Yesterday brought the heavy news that comedian Norm Macdonald died at the age of 61. The cause of death was cancer, which he had endured for the better part of a decade in utter silence. The Canadian stand-up artist had carved himself a special place in the hearts of so many fans over the past 30+ years, all of whom were left shocked by the sudden loss.
No matter how a comedian dies, it feels like a rip off.
People die. Comedians feel like they’re taken.
They professionally make people laugh. As their job. Sometimes it comes from internal pain. Sometimes it comes from low self-esteem. Sometimes it’s fueled by all the wrong things and topped off with the unhealthiest drugs, habits, and personality traits that this fleeting life has to offer.
But nevertheless, from wherever the root of the comedy doth spring: their raison d’être is to crack people up. To pull others out of the relative drudgery of being and give them joy. If only for a moment.
That’s a noble job.
Norm Macdonald was one of these people. He was filthy-mouthed and vulgar. He was unapologetic. But goddamn when he would get on a roll, he could take the whole world with him. The combination of his one-of-a-kind delivery, his knack for timing, and his willingness to go deep for a joke? It all added up to a tremendous comedy powerhouse.
He reached his largest audience as a member of the cast of Saturday Night Live from 1994-1997, where he killed on a weekly basis with his delivery as anchor of the “Weekend Update” segment. No one has done it better. In fact, he ruined Weekend Update for years because it was so glaringly obvious how poor the segment was in comparison to how Macdonald did it.
He famously lost his gig at SNL because of his relentless attacks on O.J. Simpson. Less than two years later, though, he was back – as the host. His monologue from that night was vintage Norm, blatantly skewering the hand that once fed him.
Norm Macdonald was warned to lay off O.J. on SNL Weekend Update cuz he was golf buddies with the president of NBC. Norm kept slamming Simpson anyway. Every. Damn. Week. And got fired for it. A year later, he was invited back to host and did the most brilliant monologue ever. #RIP pic.twitter.com/3M6wI4uI0D
— Billy Corben (@BillyCorben) September 14, 2021
Macdonald’s brand of humor has variously been described as wry, deadpan, salty, and profane. Fellow stand-ups just describe his style as hilarious, even brilliant. Indeed, many of his peers, including David Letterman, consider Macdonald to be the GOAT. The clips of his performances as a guest on Letterman’s show or on Late Night With Conan O’Brien have been strewn all over social media for the past 24 hours. It’s just great comedy, the stuff of legend.
As it happens, I have a bit of a local angle to Macdonald’s fame. The year was 1997 and the place was the University of Iowa. The details are remembered in a wonderful article penned by award-winning sports reporter Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids Gazette in 2017 on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the event.
The University had hired SNL cast members Jim Breuer, Darrell Hammond and Macdonald to do stand-up before the annual golf tournament/fundraiser for the University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame. It was open to the tournament’s guests and the general public, and a capacity crowd of 2,000 came to take in the show.
Hlas interviewed Teresa Stueck, an attendee from Cedar Rapids, who explained, “We are fans of Norm’s SNL comedy and offbeat humor. What I recall from the show was an apparent intent to piss as many people off as he could after people began to leave.”
Eric Richmond from Iowa City recalled, “We were 19 years old and a bunch of friends and I bought tickets as soon as we could since we were SNL nerds and especially Norm fans. Hammond let a few words fly that aren’t safe for broadcast TV. Then Breuer upped it slightly by dropping maybe a couple of f-bombs and did some mild drug humor. I remember thinking that even he was pushing it a bit because some people brought their kids.”
“When Norm took the stage he immediately launched into a bit that was intentionally supposed to be offensive to most of the audience. As it went on, people got up and left in large numbers. Each time a new group would leave, he would make a remark like, ‘Did you think I was going to do airline jokes?’ or ‘Did you think I was going to hold up a picture of the Ayatollah and make a joke?’ Then he would double down on the dirty material to see how many more people he could drive out. It was clearly a game to see if he could empty out the place and after some time probably over two-thirds of the crowd had left.
As Hlas quoted, Macdonald himself discussed the goings on in an interview with Howard Stern not long after the 1997 Iowa gig:
“I think there were like 2,000 people and 1,800 of them left. The other 200 liked me. They were really happy at the end.”
“I didn’t even know anything was wrong. And then the next day these guys … from some radio station or something, like I was sleeping, and they start asking these questions, you know. I didn’t know what to do, so I just tried to be funny. They go, ‘Do you think your act is obscene?’ So I said, ‘No, I think what’s obscene is there’s like kids dying in Vietnam, you know?’”
“He goes, ‘There’s no war in Vietnam!’ He like got all mad at me.”
“They had a golf tournament the next day and I didn’t want to do it. And then they said, ‘Please do our golf tournament,’ so I said, ‘All right, I’ll do it.’ So then I had to stay like an extra day. “I go to the golf tournament … and this old guy goes ‘What are you doing here?’ I go ‘Remember, you invited me to the golf tournament.’ Then the guy goes ‘You can’t be in our golf tournament!’ So then I was [like] ‘Oh my God, I can’t even be in the golf tournament.’ I didn’t even want to be in the stupid golf tournament. “So then I said, ‘Oh well, I might as well just play golf.’ So I went to the starter’s thing and the guy said, ‘OK, I’ll shotgun you out to the 10th hole.’ The old guy heard it and he goes ‘I will not have him on the golf course!’”
Here’s a video clip from Breuer from a 2010 video of him doing stand-up in Des Moines, describing that night in Iowa City and then the University’s reaction the next morning:
Norm Macdonald. No matter what you personally thought of him, be it scoundrel or hero, he will endure as a legend of comedy. It’s too rare that we see someone who has the type of unique perspective Macdonald brought to every bit. Norm Macdonald was always Norm Macdonald and nothing else, true to the end, and he will be missed.