Norm McDonald performs during KAABOO Del Mar at Del Mar Fairgrounds on September 16, 2017 in Del Mar, California. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Remembering Norm Macdonald

Like Peter Cook, he made being funny seem as natural as yawning

For better or for worse, I am pretty blasé about whatever passes across my Twitter feed. The Taliban have retaken Kabul? Huh. Nicki Minaj is feuding with the Prime Minister over vaccines. Eh. Norm Macdonald is dead? Wait, what? There has to be some mistake. It has to be some kind of joke. Norm Macdonald? Dead? I won’t allow it!

I was just watching him the other day. In a clip from his talk show, Norm Macdonald Live, he tells the American actor and comedian Fred Stoller about the child murderer Albert Fish. Morbid details pile up until Macdonald finally leans across the desk and rasps, “This guy was a real jerk.” On paper this might not sound like the stuff of legend. But the tonal shift was so striking, and the timing was so perfect, that I sprayed Polish lager halfway across the room.

Norm made being funny seem effortless

Norm was one of a kind. Like Peter Cook, he made being funny seem as natural as yawning. Perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps a lot more sweat and tears went into it than we ever knew. But when most of us tell jokes you can sense that we are trying to be funny. You can see our mental tendons straining underneath the skin. Norm made it seem effortless. He did it with a smile.

Norman Gene Macdonald was born in Canada in 1959. He got his break on SNL, where he hosted the quasi-news segment Weekend Update. There, he combined his wit with his delight in making the audience uncomfortable. He reported, for example, that after a series of failed career ventures OJ Simpson was going back to doing what he did best: “killing people”. While many shock comics wink and gurn in obvious enjoyment of their own scandalousness, Norm grinned an otherworldly grin as the audience choked.

Later, he wrote and starred in the cult classic Dirty Work, and did the comedy world a quiet favour by reviving the career of the comedian Artie Lange, both in the film and by introducing him to the infamous Howard Stern, who invited Lange to adopt the third microphone on his mega-popular radio show.

Norm also starred in his charming sitcom, Norm, as well as appearing in various stand-up specials. Like Cook, though, much of his best work was done not in scripted environments but in random interviews. With David Letterman or Conan O’Brien, he combined his easy charm with a faintly sadistic capacity to disconcert to hilarious effect. You must — and I am not saying “must” idly, I mean must — fire up YouTube, put “Norm Macdonald” into the search bar — and enjoy yourself.

Norm was never a political comedian. Lightly, though, he had a talent for puncturing absurd and obscurantist sentiments. His friend told him, he recalled, that the worst thing about Bill Cosby was “hypocrisy”. “I disagree,” Macdonald drawled, “I think it was the raping.” This anecdote caused the comedian Jerry Seinfeld to crack up so violently, on his show Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, that it is merciful that he had parked or he might have plowed into oncoming traffic. 

When comedians die, we lose the laughs we could have had

“What terrifies me is if ISIS were to detonate a nuclear device and kill 50 million Americans,” Norm posted on Twitter on another occasion, “Imagine the backlash against peaceful Muslims?” It is a shame we could not hear the sharp intake of breath then. 

He struggled with gambling addiction, and lost everything more than once, which he quietly explained as a product of deep boredom. Gambling is not about wasting money, he explained, it’s about wasting time. Perhaps this explains why he struggled to commit himself to projects — which, by their very nature, can be slow and dull. It would be ungrateful to carp about this, though. Making millions of people laugh for decades is enough for any man.

Norm was smarter than he let on. His “memoir”. which bore the subtitle “Not a Memoir”. was surprisingly literary, and heavily fictional. He was a private man. If it was public knowledge that he had cancer, which he reportedly struggled with for years, I never heard about it.

In August, Britain lost Sean Lock — perhaps our closest thing to Macdonald, with his mischievousness, and absurdism, and ability to pull humour out of nowhere. When comedians die, we lose the laughs we could have had. That is why it feels so peculiarly, painfully personal. Perhaps it is sentimental — in a way they would have mocked — to ask ourselves if we will ever see their like again. But will we?

Laughter will renew itself. It always does. Our predicament is too absurd for humour not to be divined. But to end on a note of gratitude — which makes cool objectivity impossible — thank you for all the laughter, Norm. Thank you for brightening bad days. In a post about his faith, he said that it had been “a rather tough journey.” I hope that he reached a true, happy destination.

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