Norm Macdonald, who has died at 61, was a comedic genius whose irreverence and inimitable delivery made millions of people laugh harder than almost anyone else could make them do—whether he was taking shots at mainstream figures (O. J. Simpson, the Clintons), constructing elaborate setups for impossibly simple punchlines (depressed moths, massacres in Vietnam), or saving dull affairs by subverting expectations (celebrity roasts and awards events, big and small). A private man who kept his nine-year battle with cancer out of the public eye, Macdonald occasionally showed flashes of a deep seriousness, expressing frustration with an increasingly intolerant popular culture and offering genuine insights in interviews and in an uproarious pseudo-memoir. But in the final analysis, he was a pure aesthete of jokes and one of the funniest people around.
Born and raised in Canada, Macdonald began his comedy career in the late 1980s. He was a frequent guest of late-night shows throughout the 1990s, with his appearances on Conan O’Brien in particular being the stuff of legend. His apogee of fame probably came between 1994 and 1998, when he hosted Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” segment—typically a stepping stone to a late-night show of one’s own—only to be fired by NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer for joking too much about O. J. Simpson, Ohlmeyer’s personal friend. Immediately afterward, Macdonald went on David Letterman, who asked how he had reacted to getting canned. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s not good,’” said Macdonald. “And I said, ‘Why is that, now? And [Ohlmeyer] goes, ‘Well, you’re not funny.’ And I said, ‘Holy Lord, that’s even worse news!’”
After the firing, Macdonald’s career entered a gradual decline. He hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live, insulting the show to boos from the cast. He starred in a short-lived sitcom, The Norm Show, and a buddy comedy with Howard Stern cohost Artie Lange, Dirty Work. Both received poor reviews but live on as cult classics. He showed up in commercials and on celebrity episodes of game shows, memorably winning $500,000 for charity on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (and walking away before the last question only because Regis Philbin encouraged him to). He hosted a short-lived sports show on Comedy Central, recorded several stand-up specials, and had a YouTube podcast. His final act was a Netflix talk show, Norm Macdonald Has a Show, which aired in 2018 for one season.
If Macdonald’s celebrity stature peaked early, the quality of his comedy steadily improved. He moved from riffing on current events to making jokes about deliberately uncontemporary subjects—part of an effort to make his comedy timeless by writing elegant jokes whose punch lines were perfectly contained in the setup. Podiums? “That’s a product I can stand behind.” Al-Qaida’s online magazine, which has a recipe for a homemade bomb? “It also has a recipe for a pretty darn good peach cobbler.” Jeffrey Epstein? “If you like, remember Jeff Epstein as [a] monster, destroying lives with a wicked nonchalance. But, for me, I will remember him as the man who killed Jeff Epstein.” The podcast he hosted in the 2010s, Norm Macdonald Live, contained some of his funniest material. And right up until the pandemic (“I wasn’t gonna talk about the coronavirus, but on the way here I got really ill—but I think it’s because I ate a cherry pie”), he never quit his principal occupation: stand-up comedy. Three years ago, he told the New York Times Magazine that he’d spent 44 weeks on the road—this, we now know, in the midst of a long struggle with cancer. I had tickets to see him this November.
Weighty topics weren’t always Macdonald’s thing, but he could be remarkably thoughtful. He disdained cheap jokes at the expense of religion and justified his own religious faith in sophisticated detail. He was a student of Russian literature, and his memoir shows it. By Letterman’s account, he was “maybe the smartest guy in comedy.” But he was also old-fashioned, mocking comedians who sought to make their jokes “important.” In our brief online correspondence in 2018, he complained about people expressing outrage over trivialities, saying of one case, “I’ve had so many worse things happen to me. None have ever haunted me. It is life.” Before his Netflix debut, he defended his friends Roseanne Barr and Louis C. K., saying that he felt sorry for them and had put them in touch. That the hysterical overreaction to these remarks deprived us of more Macdonald late-night appearances is one of the enduring crimes of today’s cultural era. But even in apology, an impish Macdonald managed to get one over on his persecutors, quipping, “I personally think almost everything is over the line.”
Macdonald’s book, Based on a True Story: A Memoir, contains the following reflection on his career.
It can be difficult to define yourself by something that happened so long ago and is gone forever. It’s like a fellow at the end of the bar telling no one in particular about the silver medal he won in high school track, the one he still wears around his neck. The only thing an old man can tell a young man is that it goes fast, real fast, and if you’re not careful it’s too late. Of course, the young man will never understand this truth. . . . But it is impossible for me to be bitter. I’ve been lucky.
It’s tempting to close with that tribute to his life, a reflection from this small-town Canadian kid who “never expected to be any more than a common laborer” but “was blessed with so much more.” But it would not be fitting. Macdonald was a comic above all else; he could find humor anywhere. So: I didn’t even know he was sick.
Photo by Yana Paskova/For The Washington Post via Getty Images