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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?