Norm Macdonald may have never won an Emmy Award or a Grammy Award, or even earned a nomination of one despite working at Saturday Night Live (which has racked up more Emmy noms and wins than any other show), and yet almost every comedian and comedy fan held him in the highest esteem for his work as a comedian.
Macdonald died today at 61.
The news came as utter shock to pretty much everyone, because he kept his cancer diagnosis a closely-guarded secret for at least nine years. I wouldn’t dare say Macdonald lost his battle with cancer, because of course Macdonald had a joke about that very thing. Because he had the perfect joke for pretty much everything. This compilation clip posted to YouTube in 2020 showed not only how much Macdonald liked playing with the premise of a fear of bowel cancer, but also how much he hated when anyone in the media or in life said someone had “lost their battle with cancer.”
From his 2011 Comedy Central special, Me Doing Standup: “What a loser that guy was! Last thing he did was lose!”
“I’m pretty sure, I’m not a doctor but I’m pretty sure if the cancer dies…I mean, if you die, the cancer also dies at exactly the same time,” he added. “So that, to me, is not a loss. That’s a draw.”
He opened that whole special by joking about trying to avoid dying.
How he even pulled that off is how Macdonald pulled off all of his great moments in comedy, by staring down a premise and cutting it down to its bone-dry essence to show you what made the whole thing hilarious in the first place.
David Letterman, one of Macdonald’s comedy heroes, gave Norm his first TV opportunity as a stand-up in 1990, and invited him back for Letterman’s big finale week of shows 25 years later. After learning of Macdonald’s death, Letterman wrote on Twitter: “In every important way, in the world of stand-up, Norm was the best. An opinion shared by me and all peers. Always up to something, never certain, until his matter-of-fact delivery leveled you. I was always delighted by his bizarre mind and earnest gaze. (I’m trying to avoid using the phrase, ‘twinkle in his eyes’). He was a lifetime Cy Young winner in comedy. Gone, but impossible to forget.”
So funny, so straight-forward, where the only misdirect came at the end when Macdonald choked up expressing his own admiration and gratitude for Letterman.
Born in 1959 in Quebec, Macdonald had graduated high school at 14, so already ahead of his time. And in the clip above, he revealed he already knew his future lay in stand-up comedy. Even in his first big breaks with Letterman and Star Search in 1990, you could, and still could now, sense how striking his literal interpretation set him apart from many observational comedians of that boom era.
He scored success first, though, as a writer for Roseanne and The Dennis Miller Show; the latter served him well, setting him up for his own turn on SNL anchoring the Weekend Update desk, which ended tumultuously after one too many O.J. Simpson jokes upset the network brass. Sure, Macdonald played other characters in sketches on the show during his five seasons. Even casual comedy fans well remember his “Turd Ferguson” turn as Burt Reynolds on “Celebrity Jeopardy.” Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole reminded us that Macdonald mocked him, too.
But acting wasn’t Macdonald’s calling card. And Hollywood wasn’t calling.
He co-wrote and starred in 1998’s Dirty Work alongside Artie Lange. Two years later, he starred in 2000’s Screwed, which also featured a young Dave Chappelle. After both of those films flailed at the box office, and after two attempts to topline a network sitcom (ABC’s The Norm Show and FOX’s A Minute with Stan Hooper) didn’t take, Macdonald would still get plenty of voiceover work over the years, but he turned his attention back to his first love: stand-up.
Take a look at his choice at the Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget in 2008, delivering deadpan bon mots as non sequiturs to the rest of the celebrities on the dais.
Among the multitude of clips his fans have shared in his wake, some of the most beloved have come from his appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and later Conan. Such as the time when Macdonald stuck around on the panel to riff like nobody else could when O’Brien welcomed actress Courtney Thorne-Smith on the program after him.
Or this shaggy dog story, aka “The Moth,” which he told to O’Brien in 2014.
There would be a few talk shows, too. Sports Show with Norm Macdonald on Comedy Central in 2011 gave him a chance to indulge in his love of sport, before taking even that to extremes years later on Twitter, where you’d sometimes find him providing running commentary on PGA Tour golf events. He’d mount an early video podcast, Norm Macdonald Live, from 2013-2016, reviving and revamping the effort a couple of years later for Netflix as Norm Macdonald Has A Show. In between all of that, he judged the ninth and final season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing.
When his first Netflix special came out in 2017, Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery, I spoke to him about our mutual stories regarding meeting Adam Eget (Macdonald’s talk-show sidekick), and he told me he ad-libbed a bit downplaying his comedy genius as nonsense and the titled “gossip and trickery” because today’s comedians had become both more opinionated and more assured of their opinions.
“Just because I was about to talk about something that was real, so I wanted to say ‘There’s only one I really know in life, you know, and I don’t want you to think I know anything else.’ I always try to tell the audience when I do stand-up that I don’t know anything. And I’m not an informed person. And even if I am informed about something, that 50-50 chance I’m wrong about it,” he told me.
He may have come across as opinionated and/or wrong in his Twitter feed, particularly when he’d reply to fans or detractors. As he told me in 2017, “I forget in Twitter, I think I’m just like talking to some people, and then somehow it shows up as a story, and then guys get mad at me and stuff. But when you’re doing it, you just think you’re just fooling around.”
Macdonald left no doubt of his greatness every time he got onstage, though.
Even in March 2020, as COVID-19 became a pandemic, he knew just how to tackle the topic head on, in front of a room of strangers at a comedy club.
I know I tried to write a proper eulogy of Macdonald, but even here, he has beaten me to the punch, the punchlines and all of the sentimental strings. His entry for “The Final Chapter” in his 2016 memoir, Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir, tells you everything you need to know about how Macdonald summed up his own life and career.
In the end, he simply and truly provided comedy greatness. And that has been reward enough for anyone lucky enough to see or hear him.
Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.
Watch Norm Macdonald’s comedy on Netflix