Sep 15, 2021

Funny Norm Macdonald

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(Never Too Much podcast: what it was like to be a big ol’ fan of Norm MacDonald in 1996, why Tuesday was the only good day Twitter ever had, click ‘Listen in podcast app’ to subscribe.)

You got the feeling that Norm MacDonald’s favorite space on camera were the times he got to impersonate David Letterman on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ the show he wasn’t great at, performed live from the workplace MacDonald wasn’t liked at.

Norm was not interested in what Monkey Boy was up to but he clearly liked the idea of telling his version of the Dave Letterman story one tortured non sequitur at a time, on Lorne Michaels’ dime.

MacDonald got to play his ‘Weekend Update’ a little cooler and tougher and rougher than Norm really was. His SNL affectation wasn’t nearly as sincere as the moments when he tried to imbue his “Dave” with all the moral clarity MacDonald could muster, at a time when bein’ Dave was hardly as much fun as it used to be.

Norm pounced on that unease, celebrated it, re-made a hero out of it. The popular giveaway — Norm’s Letterman bumping three guests and firing his blazer at the desk while the band rushes Dave off — ended the sketch. The real impetus, MacDonald’s deep appreciation of Letterman’s ardent lack of appreciation, also wasn’t cleverly disguised.

MacDonald was familiar to Letterman and Leno’s shows by the time he joined SNL’s cast in 1994, he’d already told the joke about winning a stick in the Olympics, he’d already worn his best jacket and thanked the audience and ‘SNL’ was never his goal.

At all times it felt as if Norm MacDonald was the only person on television who didn’t want David Letterman’s job, something Letterman picked up on. Norm MacDonald was never in any danger of taking anyone off the air but Norm MacDonald, which Dave also picked up on.

Stand-up comedy was inescapable in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

It was cheap programming for three different prominent cable channels — A&E, VH1, and the fledgling Comedy Channel/Ha! networks — the type of disposable content you could skip through with prejudice.

Your viewing options were set at the top of the hour unless you stuck with channels featuring four-minute music videos or five-minute stand-up comedy sets. Discerning hoppers could note from the outset who to flip from (FireHouse), and who to stick with:

These are the suits you learn everything from, all the contextual clues that help you navigate that pre-pubescent minefield, pretending to know how tough dating was because Wendy Liebman said so, pretending to understand what “orgasm” meant because the rest of Rita Rudner’s special was so funny.

Norm wasn’t anti-comedy, he wrote jokes and told them and encouraged laughter because he thought his thoughts were funny. He surveyed the scene and discovered there was still silly stuff to bring up, observations to cultivate. Norm never tried to break anything.

It is true that he did not suffer pretense gladly, a chip which did not serve him well at SNL, an institution staffed with writers and actors who can’t wait to raise a little spirit and put on a swell show. MacDonald wasn’t dangerous, he wore leather jackets and smoked cigarettes and lost too much money gambling but uncles do that. Grandmothers in front of slot machines do this.

Still authentic enough for MacDonald to sniff out the desperation at the program, the overwhelming eagerness to please the host and the writers and the dress rehearsal audience and Lorne and anyone else who might be paying attention in L.A. plus whoever’s at the afterparty, probably Bijou Phillips.

Norm MacDonald didn’t care about pleasing anyone, stand-up already taught him he could earn affection simply by acting himself, but funnier. By straightening the ribbon and delivering a joke. Not wearing a literal monkey suit.

The ‘Weekend Update’ gig is an instant introduction, it’s the only thing on the show that escapes ambivalence because you’re not, and he’s Chevy Chase, or maybe you’re a shitheel like Colin Jost. They’re using their own names, you’re going to form an opinion.

MacDonald didn’t owe his renown to this exposure. He earned the attention because Norm MacDonald was the only one in the building who wasn’t trying to be our friend. He was the human at the party that the cat walks up to.

A stance like this doesn’t have to include brusque, punch-down humor; avenues MacDonald certainly, carelessly, stomped. He didn’t worry about anything else but being funny.

It’s why he was the best part of SNL. It was probably why he was the best two-drink minimum someone ever bought.

It’s why he was the finest talk show guest, it’s why every time a clip of his podcast came across your feed you’d click on it and wonder why Norm always sounded like he was reading jokes off a script. There was no secret to anything, he was just funnier than everyone else. Like you’re supposed to be, if that’s your job.

Or, if the ponies don’t always trot so hot.

We benefited from his progeria, it’s what makes his way-too-early passing a little more sensible than it should be. Norm’s been on the TV acting like a pensioner since he was in his 40s.

So he won’t live until the age that suited him best, anybody who pens a memoir when they’re living with disease is probably happy with what they’ve left. Which, as your feed reminded you on Tuesday, was plenty.

A lot of comedy will try to identify with Norm MacDonald this week. Try to remember what Norm did best.

PLACE OUT THERE

This song is hilarious but also emotional, like right now is.

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