Early in his new sort-of-memoir, Based on a True Story, comedian Norm Macdonald reminisces, with genuine (or genuine-seeming) affection, on a fella called Old Jack.
The story goes: Old Jack was a hired hand who worked on the Macdonald family farm outside of Ottawa, "a tough old farm, a hundred acres of Godforsaken hard and unyielding soil, with a broke-down house and a barn that's in even worse shape – red paint peeling down its sides like dried blood." Old Jack is the kind of character you'd find in a Steinbeck novel, or an episode of The Waltons. He's honest, a hard-worker, salt-of-the-earth, quick with a joke. He kept a squirrel as a pet. Macdonald calls him "the best man I've ever known."
It's hard to know whether Old Jack actually existed. Based on a True Story is honest about its various dishonesties, from its title to its copyright page note clarifying that "[t]he stories in this memory begin with the author's recollection of events, which is – by his own admission – spotty," to the obviously made-up sections inserted throughout (such as the one in which Macdonald cheats the devil in a wager for his mortal soul), to italicized interjections from an imaginary ghostwriter, who in time begins battling for control over the narrative of the memoir itself. But whether he's real, a product of Macdonald's rambling imagination, or a bit of both, it's obvious that Old Jack is a useful figure in understanding Norm Macdonald.
"I'm no fan of phoney-baloneys," Macdonald writes. "I like a man who is direct; I like a man who is honest and plainspoken." Macdonald's being more than a little insincere – especially considering that his book is crammed with sarcasm, self-deprecating disingenuousness (he claims to have secured his spot as a cast member on Saturday Night Live after agreeing to provide producer Lorne Michaels with morphine) and total fabrications and narrative inventions that constitute this alleged memoir. But there's a certain fundamental truth to it, all the same.
As a comedian, first as a stand-up then as the host of the Weekend Update segment on SNL in the mid-nineties and then on into a flopped feature films and short-lived TV gigs, Macdonald practises a certain kind of plain-spoken honesty. He has no truck for nuance, sentiment or innuendo.
Take, for example, one of my favourite of his Weekend Update jokes. "This week in the O.J. Simpson trial," Macdonald begins, "Johnnie Cochrane delivered a spellbinding final summation. In a brilliant move, Cochran put on the knit cap prospectors say Simpson wore the night of the double murders – although O.J. may have hurt his case when suddenly blurted out, 'Hey, hey, careful with that. That's my lucky stabbing hat.'" The punchline is hilariously blunt and unclever.
It's a cliché of comedians that they "say what we're all thinking." But with Macdonald, it feels true. The difference is that he says what we're thinking without even cleaning it up, delivering observations with such brute force and sucker-punch obviousness that they don't scan as traditional jokes. It accounts for both his cult following in certain circles, and the open hostility he often invites from audiences – boos and general befuddlement on SNL, a guy in the rafters bellowing "BE MORE FUNNY!" when I saw him live a few years ago. And it's all wrapped in a stilted folksiness that tonally splits the difference between sagacity and oblivious stupidity. Macdonald talks like a box-car hobo whose been kicked in the head, or a kindly farm hand who sleeps with a squirrel on his belly.
And he writes like it, too, with lines such as, "I like to gamble – gamble money on games of chance" or when he describes watching Rodney Dangerfield perform "the way a dog watches a man, or a man a god." He also flexes his trademark ambling, shaggy-dog storytelling, teasing a crowd-pleasing joke about answering machines that he never actually tells and transcribing his marathon "moth joke" in its lengthy entirety. There's just not enough of this stuff in this book.
Like most of these recent comedian book deals, seemingly offered to every quasi-recognizable yokel whose ever told a joke on TV, Based on a True Story feels in places as though it's desperately reaching to satisfy a word count and deadline. The difference is that Macdonald does this transparently. As it progresses, the book morphs into a meta-fictional adventure following its author as he rushes to write his memoir, the one we're reading, in order to pay back gambling debts.
Macdonald spins an elaborate yarn about he and his trusty assistant/sidekick/punching bag Adam Eget criss-crossing the continent in a drug and booze-fuelled panic, hustling to get this memoir written. The final chapter, presented without the aid of the ghostwriter, is called (with typical Macdonaldian forthrightness) "The Last Part of the Whole Book," and unfolds in an unbroken rush of stream-of-consciousness that faithfully (and seemingly deliberately) evokes James Joyce or Gertrude Stein.
Given Macdonald's literary bent – in 2013, when author Bret Easton Ellis called Nobel-winning Canadian author Alice Munro "overrated," Macdonald responded by calling Ellis "the talentless hack's talentless hack" – fans may wish for more raconteurish rambling, more of the folksy, hard-won wisdom of Old Norm.