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Norm MacDonald: As Fearless As He Was Funny

What’s funnier? The long, winding joke where the punchline is but the last of many laughs throughout the journey? Or the short staccato one-liner? If, like me, you love both, then there was one comedian whose decades of work — from his standup and his own quirky TV shows, to his stint on Saturday Night Live (more on that in a moment) and frequent late night talk show guest spots — stood above the rest. Norm MacDonald was, quite simply, one of the best comics of the age. And now, to the shock of so many, he passed away last week at age 61.   

Although a fixture in the standup circuit (which was always his preferred venue) MacDonald was elevated to prominence as the deadpan and fearless host of SNL’s Weekend Update. He is, perhaps, as famous for being fired from that post as he was for the stellar work he did in the three years he sat behind the fake news desk. And the reason for his termination, if never officially stated, gives us an insight into his belief in the integrity of comedy and how staying true to himself and his craft mattered most to him. As the story goes, NBC executive  Don Ohlmeyer was friends with O.J. Simpson and had grown irritated by MacDonald’s relentless Weekend Update jokes aimed at the accused murderer during and after the trial. But the more management pressed the comic to back off, the more his audiences were treated with savage jokes at the Juice’s expense. “In his book, O.J. said that he would have taken a bullet or stood in front of a train for Nicole. Man I’m gonna tell you, that is some bad luck when the one guy that would’ve died for you kills you.”  

Later on, MacDonald would reconsider and offer that perhaps the main reason was that he just wasn’t the type to toe the management line. There was even concern that his shots at Michael Jackson’s alleged pedophilia may have ended up inviting a lawsuit.  Whatever the reason, the fact is MacDonald, to be cliché for a moment, did it his way. He reached out to Roseanne Barr and Louis C.K. when they ran afoul of the mob and #metoo movement, and did an uncomfortable and clearly forced appearance on The View to clarify what was simply his offering emotional support to fellow comics… not to compare them to victims of abuse. As Conan O’Brien pointed out: “There’s a lot of people, in comedy, getting applause for being brave in one way or another. But oftentimes what they’re doing they know is going to play well.  But what [Norm] was doing, he really was brave. He paid the price for it. And he took a lot of heat.”  

Norm was also a mind. His quick wit and ability to think on his feet (such as during his now-famous Conan O’Brien appearance wherein he took an old joke about an emotionally troubled moth and strung it out for three minutes of Kafkaesque brilliance to kill time) revealed him to be a well-read and acute observer of the world. His references to Russian literature, in which he was clearly well-versed, often belied his folksy rural Canadian stage persona. Washington Post national arts reporter Geoff Edgars describes him as a “Tolstoy in sweatpants” with a gift for math and a streak of the obsessive compulsive that could have explained his issues with gambling. One imagines a complex man.  

Although MacDonald almost never spoke of politics, one could tell he leaned right, which would make him a rarity in his cadre. He also was a man of faith. As with politics, he rarely spoke publicly about his religion, but he would sometimes in casual conversations or over the Twittersphere let slip a reference to the Scriptures, or to Christ, or God that gave us that briefest glimpse behind the curtain to spy the theologian within.  

For MacDonald, his true genius was in his delivery. His was a breezy demeanor with a mischievous grin that hid a toughness underneath, and the confidence it gave him to take chances. Even if he risked bombing. “Comedy is surprises,” he once said. “So if you’re intending to make somebody laugh, and they don’t laugh, that’s funny.”  

When he was asked to participate in a celebrity roast of his good friend Bob Sagat, he was at first hesitant. The idea of hurling vulgar slurs at someone he loved repelled him…cable TV roasts today are much more R-rated than they were when Dean Martin hosted them in prime time. The producers told him to “be shocking.” So that is just what he did.  For almost ten minutes MacDonald got up in front of a live audience and proceeded to read off the most benign, corny, G-rated jokes that one would find in an old 1950s joke book read at a Lyon’s club retirement dinner. “Bob has a face like a flower.  Yeah, a cauliflower.” “Gilbert Gottfried.  Your neck reminds me of a typewriter…Underwood.” And so it went. One intentionally bad joke after another until the true genius of the bit, flying so in the face of all the other raunchy material, became apparent.  

MacDonald was a master of the irreverent—“The Al-Qaeda online magazine has a recipe for a homemade bomb.  It also has a recipe for a pretty darned good peach cobbler” — or the absurd — “A new study found that men with beards are more attractive than men without beards.  More great work from the University of Bob Segar.” And he could switch gears to string along a joke for ten minutes or more…such as during his wonderful HBO special Me Doing Standup where a story that starts off with a quip about the evening news twists and turns through a labyrinth that includes cheese sandwiches, vans, and a YWCA basketball team until it finally wraps up with how he would commit a serial killing. (Trust me, it’s both benign and hilarious). 

Norm seemed to relish the politically incorrect. His humor sometimes strayed into the realm of the uncomfortable … and, as it would turn out, sadly ironic. His stories of his imaginary Uncle Bert who was forever dying of bowel cancer was a recurring bit. Through this vehicle, MacDonald would question why do we say someone “lost his battle” with cancer? He recalled his Uncle Bert’s “battle” with cancer. It consisted of “him lying in a hospital bed with a thing in his arm watching Matlock on TV.” And, Norm would further offer, “when you die, the cancer dies at the exact same time. So that, to me, is not a loss, that’s a draw.”  

The irony, as we now know, is that many times while he was making these jokes, MacDonald was quietly, unbeknownst to even those closest to him, suffering from very real cancer himself. For nine years. One wonders why he would have kept so devastating an illness so private for so long. But it makes sense when taken in the whole of his professional devotion to comedy. Sure, he might have easily defused the discomfort of the subject matter by declaring it okay, even therapeutic, for him to joke in public about a disease he had. But that would make the joke about him and not the humor. So he kept it private. In this age of solipsism, it was a refreshingly Norm MacDonald thing to do.

But now he is gone. He leaves behind a mother and son (his father passed years before, and his only marriage ended in divorce) as well as legions of fans who will miss his unique take on life, which he found, as he once said in a tweet, “miraculous”. But MacDonald’s work will certainly live on in YouTube, cable, and other outlets. In that spirit of remembrance, I will leave you with this gem: “Do you know what’s the funniest part of doing an office conga line? When you look back and realize you’re doing it alone and you’re not in an office, you’re in a psychiatric ward.”

Leave ‘em laughing. Now, do yourself a favor and go online, and experience all this brilliant comic had to offer. I assure you your day will be brighter.  

Brad Schaeffer is a commodities trader, author, and musician. His newest novel, The Extraordinary, about a teenager with autism telling the story of his war veteran father’s struggle with PTSD, was released on August 31.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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