Norm Macdonald: Dostoyevsky in Front of a Red Brick Wall

 

The smartest comedians portray themselves as the dumbest; Norm Macdonald was the best at this sleight of hand. He graduated high school at 14, read Russian literature in his downtime, and had long philosophical discussions with clergy. Norm also gambled, repeatedly trading all his earthly wealth for a queen of diamonds or a Habs’ hat trick. The sleight of hand was best left on stage but he learned from the experience. Macdonald was a student of human nature first, comedy second.

Norm died Tuesday at 61 following a secret decade-long battle with cancer. A terrible description, since he thought it cruel to say someone “lost their battle” with the dread disease. “If you die, the cancer dies at the same time,” he said in one of his stand-up specials. “That’s not a loss, it’s a draw.”

Macdonald’s finest moments were unexpected. His famed “roast” of friend Bob Saget that was nothing but corny one-liners from a 1930s jokebook. Talk show appearances with Conan O’Brien and David Letterman with made-up anecdotes and rambling seven-minute jokes.

My favorite unexpected moment was his 2016 book, Based on a True Story, which was presented as a memoir but revealed itself a masterful novel. One chapter channeled Hunter S. Thompson, the next Hemingway, then Tolstoy, all with the rocking-chair parlance of Mark Twain.

For such a funny book, Based on a True Story is obsessed with mortality. “Death is a funny thing,” Macdonald writes. “Not funny haha, like a Woody Allen movie, but funny strange, like a Woody Allen marriage.” I wonder how much his cancer diagnosis ten years ago inspired the theme. I just listened to the audiobook for the fourth time last week; I read the print version the week it came out.

Norm’s comedy stripped away all artifice, nuance, and insinuation. He hated making an audience clap since that action is voluntary. He wanted to make them laugh, involuntarily and sometimes against their will. And if he got neither, he would stare ’em down with the utmost confidence that the joke was great even if they didn’t get it.

Macdonald once said the perfect joke would be one where the setup and punchline were identical. The closest he got was as host of SNL’s Weekend Update: “Lyle Lovett and Julia Roberts are getting a divorce. Julia Roberts said that the turning point in their marriage was when she realized that she was Julia Roberts and that she was married to Lyle Lovett.”

He discussed his process with WTF podcast host Marc Maron, between digressions about Dostoyevsky, philosophy, and the human condition. This was a rare moment of Norm revealing his depth. He preferred keeping his brilliance and his illness locked away, fearing it might detract from his comedy.

Celebrity deaths have never impacted me much; thousands die every day and the grave awaits us all. The first one that stung was David Bowie since he was my soundtrack as long as I could remember. The second was Norm, no less an artist.

After spending countless hours rabbit-holing Norm clips on YouTube, watching him live, and touting him as my favorite comedian, Norm followed me on Twitter for some damn reason. I’ll let him have the last word, but first, let me say that Norm Macdonald was the greatest comedian of my era. Does that about sum it up, Norm?

 

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  1. Quinnie Member
    Quinnie
    @Quinnie

    Thanks so much for this post.   I had not read that he had died.   He was brilliant, and funny.  What a great combination.    

    • #1
  2. James Hageman Moderator
    James Hageman
    @JamesHageman

    This is a great post, because it’s true. R.I.P.

    • #2
  3. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: “Not funny haha, like a Woody Allen movie, but funny strange, like a Woody Allen marriage.”

    I’ll be using that line

    • #3
  4. MWD B612 "Dawg" Member
    MWD B612 "Dawg"
    @danok1

    Image

    • #4
  5. Chris Oler Coolidge
    Chris Oler
    @ChrisO

    “You know who scares me? The Germans! I don’t know if any of you are history buffs…”

    RIP Norm. 

    • #5
  6. Dotorimuk Coolidge
    Dotorimuk
    @Dotorimuk

    His constant attacks on Hillary Clinton were always appreciated.

    They don’t make them like Norm anymore.

    • #6
  7. Peter Robinson Contributor
    Peter Robinson
    @PeterRobinson

    Gorgeous and apt. Or, to quote Norm, “Well put, Jon.”

    • #7
  8. No Caesar Thatcher
    No Caesar
    @NoCaesar

    Well said.  RIP Norm McDonald.

    • #8
  9. Tom Kalbach Member
    Tom Kalbach
    @TomKalbach

    I’m not sure if any of MacDonald’s jokes were ever mined from his life.  They seemed to be works of pure creativity and craft.

    • #9
  10. John Davey Member
    John Davey
    @JohnDavey

    What a loss.

    To this day, whenever I use the words “the world” in any conversation, I always stop, and then in Norm’s voice repeat “the world.” Not many people get it, but it’s to amuse me, not anyone else.

    So, to quote Norm (after a fashion), and to keep it simple; Norm Macdonald’s talent will be missed by… The World.

    • #10
  11. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    This is a worthy remembrance.  I think the whole front office of Ricochet has the feels, or else my scrawny post on Norm would not have been buffed to the front page.

    I of course never met him etc., but for the last several years, I have appreciated him as my favorite comedian, one of my favorite public figures, and — I suspect — a good man.

    As Jon alludes, his genius lay in making home runs look like strikes which nonetheless landed in the parking lot.  I listened to his self-narrated autobiography (er, I mean novel), which I didn’t get at the time, but will listen to once more.

    One assumes that the act cannot go on forever, even while still alive.  I suspect that his appearance on David Letterman after being fired from SNL was about the closest we saw to him just being himself as he was in life, as opposed to on stage.  I could be all wet, but I always figured that Dave got wind of it and immediately invited Norm on to give the big finger to NBC for screwing a friend.  Norm would have been amazingly touched, and surprised etc. well, watch the video.  Norm seems so candid yet professional, allowing that the shoe-sniffing schmuck who fired him was a good guy and a human being and all that tripe.  I suppose that they would have had a one minute conversation beforehand to agree on the broad lines of the segment — but maybe not.

    The Letterman appearance right on the heels of being fired from SNL, with Dave just gunning for NBC, Ohlmeyer the schmuck, Lorne, SNL etc, and Norm relating things in his Norm-ative style helped put the shoe on the proper foot — NBC was full of poop, and Norm was walking the plank for it.

    Letterman has his quirks (I’ll just leave that there for now), but his support of MacDonald at that time is a serious credit.

    I don’t have anything witty to say.  I’m just sad.  I know that mourning the passage of people you never met is somewhat counterproductive (“Don’t be so shocked, BDB — people die every day”), but Norm felt like family.  You should meet my family.

    I didn’t expect Norm to save or to lead the free world.  But he helped give me a reason to feel that it’s worth saving.

    • #11
  12. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    John Davey (View Comment):

    What a loss.

    To this day, whenever I use the words “the world” in any conversation, I always stop, and then in Norm’s voice repeat “the world.” Not many people get it, but it’s to amuse me, not anyone else.

    So, to quote Norm (after a fashion), and to keep it simple; Norm Macdonald’s talent will be missed by… The World.

    Love this comment.

    • #12
  13. C. U. Douglas Thatcher
    C. U. Douglas
    @CUDouglas

    One of my best friends since childhood had a quote for Norm after learning of his passing today:

    My friend and I both briefly discussed Norm’s passing. It’s hit us hard. We liked the man for many reasons. Jeremiah never failed to go to one of Norm’s shows when he came to Portland.

    I remember watching Norm’s early stand-up. He had a way of getting a laugh out of me like few comedians could and one of his bits even inspired one of my common gaming pseudonyms I was so quickly a fan.

    I followed him on Twitter. He was one of the few personalities to make that platform worthwhile. More than just being a bright, positive spot in what seemed a pit of despair, he brought thought and depth that made a reader sit up and take notice. His tweet threads drew a reader in to follow for more.

    He also spoke of his colleagues there in great depth, even going in length one time about Roseanne Barr for example, discussing her talent, what made her show successful and in his surmise brilliant. And I recall him being one of the few who stood by her when she hit that Cancel Culture Wall — and as I could expect from him by then, it came across as natural, thoughtful, and strong without force. His feed demonstrated a side of the man I’d rarely seen prior.

    • #13
  14. Paul Dougherty Member
    Paul Dougherty
    @PaulDougherty

     

    He could make baby seal clubbing funny.

     

    • #14
  15. Troy Senik Contributor
    Troy Senik
    @TroySenik

    Like Jon, I was crestfallen by the news of Norm’s death. Also like Jon, I happened to relisten (it simply must be heard as an audio book) to his ‘memoir,’ Based on a True Story, while on a road trip last week. People would look at me like I had lost my mind when I told them it deserved a Pulitzer, but I stand by that judgment.

    I saw him live on Long Island a couple of years ago, the culmination of a decades-long obsession. There was a fascinating quality to his work, particularly in his later years, when it veered into something verging on performance art, yet entirely devoid of the pretense characteristic of that field. He was doing extremely high-concept comedy that appeared deceptively simple. You had to stand back a bit to realize that he was doing something like comedic homeopathy, distilling jokes down to their essence (a practice perhaps best represented by the infamous moth joke).

    One of my favorite meetup memories is trading references with a few Ricochet members to the SNL sketches where Norm parodied Larry King’s discursive, banal, non-sequitur-laden USA Today columns (sample: “Of all the causes of death, burning in a fire is still Numero Uno in the pain department.”). Norm was never particularly political, but there was something about him that always seemed to resonate with a certain kind of conservative. I suspect it was the way he married a steadfast aversion to what VDH would call “the therapeutic culture” with a genuine appreciation for both the beauty and melancholy of life.

    As a teenage comedy nerd, Norm MacDonald was my idol. It was that rare judgment of youth that only looked better with time.

    Utterly brilliant. Utterly fearless. Utterly irreplaceable. RIP.

    • #15
  16. Podkayne of Israel Member
    Podkayne of Israel
    @PodkayneofIsrael

    So brilliant. So familiar. The world is a sadder, duller place.

    • #16
  17. James Madison Member
    James Madison
    @JamesMadison

    Two memories: 

    1. His 1997 White House correspondents dinner performance.   Norm was in awe of the President who was on crutches that night.  MacDonald noted: Wow, handicapped and President, imagine the parking spaces you can get.

    2, The mischievous twinkle in his eye which so often signaled to his audience, Catch up!

    • #17
  18. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    I never heard of him before. But now that I’ve read this tribute, I’m sorry to hear he is gone.

    • #18
  19. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Sad . . .

    • #19
  20. jorge espinha Lincoln
    jorge espinha
    @jorgeespinha

    From National Review, a commentary written by a reader (Euler2718)

     

    “The idiot sees the world as Good vs. Evil. The cynic sees the world as Evil vs. Evil. The truth that no one seems able to see is that the world is, and always has been, a battle of Good vs. Good.”

     

    This is gold!

    Thank you, Norm. Thank you for all the laughs!

    • #20
  21. jorge espinha Lincoln
    jorge espinha
    @jorgeespinha

    jorge espinha (View Comment):

    From National Review, a commentary written by a reader (Euler2718)

     

    “The idiot sees the world as Good vs. Evil. The cynic sees the world as Evil vs. Evil. The truth that no one seems able to see is that the world is, and always has been, a battle of Good vs. Good.”

     

    This is gold!

    Thank you, Norm. Thank you for all the laughs!

    I didn’t make it clear. The quote is from Norm Macdonald. 

    • #21