Comedian Norm Macdonald dies at 61


Photo via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license

Norm Macdonald lost his battle to cancer, but he would call it a “draw.”

Comedian Norm Macdonald died at his home on Tuesday, September 14th.

I remember the time I found out about Norm Macdonald. I was 11-years-old and visiting my uncle in New York City. My dad, two uncles, and myself were glued to the television as David Letterman said, “Ladies and Gentleman, Norm Macdonald” for the second to last time.

He sat down, told a couple of short jokes, compared Letterman to Nixon (to Letterman’s delight), and then asked if he could take a souvenir to commemorate the show. Letterman happily obliged and Macdonald went straight for a CBS camera. He then tried to take the camera backstage with him before he banged it against a wall, giving Letterman a look a 4-year-old gives his dad when he broke something. Letterman, laughing, told Macdonald it was okay and they went to commercial break. From that point on, I loved Macdonald and Letterman. I may have only been familiar with Macdonald’s work for 6 years of my life, but he’s filled them with joy. 

Macdonald was the anchor of weekend update on Saturday Night Live for three seasons, a comedian and a great late-night guest. His acting credits include his show Norm and Dirty Work, among others. 

Norm Macdonald was the definition of a comic’s comic. He would go on talk shows and tell long, elaborate jokes that would take 4-12 minutes to tell. He would pop up on popular shows like Family Guy, The Middle, or My Name Is Earl. Many people might know Macdonald for his popular presence on late-night talk shows. 

Macdonald was a regular on shows like The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, Conan, and Dennis Miller Live. Macdonald was part of a rare group of comedians who was accepted by the great David Letterman, and Conan O’Brien said that Norm Macdonald was his favorite guest. 

There is no other comedian in the world who could tell a 4 minute long moth joke and somehow pull it off. He once told “the most convoluted joke ever” and by the end of the joke Conan declared that he “loved you [Norm,] I really do.” He could tell a corny joke, like his “solid gold ship” joke, and still get a huge laugh. Macdonald was funny like that. He didn’t care if he got a laugh, and he got that laugh because of his lack of caring. He could tell an 8-minute long joke and have the same expression on his face if the joke killed as opposed to its bombing. 

Macdonald could go on any show and kill because he had different modes. If he was going on Conan, he would clean up his act just enough, if he was going on Letterman, he would return to his deadpan style and if he was going on Dennis Miller he would get dirty. 

I can’t think of a comedian that could save a boring interview like Macdonald could. There’s even a compilation video on YouTube that’s 11 minutes long titled, “Norm Macdonald Saving Interviews Compilation.” The best example of Macdonald saving what would’ve been a bland interview was when he crashed Conan’s interview of Courtney Thorne-Smith

Macdonald wasn’t just a great late-night guest, he was also a great stand-up comedian. Paste magazine ranked him as the 31st greatest stand-up comedian of all time. Infamous for his deadpan style, Macdonald released three stand-up albums/specials in his career. Nobody could do it like Norm is an understatement, Norm could do everything. He could be a role player in a movie (Billy Madison), star in a TV show (Norm), kill at a comedy club, and even write a best-selling book. 

Every 6 months or so I decide to go down the Norm Macdonald rabbit hole on YouTube and watch clips of him on LettermanConan, and Dennis Miller Live. I recommend searching for his interview with Dennis Miller and David Spade.

Macdonald was never given a fair shot because of his style of comedy. He didn’t care where the line in the sand was drawn, mainly because he crossed it so many times he could no longer see said line. Norm didn’t care, and because of this attitude, he got himself fired from SNL.

The theory is Macdonald was fired from “Weekend Update” because Don Ohlmeyer, president of NBC Network’s west coast division, was good friends with OJ Simpson and fired Macdonald because he didn’t like how often Norm went after Simpson. Macdonald later disputed this theory saying that he was fired for not being funny, but we know that’s not true. 

Macdonald was never completely comfortable with being on screen with a script; he was most comfortable in “the wild” where anything could happen. Macdonald liked being on stage in front of an audience, and he would always get an audience. After his tragic death, many comedians, including David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, expressed their sadness over his passing.

Macdonald died after a 9 year battle with cancer. In his 2011 stand-up special, he told a joke saying, “I’m pretty sure, 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.” Classic Norm.