"I was watchin' last night, I saw, speed, uh, speed skating. And, uh, my goodness, you know? Could the outfits they wear be any tighter? Holy Lord! There was an East German woman, I swear, you could see the outline of her entire penis."
Those who saw Norm Macdonald's opening monologue, anachronistic East German reference and all, at the 1998 ESPY Awards (presented by cable network ESPN) still talk about it. Following the wisecrack about the ambiguously sexed Olympic athlete, Macdonald spied a Heisman-winning football player in the crowd. "And there's Charles Woodson! How about that, huh? What a season he had. Great, man, he … he became the first defensive player to win the Heisman trophy. And congratulations, Charles. That is something that no one can ever take away from you. Unless you kill your wife and waiter, in which case all bets are off."
An O.J. Simpson reference during a stand-up routine - why not? It had been speculated that Macdonald's irreverent ridicule of the former football hero had gotten him kicked off Saturday Night Live the previous year. He wouldn't be asked back to host ESPN's annual awards show a second time, either.
But Macdonald is preparing to return once more to the world of sports. Premiering April 13 on The Comedy Network, the mumbling Canadian smartass's weekly Sports Show with Norm Macdonald will be performed in front of a live audience. It's going to be similar in style to his well-received gig as SNL's Weekend Update anchor in the 1990s.
The new show is a natural vehicle for the mischievous Macdonald. Still, he's the first to admit that he had his reservations about taking it on. "When they approached me with it, I didn't really want to do it," he said recently over the phone from Calgary, where he was performing a string of stand-up shows. "There's a lot of challenging things with it."
Macdonald isn't worried about being muzzled - not on the cable-only Comedy Network or on Comedy Central, where his show will air south of the border. But he is concerned about the challenges of mocking a franchise that already has fun with itself. "Since news programs are so ridiculous and self-important, they're easy to poke fun at," Macdonald explains. "Jon Stewart can do that."
But ESPN's highly rated SportsCenter doesn't take itself as seriously, which makes it trickier to parody. Its own promotional commercials, using sports anchors and prominent athletes (such as basketball's LeBron James) are slick and hip. " SportsCentre is already a cool, ironic and self-referential show," says Macdonald, who begins a short stand-up tour of Ontario on March 6. "It's a tough line to walk, parodying it."
And he won't be the first to do it. Onion SportsDome, a U.S.-based send-up of sports news shows from the masters of fictitious reporting, airs in Canada on The Comedy Network. Sports - whether in sitcoms or something like Fox's larky, opinionated The Best Damn Sports Show Period, which ran from2001-09 - has a history of serving as comedic fodder on TV. Seinfeld's George Steinbrenner ("Big Stein wants an eggplant calzone!") was one of that sitcom's zanier characters. HBO's Arli$$, involving the conniving shenanigans of sports agents, ran for seven seasons until 2002.
Macdonald himself starred as a hockey player in The Norm Show, which ran for three seasons following his SNL tenure. And two of the longest-running sitcoms in history, The Odd Couple and Everybody Loves Raymond, involved central characters who were sportswriters. Indeed, some would argue that Hockey Night in Canada's Coaches Corner segment, while not a traditional comedy, has nevertheless grown, in the estimation of many observers, into a complete joke.
Macdonald, a lifelong sports fan, gets the appeal. "I relate humour with watching sports," he says. "Drinking beer and watching Hockey Night in Canada and having a laugh with my buddies." And soon, presumably, providing them with a few brawny belly laughs, too.
Norm Macdonald's Ontario tour includes stops in Guelph, March 7; Hamilton, March 9; Lindsay, March 10; and London, March 11.