And just like that, the funniest man alive is dead.
Quebec City-born comedian and former Saturday Night Live cast member Norm Macdonald died Tuesday after a long, private battle with cancer. He was 61 years old.
He was of the belief that bad comedians say things to make people applaud, and that the good ones went for laughs. The great ones, and Macdonald was one of them, went for more: Jokes that take us off-guard and the awkward, uncomfortable moments that only truths can elicit. But sometimes none of these things are enough.
After one of his first shows in Ottawa, Macdonald felt he had bombed, even though the audience had reacted positively to his oddball observations. “He left the club quickly, apologizing because he didn’t think it went well,” Mark Breslin, founder of the national Yuk Yuk’s comedy club chain, told me a few years ago. “But every joke got a laugh. It was a perfectly constructed set, and the club’s manager, Howard Wagman, had to convince him to come back the next week.”
Later, I asked Macdonald about that show. He remembered it. “I aim my comedy at myself, and when it came out of my mouth that night I heard it in my ear, and it didn’t sound right to me. It didn’t sound funny.”
That’s hard to fathom. Macdonald had a casual hilarity to him – his impish sparkle-eyed manner, the mumbled nasal voice, the deadpan absurdity. But if he said he didn’t kill it that night, we should take it from him. Macdonald was in the business of being funny, full-time and full-stop.
Macdonald’s greatest hits include his Burt Reynolds imitation, his cult-classic film Dirty Work, his Twitter-based golf-match commentary, his brilliant 2016 book Based on a True Story: A Memoir (which was not a memoir, naturally), his endless fascination with a certain four-letter word and any number of late-night talk show appearances.
His stint as SNL’s perpetually cheeky host of the Weekend Update segment in the late 1990s is what he’s most known for. High irreverence cost Macdonald that job when his insistence on referring to disgraced football star O.J. Simpson as a “murderer” apparently upset the brass at NBC.
In my 2016 interview with Macdonald, we talked about what his career had brought him and what it had not. If his sitcom The Norm Show wasn’t a hit and he didn’t get the girls, what did he get from his comedy? His answer was funny, but also honest and sobering.
“I get fat families from Iowa who want to take a picture with me,” Macdonald he said. “They don’t know me, but they smile at me. It’s the warmth from strangers on an otherwise cold street. It’s the best thing that I get, and I’m okay with that.”
He wasn’t shooting for applause with that answer, but he does deserve some.
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