We’ll All Remember Norm Macdonald’s Humor, But I’ll Remember His Heart

In November 2000, Norm Macdonald was just a question away from winning one million dollars for charity as a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. At the time, the cultural juggernaut of a game show was dominating ABC’s primetime schedule, and Macdonald was one of the first chosen to be a part of a celebrity edition that year. To most viewers that night, he was the amusing guy who had recently been fired from Saturday Night Live after a polarizing turn as host of Weekend Update.

We knew Macdonald was indeed funny, but was he smart? His humor tended to be dry, sophomoric and scatter-brained. How would he fare on a trivia show?

Turns out the comedian easily breezed through every question; the unassuming veil that was draped over his intelligence lifted answer by answer. Even host Regis Philbin was stunned and when it came to the final question: “During the Cold War, the U.S. government built a bunker to house Congress under what golf resort?” Macdonald was about to answer “Greenbrier” when Philbin literally talked him out of it, skeptical that Macdonald was going to blow all of this money for a children’s charity. It wasn’t until Macdonald agreed to walk away with the half million dollar prize did Philbin reveal that Macdonald actually had the correct answer.

I remember watching that night in awe of his brilliance, though it was a facet of his unique personality that was hiding in plain sight. (He completed high school at the age of 14, after all). Macdonald set himself apart as a comedian’s comedian throughout an impressive career which spanned Saturday Night Live (he joined the show in 1993 lasting five years), a bevy of short-lived yet inventive shows built around his personality (including his most recent, Netflix’s anti-talk show Norm Macdonald Has a Show), and a string of memorable movie appearances, (including starring in the cult hit Dirty Work). While Macdonald could have parlayed his brain power toward whatever he wanted, the Canadian funneled his smarts into becoming a master joke teller and writer; so quick on his feet that even the fastest minds in the business marveled at his ease at concocting punchlines with a breakneck speed.

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Take for example his countless talk show appearances throughout the past three decades, all still as crackling as they day they aired. YouTube is awash with them, all continually discovered by new legions of fans who are just as taken aback today at Macdonald’s wit coupled with a seemingly nonchalant attitude and a schoolboy’s penchant for mischief. One of the most infamous, and arguably one of Conan O’Brien’s greatest interview segments ever, occurred when Macdonald wasn’t even the one being interviewed. The actress Courtney Thorne-Smith was the second guest that night. She gave Macdonald, who remained on the couch after his own segment, plenty of red meat when she began talking about how she’s co-starring in a movie with the prop comedian Carrot Top. This naturally led to a string of ad-libs. “If it’s got Carrot Top in it, you know what a good name would be?” Macdonald interjects. “Box office poison!” After a few more zingers, Macdonald is seemingly out of steam and the moment appears to have passed when Thorne-Smith notes the name of the movie is actually “Chairman of the Board.” “Do something with that, you creep,” says O’Brien to Macdonald with the expectation that they’ll simply move on. Then, Macdonald lights up: “I bet the ‘board’ is spelt B-O-R-E-D!” to which the audience explodes, right alongside O’Brien and Thorne-Smith herself. Here he was mocking her own movie, and even Thorne-Smith couldn’t help but laugh.

While Macdonald clearly meant no malice, his humor did get him in hot water over the course of his career. The most famous example was his aforementioned firing from SNL, allegedly over the fact he wouldn’t stop making jokes about the OJ Simpson trial. Sure, everybody was doing that at the time, even his NBC late night colleague Jay Leno. But NBC President Don Ohlmeyer considered Simpson a friend, and he was miffed by specifically by Macdonald’s continual haranguing. You see, alongside his penchant for constantly mentioning Frank Stallone (for some reason), Simpson’s guilt was a motif for Macdonald.

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After Macdonald was let go from SNL in 1998, he turned into something of a folk hero, so much so that SNL impresario Lorne Michaels promptly invited him back to host. “A year and a half ago I had a disagreement with the management at NBC: I wanted to keep my job and they felt the exact opposite,” he said during his October 1999 monologue. “How did I go in a year and a half from being not funny enough to even be allowed in the building to being so funny that I’m now hosting the show? How did I suddenly get so Goddamn funny?…. Then it occurred to me: I haven’t gotten funnier, the show has gotten really bad.” Macdonald’s feather-ruffling even extended into the streaming age. It was Netflix’s turn to distance itself from Macdonald over remarks he made in an interview concerning his disgraced friends Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr and the #MeToo movement back in 2018.

Macdonald also exhibited true moments of heart, a rare feat for the typically jaded figures of comedy. It was a glimpse I caught firsthand when my mom once attended taping of The View when I was in middle school. The guest that morning happened to be Macdonald, so I gave her the cover of my well-worn VHS copy of Dirty Work to hopefully get signed by my SNL hero. When she came back, splayed across the cover was a message from Norm in black Sharpie: “To Rob, God Bless. Norm Macdonald.” It was a juxtaposition that would serve as an apt metaphor for his entire career: the words “God Bless” on the cover of Dirty Work.

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Much like that turn on Millionaire, the world got to see this surprising tender side of the comedian when David Letterman invited him to deliver the final stand-up set during his talk show reign, a gesture that exemplifies the level of respect his comedy brethren had. “I know that Mr. Letterman is not for the mawkish and he has no truck for the sentimental,” he said at the end of his set, his voice full of emotion. “But if something is true it is not sentimental. And I say in truth: I love you.” After all, Macdonald would later tell Howard Stern that a stand-up persona in general is “false by nature.” He’d later write in his 2016 book Based on a True Story, “There is the way things are and then the way things appear, and it is the way things appear, even when false, that is often the truest.”

In that same book, written and released when Macdonald was in the midst of his cancer battle unbeknownst to the public, he also wrote a reflective passage that the writer Sean O’Neal likened to a eulogy. “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,” Macdonald writes. “Of course, the young man will never understand this truth.”

He then shows his heart again.

“I’ve been lucky. If I had to sum up my whole life, those are the words I would choose, all right.”


Rob LeDonne is a Brooklyn-based humor and culture writer who has written for Billboard, GQ, Rolling Stone, and TIME Magazine. 

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