated comedic mind.

The crowd of Norm lovers was and is too big to be considered a cult, however. There are dozens of YouTube channels dedicated to Norm. Throughout recent years, millions have clicked on just simple clip compilations with titles like “Norm MacDonald 9/11 Jokes,” hours within them being posted. People fill the comments with Norm quotes and nothing but.

Despite how intimate the Norm obsession felt, he was a wildly popular legend, respected and admired by the majority of funny comics and writers – he just wasn’t a legend you were going to see in a new series every fall or in blockbuster films. I didn’t know Norm MacDonald personally, but I can assume he didn’t care for any of that. Assuming with Norm, however, was always uncertain territory to tread.

He was an illusive, private man. A man who could make a bit out of just telling a lie. There was never any clear confirmation of truth and fiction. You could watch hours of Norm highlights, including his 90s Stern appearances, and gather hardly a lick about him personally. Howard was a sleazy, prying partial friend of Norm’s – a thirsty shock jock and chum of the stars who could get anything out of anybody, but young Norm, in the heat of his SNL stardom, would just sit in an oversized shirt and leather jacket sipping coffee, acting aloof. Responding to questions by repeating the questions, or uttering “huh?”

His Conan and Letterman appearances were altogether a long, brilliant running joke in which Norm shows up professional in appearance, but communicates like a rambling child, smirking his way towards a slow punchline. There’s very little question asking and serious answering going on with Norm guest spots outside of those old Howard Stern interviews.

Getting to the bottom of knowing Norm was like trying to understand an Eastern philosophy, in that the more you thought you had figured out, the greater mystery there was. I know Norm liked old Russian literature, hats, Denny’s, Westerns, golf, and every sport really, (particularly those he could bet on.) He liked the Coen Brothers movies, God, Paul Newman, and pure funny people.

I know he didn’t care for puns, confessional comedy, or vehement Atheism. He didn’t like driving, and was afraid of it, so he never got a driver’s license despite living most of his adult life in Los Angeles where someone almost needs a car. Norm didn’t seem to care for pride of any kind. He joked that gay pride was silly, and has several bits that led me to believe he didn’t like when any group of people take themselves too seriously – Teachers, especially. Considering both of Norm’s parents were school teachers, it’s almost safe to assume he had some gripe with the profession.

I can’t be sure who Norm called a friend, but many greats in comedy have called him one. Adam Sandler, David Spade, Dave Chapelle, Jim Breuer, and so many others. Through interviews with Norm’s peers it becomes evident he was a hard-to-reach guy, someone you’d reach out to and not hear back from until days later with a sarcastically hurt tone like you were the one who blew HIM off. Messing with people, especially friends, must have been a fun interest of Norm’s.

As for who he was as a friend, we know Norm cared deeply for Artie Lange, who he met while working on the film Dirty Work shortly after Lange had gained “Mad TV” notoriety. Norm brought Lange along to two different Howard Stern Show appearances, acquainting him with Howard and talking up Artie’s captivatingly troublesome ways and comedic abilities. Lange was a big fan of Howard’s, and vocal about that. Thanks to the introduction from Norm, and Lange’s funny conversational quips during those initial two appearances, Lange earned a co-hosting spot on the Stern show which he’d work on for several years until his addictions became too chaotic. Years later; almost a decade after Lange’s departure from the Stern show, Norm made an appearance and spoke with Howard about Lange, expressing that the show and the way it’s run enabled Artie and exacerbated his unmanageability. Clearly Norm had a heart for Artie Lange.

Norm’s relationship with alcohol was always the wildest mystery to me, likely because I myself am an alcoholic and it’s the least of my business. In Norm’s first hour special “Me Doing Stand-Up,” he does a fantastic bit about alcoholism and the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. A perfect bit without an ounce of fat. Norm delivers some of the greatest jokes about booze and recovery I’ve ever heard, so naturally I always wondered if Norm himself had troubles with “the demon rum.” When podcast conversations and late-night interviews turn to the subject of alcohol, that’s when Norm gets his dodgiest. In numerous interviews spanning over decades, he stated he didn’t drink. According to Norm he “drank and did bad things as a boy,” but didn’t drink or do drugs in adulthood. His go-to line was “I don’t drink.”

It was always my instinct to take Norm’s word for the fact that he didn’t. What muddied that trust, however, was an early 2000s guest spot from Norm on the short-lived but before its time Tom Green Live webshow, a live webcast long before the days of video podcasts, shot in the basement of fellow Canadian comedic pioneer Tom Green. Norm appeared with Tom on multiple episodes, clowning, reminiscing on their little hometown in Canada, and making fun of callers. In one episode, Green offers Norm a beer. Norm, as expected, states that he doesn’t drink. He takes the brew anyway and chugs it all within a matter of seconds, then passes the empty back to Tom. It was confusing to see, but so very Norm.

We know Norm had gambling troubles – He lost everything he had twice, or three times depending on which account of Norm’s you trust. The area of booze and substances is foggier. In terms of him as a friend and family man, one can only know as little as he’s shared over the years.

What I know beyond mere speculation; without a shadow of a doubt, is Norm was one of the most special comedic minds ever to grace entertainment, and generally one of the funniest people to walk the planet. He was one of the last few big name people in comedy who didn’t care about repercussions, and was more lovable for it. All of the funniest people echoed that sentiment both before and after Norm’s passing.

After starting stand-up at Yuk Yuk’s in his small Canadian town, Norm headed for LA where early big success started rolling. Following a spot on “To Catch a Rising Star,” which at the time was one of the best possible opportunities for a young, budding stand-up, Norm was picked up by the most storied American comedic institution, Saturday Night Live. Most of us know the course of that chapter. Norm found a place on Weekend Update delivering “The Fake News” as he called it. His blunt punches and droll tone were a highlight for so many. He didn’t shy from joking about OJ Simpson during the OJ trial. That’s ultimately why he was fired, or at least that’s what everybody tells Norm, yet he always stuck by the belief that creator/producer Lorne Michael fired him because he simply wasn’t funny.

Post-SNL Norm had a short-lived sitcom, The Norm Show, and would later host a comedic sports talk show for Comedy Central. Neither of those projects lasted. Fans would eventually be delighted by Norm’s YouTube podcast, “Norm MacDonald Live,” which entailed Norm being entirely himself, sitting in a grungy hoodie and baseball cap with one of his monumentally funny old celebrity friends, just talking and delivering nasty jokes for a reaction. That parlayed into a hilariously short-lived Netflix series, which ended early because Norm couldn’t stop being himself outside of the show (for those curious, he publicly described something as “mentally challenged” and the online uproar had dorks calling for cancellation.)

It’s almost unbelievable that the (arguably) funniest alumni of one of the most celebrated comedy shows in history – a guy who so many call the funniest guy – had so few major credits to share. A couple of failed shows. A few cameos in silly comedies made by Norm’s former peers. Let’s tell it like it is, Norm didn’t exactly have the post-Saturday Night Live experience of Sandler, Jimmy Fallon, Will Ferrell, or Tina Fey. He didn’t make hundreds of millions acting in blockbuster films yearly. He never even secured a lasting spot on a series. But Norm did something so much more subtle and meaningful. Norm stayed himself.

He was happy being a stand-up, entertaining himself, and getting a rise out of people. Norm never pandered or schmoozed. Norm never toned it down nor censored himself. This was a man who delivered jokes about the homeless at a benefit for the homeless. A guy who referred to himself as “deeply closeted” on national television. A comic who delighted in doing what he was told not to do, which included riffing on butt sex at an all-ages charity show in Indiana while at the height of his Saturday Night Live stardom.

You could say Norm sabotaged himself, and if your view of a healthy career and life for a famous stand-up comedian entails people-pleasing for millions and roles, you would be right. Norm deliberately prevented himself from being a family-friendly actor, or game show host, or falling into whatever role might be coveted by a hungry young comedian.

Fellow comics and entertainers warned Norm he was destroying career opportunities before they could present themselves. On “Norm MacDonald Live,” legendary broadcaster Larry King laughed along with Norm at his inappropriate jokes, but mentioned multiple times that Norm better stop this shtick and these jokes if he wants to be on television. Norm smirked harder. He was out to entertain himself and be funny to funny people, not everybody.

Because of this stubbornness, uniqueness – whatever you’d like to call it, Norm doesn’t have a laundry list of film appearances to watch through, but there are hours upon hours of Norm clips on YouTube. Some of the funniest videos imaginable. Bits better than anything you’ve seen on late night. Throwaway jokes greater than what you’ve heard on legendary specials. Clip after clip of Norm derailing morning talk shows and serious interviews:

His Conan and Letterman appearances. His stand-up work, both professionally filmed and recorded on an iPhone at some random club. All of his radio appearances. The time on The View he infuriated Barbara Walters after claiming Bill Clinton killed a guy. His spot at the Comedy Central Roast Of Bob Saget in which Norm chose not to roast Bob, and instead deliver corny jokes from a joke book circa the 20th century. Thanks to Norm not caring, or I should say caring solely about stirring inappropriate laughs and making himself smile, we have hours of highlights that are more hysterically funny than any film Norm MacDonald could have possibly been cast in.

In one of my favorite Norm bits, from Dennis Miller’s radio show, Norm does a ventriloquism act with his Holocaust denying puppet, Rusty. Which is of course meaningless in audio form. Dennis Miller’s hysterical wheezing laughter is infectious. What really sticks with me about this segment is immediately after Norm hangs up, Miller, still in tears with laughter, banters with his co-host saying, “It’s gotten so crazy over the years.” He’s laughing but has a high tone of concern in his voice. He’s genuinely remarking that the antics of Norm have gotten crazy.

Listening to Miller remark that, it only made me more compelled to learn more about Norm. Was he, in fact, crazy?

In the best possible way, Norm must have been. You can’t be that brilliant, sharp, funny, and self-aware yet knowingly prevent yourself from an obtainable level of fame and fortune without being a little nutty. But thank Goodness Norm had a few of the right screws loose, or else we wouldn’t have his meandering jokes with weak punchlines on late night shows, his heinous joke card jokes from “Norm MacDonald Live,” or some of the greatest hours of stand-up with “Me Doing Stand-Up” or “Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery.”

And while Norm may have been a bit pleasantly crazy, the man had a heart. He cried while offering a heartfelt send-off of his hero David Letterman on the final episode of Late Night. He helped the likes of Artie Lange and comedy club owner-turned-former Norm sidekick Adam Eget develop careers in the industry. He spoke of faith in God and hope, when he wasn’t busy talking about darkness and death. He was all for a joke, but he also didn’t repress beautiful thoughts or kind words, especially when people needed them.

Yesterday on Twitter, not long after Norm’s tragic passing, legendary Late Night host and Norm’s inspiration David Letterman shared: “In every important way, in the world of stand-up, Norm was the best. An opinion shared by all peers.”

Norm unfortunately isn’t alive to read that Tweet, but such high praise from one of the greatest, and your personal comedic hero, is about as good as it gets. Dozens more huge names in comedy jumped into the conversation, sharing similar sentiments about Norm being the best, funniest, etc. Funny people like Sandler, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, George Wallace, and so many others. When the funniest people are pouring out love for you and marking you the funniest, I’d imagine that’s kind of a dream fulfilled.

Norm didn’t need the after-SNL stardom and hundreds of millions other former cast members saw. Norm passed away a treasure. A brilliant mind and fearless joker who committed to his craft and didn’t do anything he didn’t want to. A shrewd joker who exuded a thrilling excitement just at the idea of telling a genius joke. We all loved him for it. Many of us were fascinated by it, for reasons beyond the comedic genius. I wanted to know Norm personally. Even if I had been given the chance to do so, I don’t know if I could have gotten deeper than what was shared on the surface.

Norm was complicated and private. Brilliant but a fan of playing dumb. Intrigued by darkness but so youthful in spirit and hopeful. I suppose I don’t need to understand more deeply who he was or what made him tick. He’s responsible for jokes and tv/radio mishaps that have made me laugh more than anything else. Millions feel that too. The funniest people in the world feel that. We will never know another Norm, or anyone remotely close. We can only hope his legacy instills within other great comedic minds even half of that fearlessness and a quarter of his too-cool not caring personality. An old chunk of coal gone too soon; too unexpectedly, but if details had been clearer sooner it wouldn’t have been a Norm story.

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Originally posted on Movie Web

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