“I know of only two very real evils in life: remorse and illness.”
– Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Those words are not simply ones poignantly selected for this tragic moment. Those are words Norm Macdonald chose to open his 2017 bestselling book Based on a True Story, written five years into a life lived in the shadow of the illness that would take him to be with his creator. Macdonald died yesterday after living with leukemia for nearly a decade.
Norm Macdonald, buddy of Artie Lange and Chris Farley and star of Dirty Work, was a deeply good man, and a comedic genius. He was the funniest man I’ve ever seen.
Hagiography in the tear-blurred afterglow of death is a cheap trick, but Macdonald was a character of such surprising depth that any fair peek behind his curtain couldn’t help but sound grandiose to the unprepared listener. Truth is always stranger than fiction and the truth is that Norm was not only hilarious but also deep, kind, generous and courageous.
When asked by his friend Bob Saget to perform at his roast, a comedic format Norm didn’t care for, the only instruction Norm received was to “be shocking.” Norm being Norm, rather than take that in the direction every other performer on earth would, Norm stood in a room filled with thousands of people and delivered deadpan a series of cheesy jokes from a joke book his father gave him. A book from the 1950s. Aimed at the retirement home crowd.
And when every single joke bombed as expected, Norm was so committed to the bit that he just kept going, straight-faced, bombing over and over again.
“But there’s a difference between a clap and a laugh. A laugh is involuntary, but the crowd is in complete control when they’re clapping, they’re saying, “we agree with what you’re saying – proceed!” But when they’re laughing, they’re genuinely surprised. And when they’re not laughing, they’re really surprised. And sometimes I think, in my little head, that that’s the best comedy of all.”
Committed and fearless
When Norm hosted the weekend update on Saturday Night Live, he regularly eviscerated OJ Simpson (among others). The only problem for Norm was that Don Ohlmeyer, the president of NBC, was a close friend of OJ Simpson, and told Norm to cut it out. Norm’s response? He doubled down.
The first show after OJ Simpson was acquitted of murder, Norm led off Weekend Update on SNL by declaring “Well, it’s finally official, murder is legal in the state of California.”
So Don Ohlmeyer fired Macdonald from doing the Weekend Update on SNL. On that very day, Norm went on David Letterman’s show and tripled down:
“These guys, who hang in the halls, they’re called executives, and I didn’t know who the hell they were or what they did, you know, but now I know what they do: they fire me from weekend update.” [so he phones me] “and he goes ‘I’m firing you there, from the show’ and I go ‘ohh that’s not good, and I said why is that now?’ and he goes ‘oh you’re not funny’ and I said ‘holy lord that’s even worse news, you know, cause I don’t have nothin’ to fall back on.”
It’s hilarious to watch him deliver, even 25 years later. But Norm wasn’t telling just a joke, he was telling a story. It was the story of his career arc diving from the big stage and bright lights of Saturday Night Live back into the underground comedy clubs and smoke-filled lounges that define most “not quite” standup comedians, and that he loved.
And indeed, despite a couple pilots, one big and several small movie roles, and dedicated cult following, Norm Macdonald was never an A-list celebrity again. And he was fine with that. Anytime it came up over the years he would say he was a comic, and that’s what he always wanted to be. He was so committed to telling jokes the way he wanted to that he was willing to sacrifice material success for them.
But Norm’s is a story of a triumph, not a tragedy. While he sacrificed the commercial heights he could have achieved for the sake of being true to himself, Norm Macdonald was still the greatest comedian of his time. Don’t take my word for it, listen to the words that poured out of the hearts of the greatest comedians last night, or listen to David Letterman, who declared that “in every single way, in the world of stand-up, Norm was the best. An opinion shared by me and all peers. Always up to something, never certain, until his matter-of-fact delivery leveled you.”
And so SNL fired him…and then had him back to host a short time later. And Norm being fearless he used the stage to poke fun at himself, and to eviscerate the show. And Norm’s courage being what it was, even without a regular show, he became a favourite guest of Letterman, Conan, Dennis Miller and Howard Stern and his appearances and jokes on those shows are plentiful, and the stuff of legend.
Norm Macdonald was the greatest comedian of his generation because he cared about comedy more than his own success. Confronted with hard choices he made the hardest ones, but also the right ones.
And as we now know, as the ravages of time and illness began to wear down his body, the brightness of his goodness shone even brighter. Don’t get me wrong, it was always couched in a wry a smile, or a slight riddle, or a little joke, but over the past ten years if you watched Norm Macdonald at any length the punch lines were always accompanied by wise words, and kind ones too.
Norm was the last comic David Letterman ever had appear on his show, and his final words, after he crushed one last set amidst the retirement of the greatest talk show host of all time, were a tearful “I love you.”
Over recent years he talked more about Dostoyevsky, and God, and faith, and death, even as he hid his impending own. You have to have fallen down the YouTube rabbit hole to dizzying depths to have found all these nuggets, but the further you fall the more he lifts you up; the man who told paint-stripping jokes about Bill Clinton, Michael Jackson and even the Crocodile Hunter displayed an increasingly deep understanding of the human spirit.
Courageously he reached out to, and stood up for, the marginalized and the ostracized, friends and strangers alike, even if he did so occasionally in awkward or inappropriate ways. Some of the stories emerging from social media reveal a man who cared about others in dark places, even those he did not know.
Then, in recent years he, seemingly like a bolt out of the blue, wrote a book. Not a ghost-written, polished, brain-numbing memoir, but a true piece of literature. Part fact, part fantastical, with a dash of Hunter S. Thompson, Norm revealed some deep truths about himself without ever dropping his protective cloak of humour. His book was both hilarious and heart-warming, giving us layers to plumb that caught many by surprise, but not his friends like Jim Carrey and Dennis Miller, who always described him as a “genius.”
In what we now know he knew would be part of his epitaph, in what he called “The Final Chapter” he wrote “a lot of people feel sorry for you if you were on SNL and emerged from the show anything less than a superstar…They assume you must be bitter, but it is impossible for me to be bitter…I’ve been lucky.”
We’ll never fully know the odd alchemy that made Norm Macdonald tick. His love for his son, his love of life, of making people laugh — or not — his passion for faith, literature, sports, the unknown. Whatever it was, we’re all blessed he was here, and shared his unique talents with us, and I promise you that the harder you look, the more you’ll find that this strange, funny man from Quebec will bring laughter and light into your life, and serve as a reminder of what a life it can be.
“It’s the greatest gig in the world, being alive. You get to eat at Denny’s, wear a hat, whatever you wanna do,” Macdonald once said.
A profound truth, hidden in the simplest of jokes. Perfect, Norm. We’ll miss you.