Let me start by first saying the obvious: Fuck Cancer. Let me continue by saying something else that is obvious: Norm Macdonald was one of the best, smartest, and most loved comedians that ever lived. The way he told jokes put him in a class all of his own. He never seemed to care about the trends of comedy. He never mattered much for kissing the ring of the latest sensation in stand up. For nearly five decades, he just went out and was quintessentially Norm Macdonald, a character nobody else could possibly play.
While he started his career in Canada and had numerous legendary sets on David Letterman, not to mention television shows, stand up specials, and movies, most know him for his work as the Weekend Update anchor on Saturday Night Live. When he had the crowd rolling with laughter, he was great. He was even better when nobody was laughing at the jokes. He knew the joke wasn’t working, so he would see it even harder. it was glorious.
It was that look. It was unmistakable. Like Norm was the only one in the room who got the joke, and that made him like it even more. Sometimes he was the only one in the room who did get the joke. That was even better. He never felt like he had to dumb down the joke for the sake of the audience. Now, he would definitely dumb down a joke, but he mostly did it at his own whimsy.
After he was fired from SNL (Fuck Don Ohlmeyer and his golf buddy OJ Simpson forever, BTW), Norm had a ton of opportunities to break through, and it never just quite seemed to click. The truth is, his comedy might not have been for everyone. And that was fine. Norm was the indie band that you loved that never made it onto pop radio. Norm was that hole in the wall bar you go to that never got discovered by the hipster crowd. Norm was just…really fucking great.
It’s hard to write something like this because it was so unexpected. Norm suffered quietly, never really leading on that he had cancer or was losing his battle with it. It doesn’t make sense and is hard to process. There is nothing I can say that a million people can’t say better, so i’m just going to go ahead and post some clips that make me smile and laugh on a day when I think we, as comedy fans, could really use it.
Dirty Work was one of the first movies I really felt like I needed to see. Even when I was young, I loved Norm on SNL. I stayed up late every Saturday, refusing to go to bed until after Weekend Update. After he was fired, and because I was young and there was no internet, I kind of lost track of what he was doing. Then I saw the trailer for this movie. I had to see it. I believe I made my grandma take me, and she spent the entirety of the movie absolutely horrified. I laughed even if I didn’t understand all of the jokes.
Fast forward a couple decades, and the movie really is a criminally underrated marvel. There is so much to enjoy about it that I never understood when i was younger. Part of it was learning to understand Norm’s wit and ability to hit jokes. Part of it was that the movie did so much just to pack so many jokes into such a short period of time.
Maybe it’s the baseball fan in me. But I laugh hysterically when I listen to Norm and Artie tell stories about baseball legend Bob Uecker. There is a genuine joy when Norm and Artie are in the room together. Like old friends who just fall into that comedic rhythm when they are around eachother. We could all be so lucky to have friends like that.
Plus, it’s absolutely hilarious because of the way Norm tells it in his normal, casual way. Just taking his time at joke rest stops while trying to get from point A to B. It never felt forced with Norm. He always knew where the punchline was. He always knew how to get there, and he was going to take you on a ride.
What a fucking debacle this was! Like I said earlier, it was almost better when things were falling apart for Norm because he knew, inherently, that he was only ever one joke away from getting it all back. Most stand up comedians believe they need to start hot otherwise the pressure starts to fall on them to have to bring the crowd back, making things worse. The pressure never really seemed to bother Norm.
And to make matters worse (better), he was doing the entire thing with Super Dave Osborne, one of the greatest comedic foils of all time. It’s like watching an hour long comedy car crash, but still being hilarious the entire time. It’s something so few people could possibly do. Speaking of comedic car crashes…
The video of this has been scrubbed from the internet, but oh my god. I don’t think anyone can quite grasp the absolute commitment to the bit and the type of confidence it takes to know you are going to walk up there and eat shit for five minutes, and do it on purpose! He absolutely walked out there and thought to himself “only five people are going to get this, but it I stick with it, then it will be 10, then it will be 20. Then it will be more.” Very few comedians would ever do that. Few people would ever even think it was a good idea. Norm was in such rare air, that not only did it work, it’s still celebrated to this day.
Athletes can’t take jokes. Norm went for it, anyway. What came of it was horrible, cringy, and wonderful.
Ken Griffey Jr. was not here for any of this.
I could have put any Norm spot from David Letterman in here. I chose the last one because, A, Norm is always delightful when he is making fun of Hitler and Germany. And B, you know he is genuine. Norm has such respect and reverence for Dave that he loses it in tribute. Behind comedy, there is always a person, and it’s a genuine and real person with idols, like anyone else. Norm is out there, kissing the ring of an icon, one last time.
I had to end it with this. He was the smartest person in the room. He was the most clever person in the room. And he had the quickest wit.
As I watched these clips, I couldn’t help but have a smile come across my face. He was always just, so so good. Norm Macdonald plied his trade in a business, not by going viral or trying to be a sensation, not taking shortcuts or stealing. Norm Macdonald was just one of the funniest people alive, and he found his way to a profession, and that profession allowed him to bring joy to generations of people around the world.
He was never the biggest comic in the world at any time during his career, but you can point to a lot of times when he was probably the best. Not that it mattered to Norm. He cared not for flimsy self proclamations that he could hang on his comedy mantle to lord over. He cared about making people laugh. He cared about the art. He cared about everything about comedy that people should hold near.
Norm was one of the greatest stand up comedians of all time. Who told me that? You guessed it…Frank Stallone.