Photo By: Jonah Dayton via Netflix
Norm Macdonald was my favourite comedian.
He passed away on Tuesday after a near decade-long fight with cancer, a fight that, in true Norm fashion, he never made public.
It really puts the last decade of his career into perspective. Some of the best work of his career has come within the last 10 years, including his 2017 Netflix special, Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery, but especially his video-podcast series, Norm Macdonald Live (NML), which ran for three seasons over five years. The very first episode of NML, featuring another one of my favourite comics, the late Bob Einstein, is a chaotic masterpiece. Every episode is fantastic, but none ever came close to the magic captured by Norm, ‘Super Dave’, and trusty sidekick Adam Egret in that inaugural episode.
His 2011 standup special, Me Doing Standup, is the single greatest hour of comedy I have ever heard. It’s the greatest set of all time. I just listened to it again Tuesday evening, and aside from his obvious brilliance, the thing that most stood out to me was just how much of his material in that set revolved around death. It was a bit eerie, honestly, but like everything else that he has done in his career, it was ingenious. Here’s a line from the opening minutes of that set, when he talks about how he fears death: “My dad died, and my grandfather died, and my great-grandfather died, and the guy before him… I come from a long line of death, that’s my point.”
Norm is probably most well known for his stint as host of Weekend Update on SNL during the mid-90s (and equally well known for his subsequent firing; a firing that occurred because the head of NBC, Don Ohlmeyer, happened to be a close friend of O.J. Simpson, who was one of Norm’s favourite targets at the time). I mean, the level of depth that this joke has is insane — and that’s just one of literally thousands of examples from his Update tenure. But even better than his time spent telling jokes while he worked for SNL? The time he spent telling jokes about SNL when he hosted the show shortly after his firing. To this day it’s the best monologue I’ve ever heard.
He told more, ‘oh my god he actually said that?’ jokes than perhaps any other comedian I’ve come across — just watch his monologue from when he hosted the ESPYs in 1998 — but he did so with such craftsmanship and poise that he never came off as overtly offensive. I mean, you have to have some big stones to pull this off on Conan O’Brien during the peak of that Conan-Leno Tonight Show mess in 2010.
Norm had this paradoxical style that was so unique and unreplicable that no one could or will be able to come close to it again; he had such a mastery of the English language, such a vast vocabulary, a seemingly endless supply of synonyms, and yet he ‘uhh’ed and hahh’ed’ his way through jokes like he was trying his absolute hardest to remember the way it went. He was the unabashed master of the pause; where other comics might feel uncomfortable with silence, he welcomed it. In fact, he invited it.
It was part of his charm — it was his charm.
Whenever you hear any Norm joke, be it from Update, NML, or his countless iconic late night talk show appearances, every single word, syllable, stutter and sound has a distinct purpose. That’s what’s most remarkable about his style, the fact that on the surface it appears so haphazard and scattered, yet is so finely-tuned and delicately crafted that it takes multiple rewinds to really appreciate it. I read a great piece on John Mulaney a few years ago where he outlined this concept called joke math, wherein each joke is like a math equation where you add and subtract a word or two, rearrange the formula, make it balanced on both sides, it’s really quite an astute analogy. Well, Norm Macdonald was the Albert Einstein of joke math.
Take this line from his Dirty Johnny joke: “…And he fired the Kalashnikov with an arcing kind of — like a farmer would with hay, with a scythe — and sure enough the men fell like hay before him!” Every word, pause, action, it’s so incredibly sophisticated. He was a master storyteller. That Dirty Johnny joke isn’t really a joke, more so than a story, as are his Albert Fish bit, the moth joke, his Scrabble story, Kitchener Leslie, I could go on for hours.
If you haven’t read his book, Based on a True Story, which was released in 2016 — so right in the middle of his fight with cancer — I can’t recommend it enough. I devoured it a few years ago and will definitely be re-reading it again now that we know what Norm was going through at the time. The whole book is framed as NOT a memoir (it says so on the cover), and while he does spend parts of the book relaying very real things from his life, there are also parts that are clearly fictional, so it was always hard to tell when he was joking. Again, in true Norm style.
His set during David Letterman’s final show so perfectly encapsulates Norm both as a comedian and a person. When Norm appeared on Jerry Seinfeld’s show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry remarked that he had never heard more comedians rave about a single standup set more than Norm’s last Letterman. The emotion Norm shows as he nears the end of his final performance in front of his idol, paired with the usual brilliance he exudes on stage is unmatched.
Norm has a bit in Me Doing Standup about how nowadays, one can’t simply get sick with cancer and die, but now has to ‘wage a battle’ with the disease:
“That’s no way to end your life… ‘What a loser that guy was, last thing he did was lose!’… Now, I’m not a doctor, but I’m pretty sure if you die, the cancer dies at the same time.”
“That’s not a loss — that’s a draw!”
Thanks for all the laughs, Norm.