Norm Macdonald, 1959-2021

The SNL comic has died of cancer at 61.

WaPo (“Norm Macdonald, acerbic comedian from ‘Saturday Night Live,’ dies at 61“):

Norm Macdonald, a comedian and 1990s cast member of “Saturday Night Live,” whose acerbic satires of news events as anchor of the “Weekend Update” segment led to acclaim and controversy over his continued jokes about O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, died Sept. 14 at 61.

The cause was cancer, said Whitney Brooks, executive assistant to Marc Gurwitz, Mr. Macdonald’s agent at Brillstein Entertainment Partners. Mr. Macdonald had apparently been treated for cancer for nine years without making his illness public. Further details were not available.

Mr. Macdonald worked in blue-collar jobs for years before becoming a standup comedian, winning acclaim in the mid-1980s at a comedy festival in Montreal. He wrote for “The Dennis Miller Show” and for Roseanne Barr’s sitcom “Roseanne” before joining the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 1993.

He was a standout writer and had a droll physical presence, often delivering over-the-top impressions of such figures as Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), broadcaster Larry King and especially actor Burt Reynolds.

Mr. Macdonald was instrumental in developing a sketch in 1996 that has since become a staple on “Saturday Night Live”: a spoof of the game show “Jeopardy!” with celebrity guests.

“When it came time to do the sketch, I went down and saw my wardrobe and there was a white beard and a bald white cap, and I said, ‘No, no, I want to do Burt Reynolds from 1972,” Mr. Macdonald told radio host Howard Stern in 2016.

Wearing a black wig, a mustache and a black leather jacket, Mr. Macdonald’s version of Reynolds smacked gum in his teeth as he wisecracked through the “Jeopardy!” skit, with Will Ferrell playing an increasingly exasperated Alex Trebek as host.

“Yeah, I’ll take the condom thing for 8,000,” Mr. Macdonald said as Reynolds.

“That’s ‘condiments,'” Ferrell replied. “For 400.”

In 1994, Mr. Macdonald took over the anchor chair of the show’s “Weekend Update” segment, whose previous hosts included Miller and Chevy Chase. Mr. Macdonald often introduced “Weekend Update” by saying, “Now for the fake news.”

“It was my idea to say ‘fake news’ — as if you need to say that,” he told Playboy magazine in 1997. “When you do a parody, you’re supposed to pretend it’s real, so I thought it would be funny to say it’s not real. Later I found out that when I did some harder jokes, the censors would say, ‘Oh well, if he says it’s fake news . . .’ It turned out to be a disclaimer.”

“With others, you can tell the comedy, the humor is considered,” talk show host David Letterman told The Washington Post in 2016. “With Norm, he exudes it. It’s sort of a furnace in him because he’s so effortless. The combination of the delivery and his appearance and his intelligence. There may be people as funny as Norm, but I don’t know anybody who is funnier.”

Mr. Macdonald had a deadpan, almost folksy way of speaking, delivering his satirical quips without so much as raising an eyebrow. If the audience didn’t get his jokes, he would often ad-lib a comment that evoked more laughter than the original punchline.

During his three years on “Weekend Update,” which he largely wrote himself, he changed the style of the segment from one heavily based on political commentary to a darker, more acerbic view of society. Rather than joke about President Bill Clinton, he would search for humor in the story of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer or in the collection of skulls found in a Haitian general’s house.

He was one of the first comedians on SNL to joke about Donald Trump, then a publicity-seeking real estate developer in New York. When Trump’s second marriage to Marla Maples was breaking up, Mr. Macdonald joked, “According to Trump, Maples violated part of their marriage agreement when she decided to turn 30.”

In another segment, Mr. Macdonald commented on the breakup of the marriage of actress Julia Roberts and singer Lyle Lovett: “Julia Roberts told reporters this week that her marriage to Lyle Lovett has been over for some time. The key moment, she said, came when she realized that she was Julia Roberts, and that she was married to Lyle Lovett.”

Mr. Macdonald was particularly merciless toward Simpson, who was tried in the 1994 killing of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. He often called Simpson a killer, even after Simpson was acquitted.

“Well, it is finally official: Murder is legal in the state of California,” Mr. Macdonald said when the trial ended in 1996.

Don Ohlmeyer, president of NBC’s West Coast division, was a friend of Simpson’s, and Mr. Macdonald’s comments did not sit well with him. Over the objections of “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels, Ohlmeyer ordered Mr. Macdonald to be replaced as “Weekend Update” anchor in late 1997.

Ohlmeyer cited declining ratings for the show rather than the jokes about Simpson, but Mr. Macdonald went on talk shows to complain about his treatment, calling the studio boss “a liar and a thug.” Mr. Macdonald left SNL early in 1998 and never reclaimed the stardom he had during those years.

NYT (“Norm Macdonald, ‘Saturday Night Live’ Comedian, Dies at 61“):

Norm Macdonald, the acerbic, sometimes controversial comedian familiar to millions as the “Weekend Update” anchor on “Saturday Night Live” from 1994 to 1998, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 61.

[…]

Mr. Macdonald had a deadpan style honed on the stand-up circuit, first in his native Canada and then in the United States. By 1990 he was doing his routine on “Late Night With David Letterman” and other shows. Then, in 1993, came his big break: an interview with Lorne Michaels, a fellow Canadian, for a job on “Saturday Night Live.”

“I knew that even though we hailed from the same nation, we were worlds apart,” Mr. Macdonald wrote in “Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir” (2016), a fictional work with occasional hints of biography mixed in. “He was a cosmopolite from Toronto, worldly, the kinda guy who’d be comfortable around the Queen of England herself. Me, I was a hick, born to the barren, rocky soil of the Ottawa Valley, where the richest man in town was the barber.”

[…]

“There’s something in his comedy — there’s just a toughness to it,” he said. “Also, he’s incredibly patient. He can wait” — that is, wait for a punchline.

That, Mr. Michaels said, made Mr. Macdonald different stylistically from other “Weekend Update” anchors.

“I think it took some getting used to for the audience,” Mr. Michaels said. “It wasn’t instantly a hit. But he just grew on them.”

[…]

Though known for “Weekend Update,” Mr. Macdonald did not do much topical material in his own routines. He liked jokes that would still be funny years in the future.

Among his most famous is one he told on “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” in 2009, about a moth that goes to a podiatrist. After a setup that rambled on for minutes, in which the moth pours out various emotional troubles, the podiatrist asks the insect why it came to a podiatrist rather than a psychiatrist. Mr. Macdonald’s punchline: “And then the moth said, ‘Because the light was on.'”

The Macdonald bit that I most remember is this one, from way back in 2006:

This was just a few days after Steve Irwin’s death and pushed the envelope. The premise of the joke is obvious; indeed, several OTB commenters made the same essential observation in instant reaction to the news. But Macdonald’s delivery is so good that even Jon Stewart couldn’t help but crack up.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Obituaries, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. EddieInCA says:

    You’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead. But… It’s shocking to me how many people I know [who HATED Norm McDonald] are saying nice things about him after his death. I just leave it at, “He was an asshole; the type of asshole that an asshole would call an asshole.”*

    *I can’t take credit for the phrase. It came from a well-known comedian in regards to Norm McDonald.

    ReplyReply
  2. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA: I think that other comics genuinely thought he was great at his craft. But his willingness to break so many taboos almost definitionally made him an asshole.

    ReplyReply
  3. inhumans99 says:

    He was great on The Middle. Diapers with sports teams logos on them may have been a thing when the show aired, but I remember that he comes up with the idea on the show to create a line of diapers that someone could purchase that has a hated sports team logo on it so when your kid takes a dump he/she is dumping all over a team you dislike, and the line of diapers on the show was called Lil Rivals. Just great stuff.

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