September 15, 2021
Norm Macdonald died this week at age 61 following a long battle with cancer . The world feels less witty, less mischievous, and less playful for it.
The beloved comedian and Saturday Night Live cast member was born in Quebec City in 1959 to a family of teachers. Kicking off his career in Canada, Macdonald began performing stand-up in local Ottawa and Toronto clubs. It wasn’t until his signature deadpan delivery was picked up by the Montreal Gazette, which lauded him as “one of this country’s hottest comics,” that Macdonald took his talents to America. There he began writing for the hit sitcom Roseanne before going on to join SNL.
Back when NBC’s SNL was watchable, Macdonald quickly went from a mere writer in the background to anchoring the “Weekend Update.”
Macdonald’s highlight from his tenure at the sketch comedy show was his appearance on the “Celebrity Jeopardy” skit as Turd Ferguson.
The thing with Macdonald’s best jokes was you could never just retell them to your friends. The humor wasn’t neatly slotted amid the syllables. Macdonald’s inimitable delivery and style were as much a part of the jokes as the words he strung together.
In one joke he performed on the last episode of the Late Show with David Letterman, he took a topic as basic as World War history: “There is one country that worries me though,” he said, brilliantly setting up the punchline. “No, not Iraq, not Iran, not North Korea. No, the one country that really worries me is Germany. I don’t know if any of you are history buffs or not, but um …”
But Macdonald’s most famous and memorable jokes didn’t even have punchlines. He was a master storyteller, and he played the comedy game by his own rules. Macdonald was known for his long, meandering stories on late-night shows such as Late Night with Conan O’Brien and the Late Show with David Letterman, where he coined such jokes as “The Scrabble Story” — jokes that cannot be imitated or even described, only experienced from Macdonald himself.
Like any good comic, Norm Macdonald was always dedicated to his craft. But more than that, he was unwaveringly dedicated to his way of doing things. Macdonald was a comedian no other comedian could rip off because nobody could deliver his jokes with his endearing conviction. If “The Scrabble Story” didn’t convince you, take the classic “Moth Story.”
His blithe but deadpan delivery somehow managed to come across as both randomly improvised and, upon closer analysis, crafted with surgical precision. As Macdonald’s storied jokes endlessly wandered, he made the most inconsequential details seem essential.
While Macdonald could wrest a chuckle from the most trivial topics, he never shied from the most serious. In 1998, while hosting the ESPY awards, Macdonald skewered OJ Simpson with a blunt joke about his domestic homicide acquittal. Despite incessant pleas from his network to leave the disgraced football player out of his jokes, Macdonald couldn’t care less: “Well, it is finally official: Murder is legal in the state of California,” he announced on the “Weekend Update,” eventually costing him his job at SNL.
In an era when everything from sports to food is politicized and divided on partisan lines, it’s hard to imagine a figure with universal adoration. Especially one who has never shied away from risqué humor or going against the political grain. In 2000, Macdonald appeared on The View and said he hoped the Democrats wouldn’t steal the election from Bush, then accused the Clintons of murder about two decades before the ubiquitous “Epstein didn’t kill himself” joke.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who professed to dislike Norm Macdonald. He was so unanimously loved by his peers in comedy that Macdonald was invited on the final broadcasts of both Letterman and O’Brien.
For skeptics, it was usually the case that they just didn’t get his humor, which was fine with Macdonald. He said it best in a 2009 interview :“When I first started, absolutely. When I first began in comedy, I would get people to clap, rather than actually laugh. You just say something that has no comedy in it at all but people agree with it … But there’s a difference between a clap and a laugh … A laugh is involuntary, but the crowd is in complete control when they’re clapping …. But when they’re laughing, they’re genuinely surprised. And when they’re not laughing, they’re really surprised. And sometimes I think, in my little head, that that’s the best comedy of all.”
Macdonald never fronted any giant sitcoms or starred in any blockbuster films. In fact, he once joked, “It’s a very odd thing with Hollywood, where you do stand-up, you’re good at it, then they go, ‘How would you like to be a horrible actor?’ Then you say, all right, that sounds good. I’ll do that.” Macdonald was a classical comedian with his own unique style. His TV heyday was in the ’90s, but even today, decades later, recordings of his various skits and eclectic jokes continue to resurface on the internet — and they’ll continue to do so for generations.
Originally Published on The Washington Examiner