Pop Culture

Norm Macdonald Was Always in on the Joke

When someone describes a comedian by saying, “They’re not for everyone,” they might mean a handful of things. That a given comedian might work so blue that Jesus would have a hard time forgiving them, say, or that their work is just too out there. Norm Macdonald, who passed away yesterday at the age of 61, was decidedly not for everyone. Not in the usual ways—he occupied a strange spot where he wasn’t that dirty, and he wasn’t exactly gonzo. But he really wasn’t for everyone. His genius was that he seemed to be for himself first, but not in a selfish way; more in a sense that he was occasionally sharing a private joke with the audience. You had to be in on the gag to find it funny. And if you weren’t, well, you were out in the cold. The quality made Macdonald one of the truly great smartasses of our time.

The thing about the smartass is that, while he works in shades of irony and deflection, really committing to smartassery requires a truly brave, possibly nuts sensibility. Thinking something is funny, no matter what other people think, is one thing. Turning that sensibility into a career requires a different sort of commitment: to making a joke that might totally bomb, and then to grinning through it, sitting there as the audience stews in how much they didn’t like the joke, and then repeating the punchline again, defiant. That was what Norm Macdonald did. Nobody committed—while often appearing to not commit at all—quite like him. David Letterman once said that Macdonald “could be the funniest man in the world”—and the double meaning there, that he might be but also that he might choose not to be—was central to his appeal.

There are numerous examples. Macdonald’s most famous impression is probably his Burt Reynolds, tag-teaming with Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery to make Alex Trebek’s (Will Ferrell) life a nightmare on SNL’s “Celebrity Jeopardy!” Sketch. For my money, though, the impression to beat is Macdonald’s Letterman, repeating “Got any gum” over and over. He was doing an imitation of Letterman, a guy who made an art form out of take it or leave it comedy, and putting his own spin on it. His spin, of course, wasn’t too far from the source material besides the fact that Macdonald didn’t look like Letterman or sound like him. It wasn’t a spot-on impersonation—that wasn’t what he excelled at—so much as one comic communing with another who shared his sensibility. He’d often work like this, keep the joke going just because he wanted to. And often times, the repetition became the funniest part about it. (His comedic posture occasionally aged in strange ways: one signature bit wouldn’t hold up today, but might still be the best example of his yearslong commitment to it.)

The Canadian-born Macdonald rode the 1980s stand-up obsession to a job on Roseanne, where he wrote a couple of episodes before quitting to join the cast of SNL for the show’s 19th season. He started out as more of a benchwarmer behind the likes of Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers and the rest of the lauded early-1990s group of players. By the next season, though, he took over for Kevin Nealon as the “Weekend Update” anchor. Everyone’s got an opinion about SNL, but the closest to unanimous you’ll ever find is that Macdonald was the best ever in his role. After leaving the show, Macdonald stayed busy. In 1998, he co-wrote and starred in Dirty Work, which was panned by critics, but obviously quickly became a cult classic. He kept working steadily up until last year, doing standup, guest appearances, and a Netflix show. In what seems like the weirdest thing, but also a very Norm Macdonald thing, he also started a dating app.


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