Norm Macdonald Loved Jokes

Possibly at the expense of his own career.

MANHATTAN, NY - NOVEMBER 13: Comedian Norm MacDonald poses for a portrait while preparing to perform...
The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Dan Brooks

It’s silly to cry when someone famous dies, but in my defense, Norm Macdonald was not that famous. Not as famous as he should have been, anyway. If it were up to me, his face would be on the goddamn quarter, the first Canadian to appear on U.S. currency, staring straight into the lithographer or whatever they use, deadpan, letting the joke do the work. That is what Norm was about, as near as I could tell. But there was what you could tell and what was really going on, and never the twain shall meet.

For example, I spent a weekend with him in 2018 as part of a profile I wrote for the New York Times, and I could not tell he had cancer. Apparently he’d had it for several years at that point, keeping it a secret until his friend and long-time creative partner Lori Jo Hoekstra announced, yesterday, that he had died. He was 61 years old. He is survived by his former wife Connie and his son Dylan; his movie Dirty Work and a variety of small roles in Adam Sandler films; his television series The Norm Show (1999-2001), A Minute With Stan Hooper (2003), Sports Show With Norm Macdonald (2011), and Norm Macdonald Has a Show (2018); and approximately 100,000 amazing clips on YouTube. For example, here he is on Late Night With Conan O’Brien in 1997, thwarting Courtney Thorne-Smith’s attempt to promote a movie she made with Carrot Top.

I was a freshman in college when I saw that interview, and my friends and I quickly decided it was the most important cultural artifact of our lives. At that point, Norm was still the anchor of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live — arguably the highest level of fame he would ever achieve. Approximately eight months later, in January 1998, he was fired. The consensus was that it happened because he would not stop making jokes about O.J. Simpson being a murderer — a narrative supported by the fact that NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer, a personal friend of Simpson, did the firing rather than SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels. A classic case of network injustice! Two decades later, though, at a kebab restaurant in Los Angeles, Norm told me he believed he was fired for bombing too much.

“Ohlmeyer would watch Leno kill every night for fifteen minutes,” he said. “Every joke, huge laughs, and then I’d do ten minutes a week and sometimes not get laughs.”

According to my notes, he said that while eating cut fruit with a straw. Two weeks later David Letterman would describe Norm to me as “genuinely peculiar.” He was right, but in LA I was struck by how normal the man was. The kebab place was actively normal, with TVs and laminated menus in green pleather frames. When I tried to plan our dinner interview the next night, he rejected a seafood place in Malibu and a Mexican place in Santa Monica, and we wound up eating at a restaurant in a hotel attached to LAX. The host greeted him by name. Norm had a condo nearby in a planned community, where he had set up his mother in an identical unit, and he didn’t drive. He watched a lot of sports on TV. It was as though he had whittled down his life to jokes and, grudgingly, the business of making them. His apparent contempt for that business was part of what made him so great.

Here he is at the ESPY Awards in 1998, one month after he got fired from SNL:

That is a very funny joke that was, once again, about how OJ Simpson was allegedly a murderer. It has delighted me for more than 20 years now, as I imagine it has delighted millions. Probably not among those delighted, though, were the producers of the ESPY Awards, who might have hoped that the only Heisman Trophy winner ever to be charged with and subsequently acquitted of murder might not come up during their sports entertainment broadcast. Maybe, after watching it, you would still book Norm on your late-night talk show, in the hopes that he would do something similarly exciting. But if you were an agent or a PR representative or a marketing executive at a Hollywood studio, you might reasonably do everything in your power to ensure that this say-anything comedian got nowhere near your entertainment property or the celebrities promoting it, lest he say how dumb and boring the product on offer really was.

And here, perhaps, is why Norm Macdonald died less famous than he should have been. He cared about jokes too much, when the business of comedy is not actually about jokes so much as audience shares and sponsors and streams and tickets. The comedy-consuming public claims to care nothing for these matters, of course; we only want funnier and funnier jokes. That is the theory, anyway, but in practice, the public is depressingly susceptible to hype. Fake funny sells. It often sells better than real funny, and it is significantly easier to produce. Norm despised fake funny, both in the industry and in daily life. It troubled him, the way you imagine that song coming out of the ice cream truck would trouble Mozart.

“You watch TV and every joke kills. It’s like you’re insane or something,” he told me. He had a mental list of responses to jokes that weren’t laughs, a kind of litany of human dishonesty. He disliked it when people said a joke “works on so many levels.” He felt the same way about “I see what you did there,” and those exclamations that fill the place where a joke should be: words like “touché!” and “awkward!” He hated the rimshot noise. He hated it when people said “that’s funny” instead of laughing. “There should be a different word for a joke that people laugh at,” he told me. “There should be a higher one.”

The further he got from the late-90s peak of his career, the closer he got to that higher thing. After he stopped doing movies and, for the most part, television, he returned to the life of the nightclub comic. Plenty of SNL alumni from his era did the same thing, but unlike David Spade or Jim Breuer, Norm got funnier. He moved away from the blunt aggression and topicality of his tenure on Weekend Update and toward jokes that seemed to exist out of time. Here he is calling into Dennis Miller’s radio show:

That joke is from a different world: a world without catchphrases, without strident declarations that the president is very bad or good, without model-comedians and activist-comedians and fitness influencer-comedians and all the other modern strategies that move us toward a comedy without jokes. Norm lived in that other world, seemingly by sheer force of will. He remained in it when he might have advanced his career by doing virtually anything else. Here he is on Conan almost 20 years after Courtney Thorne-Smith, doing three minutes of borscht-belt throwback material when he ought to be promoting his book.

That book, titled Based on a True Story, was billed as a memoir. It is something closer to autofiction, in the sense that it is a first-person account of a man named Norm Macdonald who is many things the real Norm was not: a hack, a morphine addict, a Hollywood climber of the type the author despised. At one point, by way of industry gossip, Norm reveals Rodney Dangerfield’s most shameful secret: he never felt that others respected him. It’s a funny book, but it is also a refusal. Norm did not do political material, and he did not talk about his life. The “I” who appeared in his act — the one who said of Adolf Hitler that “the more I learn about that guy, the more I don’t care for him” — was a stupider, vaguely maniacal version of himself he played for laughs. Now that version of Norm is all we have.

I think what it was about Norm was that he cared about jokes more than everything else. He cared about them so much it seemed to get in the way of his career as a comedian, and in that way he represented something. He made you feel like you could beat the whole thing with art, or at least escape from it, when of course that whole thing is all there is, and jokes are just a subset. When you are young you picture an authentic way of living, free from the petty concerns — rules, money, public opinion — that encourage us all toward cowardice. Then you get older and realize that the freedom you have been imagining is death. Norm Macdonald is free now. He gave us the idea that he always was, but that was a lie, a joke — whatever that word is for something better than the truth, something higher, haha.

Dan Brooks writes essays and fiction from Missoula, Montana.