Norm Macdonald abided by the first rule of show business: he left the audience wanting more.
His death on Tuesday, at 61 and with no forewarning, shocked. Macdonald, diagnosed with cancer nearly a decade ago, suffered in silence.
He obliquely addressed his reasoning on a podcast by calling it “the height of narcissism” to talk about cancer in an act “when all you’re doing is garnering sympathy for yourself.” He expressed admiration for the late actor Richard Farnsworth keeping his cancer quiet. “If I had a specific ailment — and possibly I do, you don’t know — I would not talk about it,” he said. And cancer, he undoubtedly surmised, kills comedy before it kills anything else.
Not that Macdonald could not turn anything into laughter. He told hilarious jokes on such sensitive subjects as 9/11, gay pride, coronavirus, and Adolf Hitler. The same personality traits that nudged him to keep his cancer private — under-socialized and inner-directed — compelled him to touch societal third rails. These traits also enabled him to take enormous risks, none so daring — and rewarding — as surreally bombing on purpose at the Bob Saget roast as a way, one imagines, to roast roasts. Like the man himself, some people got it; others got confused.
His comedy relied heavily, as Frank Stallone might attest, on non sequiturs, and, as O.J. Simpson knew, on beating a dead horse. He meandered pointlessly for the point of comedic effect. He played Shakespeare’s wise fool. The forbidden attracted him. In explaining the demise of the Michael Jackson-Lisa Marie Presley union, he explained on Saturday Night Live: “She’s more of a stay-at-home type, and he’s more of a homosexual pedophile.” When his incessant O.J. Simpson punchlines became more of a subtle rib at the former running back’s close friend, NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer, Ohlmeyer removed Macdonald from SNL’s “Weekend Update.”
He did not abandon the schtick that he perfected on his most famous gig. In his post-SNL ventures, he more than occasionally reverted to “Weekend Update” mode. When he hosted the ESPYs in 1998, for instance, he explained to Charles Woodson of his recently obtained Heisman Trophy: “That is something that no one can ever take away from you . . . unless you kill your wife and a waiter, in which case all bets are off.” On his video podcast, Norm Macdonald told, in his faux-newscaster style, perhaps his most Norm Macdonald joke. “A new study found that men with beards are more attractive than men without beards,” he deadpanned. “More great work from the University of Bob Seger.”
Norm rebelled against the age of branding. He did one thing better than anyone else — tell jokes — and he pretty much stuck to that, particularly in his final decade, rather than branch off in a million directions. He acted (in the movie Dirty Work and on the sitcom Norm) but not particularly well. He hosted various shows (Sports Show with Norm Macdonald, Norm Macdonald Live, Norm Macdonald Has a Show) but others did that better. He did impressions (Burt Reynolds, Larry King, Bob Dole) but nobody mistook him for Darrell Hammond or Rich Little. Even on Saturday Night Live during the mid-1990s, he essentially stayed out of the skits and stuck to his standup delivering the fake news.
The standup in which he so excelled employed humor to make points about humanity. His elongated bit on hypocrisy and Bill Cosby, a man he so admired (not for his comedy, he informs the audience, but for how he conducted himself as a man), provokes as many thoughts as laughs. When audience members heckled, as this brutally-treated teacher did upon objecting to the son of teachers’s sarcastic bit on teachers as the “real heroes,” they really, really regretted it. So, too, did those who attempted to direct his standup. When nudged toward a G-rated set by University of Iowa officials for an all-ages charity event, Macdonald instead discoursed about graphic sex acts and AIDS and sent shocked audience members to the exits.
“This letter is to inform you that the invitation to you and a guest to participate in the golf event on the University of Iowa campus later today has been formally withdrawn,” an administrator wrote him. “Your performance last night at the Hancher Auditorium was inconsistent with the values and morals of the staff of the University of Iowa Men’s Athletic Department and the University of Iowa and Iowa City community as a whole. You insulted the intelligence and decency of a great many people with a monologue which was, at minimum, irresponsible.”
The infamous event makes one wonder whether the audience for Norm Macdonald was ultimately Norm Macdonald. Knowing the political proclivities of the hostesses of The View, he said he welcomed Bill Clinton’s departure from the presidency in 2000 on the grounds that “I think we should get the homicide out of the White House.” The uncomfortable hostesses, again and again, tried to redirect the conversation. The faux-oblivious guest repeatedly invoked the conspiracy theory that Bill Clinton had murdered political enemies as though accepted fact.
While politically incorrect, Macdonald, the brother of a top Canadian newsman, rarely, if ever, got political. These two attributes — politically incorrect and apolitical — made him the perfect comedian for an age in which some funny is forbidden and jokes receive laughs more out of ideological solidarity than anything in them inherently humorous. He was not made for these times, which explains why we needed him so much in these times. His death leaves a void and his fans feel a profound loss.
Why? Because sensible silly people rightly value the doctors who administer the best medicine more than they do any other group of people.
“The world is a vale of tears, always has been and surely always will be,” Paul Johnson wrote in his book Humorists. “Those who can dry our tears, and force reluctant smiles to trembling lips, are more precious to us, if the truth be told, than all the statesmen and the generals and brainy people, even the great artists. For they ease the agony of life a little, and make us even imagine the possibility of being happy.”
Norm Macdonald famously teared up and said “I love you” in his goodbye to David Letterman on the last episode of his late-night program. Millions of fans did likewise for Norm on Tuesday without the luxury of the goodbye.
He eased the agony of life a little and more than made us imagine the possibility of being happy.
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