Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

To Norm Macdonald, with Love (and lots of clips)

Sometime in the spring of 1991, I was on a date I should never have been on. I’d just gone through a nightmarishly long, drawn-out breakup with the man who’d been the love of my life. (We had decided to try to help each other through it and please for the love of God don’t ever, ever do that.) My mother, who was not big on long goodbyes or looking back, thought two or three weeks was enough mourning for two or three years, so she set me up with a lawyer she knew. A zoning lawyer. He spent the evening regaling me with tales of his victories over exactly the kind of people I would have been out on the sidewalk picketing with.

At dinner, he wolfed down shrimp after shrimp as he bragged with his mouth full, sending bits of fishy pulp flying across the table. Then he stuffed the last dinner roll in his overcoat pocket, which was hanging over the back of the chair; he’d confided he didn’t want to tip the coat check guy because that whole thing is a just a big moneymaking racket. (I’m sure we all remember that runaway best seller, Checking Coats: Your Ticket to Easy Street!) After the meal, he snapped his fingers repeatedly to summon our waiter, insisting he fill his coffee cup over and over again. They’d already taken away the dinner knives, so I was left to wonder how much damage I could do to my carotid artery with the sharp edge of a spoon.

We wound up being the last people in the restaurant, as pretty much the entire wait staff began circling us like we were wounded antelope. Finally the manager tapped my date’s shoulder—hard, much to my delight—and said “Bud, we’re closing.”

When I got home, I began to cry. Is this what it’s like out there? Had I forgotten how horrible it was? Should I call my ex-boyfriend and say maybe we should try again, or at least drag out our breakup a little longer? But having spent most of the previous few weeks sobbing, I cried myself out pretty quickly. Then I grabbed the remote and searched for something funny, landing on HBO’s One Night Stand.

That was the first time I ever saw Norm Macdonald. And I’ve been seeking him out ever since.

And yes, this is officially the one zillionth article about how wonderful Norm Macdonald was. But I’ve put in lots of links and pictures, so there’s that.

“You know how many comics out there don’t give a fuck but they still kinda do, you kinda have to still do?” comedian Jay Mohr once said. “That guy Norm, he doesn’t.”

After the HBO special, I’d scour the TV Guide (no really) for his other appearances on comedy specials and talk shows. And then in 1993, he landed on Saturday Night Live. While much of the recent talk has been about his brilliance on Weekend Update, he was also fabulous in sketches—which he often said he sucked at—like the West Side Story parody and his takeoff on Andy Rooney, where he perfectly captured his faux-folksiness and rambling self-indulgence. (Pretending to be Andy going through his mail, Norm cheekily ran through pretty much every state in the fecking union as the audience murmured restlessly, seemingly ready to storm the stage if he didn’t stop soon. But one guy, bless him, could be heard laughing his ass off.)

But as 1998 dawned, the axe fell in notorious fashion, reportedly because NBC chief Don Ohlmeyer was, for some reason, best friends with a double murderer Norm had gleefully skewered for years. (The oafish executive had even thrown a party for the jurors who set the killer free.) Eventually, Norm came to believe there was more to it than that, though his theory doesn’t make ol’ Don sound like any less of a boob. “We were doing experimental stuff, non sequiturs,” he told The New York Times in 2018. “Ohlmeyer would watch Leno kill every night for 15 minutes. Every joke, huge laughs, and then I’d do 10 minutes a week and sometimes not get laughs.”

In an astonishing show of grace and good humor, Norm talked about his firing on the Letterman show right after it happened.

Luckily, his first starring role in a feature film lay just ahead. Bob Saget’s hilarious Dirty Work, which Norm co-wrote, should have given him the breakout success he deserved, and the movie’s central theme, revenge, seemed almost too perfect. But while it has since gained cult status, it fizzled from screens pretty quickly. (Norm once said that cult followings are great if you’re an actual cult leader, but if you’re a comedian “it just means that a lot of people hate you.”)

One of the huge frustrations about Norm’s career was the sporadic-ness of it. To paraphrase Dorothy in the land of Oz, “Things come and go so quickly here!” His first sitcom The Norm Show, which he co-wrote, got off to great start, with two highly rated seasons before ABC doomed it to Friday night oblivion in the third. Fox’s underloved A Minute with Stan Hooper (which Norm had originally written for Jason Bateman, who decamped for Arrested Development) was never given a chance to find its audience, and was pulled after just a few episodes (depriving us of both Norm and Fred Willard), while Comedy Central’s Sports Show with Norm Macdonald was yanked in a matter of months.

“It’s very hard for me to do roles in sitcoms and movies because I’m not a great actor, so if the material isn’t good I’m in torment while I do it,” Norm told The New York Times in 2010. “I like to do talk show appearances where I get to just be myself, and I do stand-up where I can completely be myself. That’s what I’ve always loved the most, of anything.”

Years later, on his Netflix series, he said, “Actors look on me the way vampires look on Count Chocula.”

These words are like a knife in the heart to those of us who loved his acting, and wish he could’ve seen himself as we did.

I remember watching The Norm Show and thinking a film career as a comedic leading man was sure to follow. Take a look at this episode, for instance—where he crashes the wedding of the woman he loves—and tell me I’m wrong.

Since it seems every truly original talent has to be compared to someone we’re already comfortable with—no matter how inadequate the comparison—couldn’t he have been promoted as Tom Hanks with an edge? But maybe folks only like their Tom Hankses without edges, like the little crustless sandwiches Norm once joked were the only thing he liked about parties. Still, when you see these huge stars—some of whom were former colleagues—without a molecule of his talent (or looks, if you want to get shallow), it makes you crazy.

Maybe he really did just prefer to do stand-up, which, as recently as 2017, he was doing for more than 40 weeks a year.  But I have to think there must have been at least some disappointment at seeing so many hacks with bigger, more varied careers.

Still, what he did do was cherce.

His anti-roast of Bob Saget is one of the most viewed and talked about comedy bits of all time. Apparently the producer of the show had told Norm to “really go for it”—to just be as brutal and filthy as possible. Which seems to have triggered two impulses: nobody tells Norm how to do his set, and no way was Norm going to be cruel to a dear friend.

Here he is just before he begins. Look at that face. That’s the confidence of a gunslinger. A gunslinger with a 1942 joke book.

And not only does he tell the incredibly corny jokes, he explains them. Some in the audience seem confused or even embarrassed, but the comedians on the dais are in tears. It’s easy to forget, too, that he ends by sincerely telling Bob how much he loves him.

Looking back on the roast, Norm revealed that his father had given him the old joke book, which he’d had for years, when Norm told him he wanted to be a comedian: “It was really very touching.”

Then there are the talk show stints, and you could easily spend days on YouTube going down that rabbit hole. At several points in my life I have, and believe me there are far worse ways to spend your time than just drowning in Norm for days on end.

Two nights with Conan O’Brien, one of Norm’s best foils, slipped quickly into legend. One was his teasing Courtney Thorne-Smith about her upcoming movie with Carrot Top. (“It’s like Nine and a Half Weeks, but Carrot Top.” “Is it called Nine and a Half Seconds?”) Early on in the segment, Conan tells him, “You’re the biggest ass I know, and I love you for it.”

“That was one of my favorite moments of my life,” Thorne-Smith recently told Vanity Fair. “Teased by Norm Macdonald? Are you kidding?

“I’ve always been a fan of Norm Macdonald, which made it extra super thrilling. Yeah, I loved his take on things,” she went on. “When you’re a fan of a comedian and they make fun of you, is there anything better? You know those great nights you go out with your friends and you start laughing and you can’t stop, and you have that satiated feeling? That’s how I felt. I didn’t expect to have an amazing time, and I had an amazing time. That’s what I walked away with; just giddy with how much fun it was. I had a ball.”

The other mythical moment was, of course, the Moth Joke, which starts out as an angst-ridden Russian novel (the kind Norm devoured in real life) and winds up somewhere deep in the Borscht Belt.

That bit almost never happened, though. Norm wasn’t orginally scheduled to come back after the break, but, as Conan recalled, “I always wanted more Norm,” so the producer asked him to stick around for another segment. Norm remembered a quick, corny joke Colin Quinn had told him, and turned it into an epic.

“Norm invented this amazing thing… it’s kind of like he split the atom, it’s that revolutionary,” said Conan, who honored Norm in his podcast last month. “Instead of telling a real story about something that happened in your life, Norm tells old jokes as if they happened to him… and I mean really old jokes, from like the 1920s… I’m laughing that he has the balls to do this. I’m laughing at the audacity. I mean ‘I don’t even care if this joke lands or not’. He doesn’t care in a way that is exhilarating and scary at the same time.”

I also love this appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which I paused at points just to capture Norm’s fleeting expressions, as I sometimes do when I watch his clips. (You might have noticed there are quite a few screencaps in here.)

Norm appeared most often with his hero, David Letterman, and was hand-picked by Dave to do the final stand-up on his farewell show. And he absolutely killed. “Mr. Letterman is not for the mawkish, and he has no truck for the sentimental,” he said after his set, steadying himself as his voice began to break and tears welled. “If something is true, it is not sentimental. And I say in truth, I love you.”

“If we could have, we would have had Norm on every damn week,” Dave told The Washington Post in 2016. “He is funny in a way that some people inhale and exhale. With others, you can tell the comedy, the humor is considered. With Norm, he exudes it. It’s sort of a furnace in him because he’s so effortless. The combination of the delivery and his appearance and his intelligence. There may be people as funny as Norm, but I don’t know anybody who is funnier.”

Other memorable appearances included the time Jay Leno tried to teach him to drive (which Norm was always reluctant to do) and his half-million-dollar victory on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on behalf of Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for seriously ill children, where his dumb-guy persona fell away by necessity. (And by the way he knew the answer to the million-dollar question too, but Regis made him second-guess himself, and afterward, Norm kind of looked like he wanted to strangle him. Newman later invited Norm to his home in Connecticut, but he was too nervous to go.)

Some of Norm’s best interviews took place during his book tour for Based on a True Story: A Memoir, published in 2016. None provide any clues about how much of the book is actually true (he wanted it categorized as Fiction), though “The Final Chapter” feels very real. (But the title is fake. Two more chapters follow.) And we’ll always be left to wonder about the bone-chilling conclusion of Chapter Four, but to love Norm was to take him on his own terms, and he said as much as he wanted to say.

While Larry King has been roundly mocked as facile (including by Norm), their interview covered a lot of serious ground, touching on the origins of the book as well as faith, mortality, and assisted suicide. (As they went to commercial after the first segment, Norm said, “This has been hysterical so far…”) His Facebook chat was a bit lighter, as he sipped on a giant frappucino while sending up the whole format—dramatically repeating each question before answering it—stopping occasionally to point out what a huge waste of time Facebook is.

In his Conan appearance, he alluded to “juicy bits” that weren’t in the book—and somehow seamelessly topped off a series of 1930s-style “take my wife” jokes with one about oral sex in a hospital room.

And he did a terrific book reading and Q&A in D.C. with Washington Post reporter Geoff Edgers, who also gave us this “A Day in the Life of Norm Macdonald” video (though come on, a day? It was five minutes)—with Norm’s wonderful Mom, Ferne, doling out tomato sandwiches on rye and, in the tradition of all great Moms, rarely sitting down.

Norm also left us with countless hours of radio, since, like Conan, the hosts always “wanted more Norm.” Dennis Miller could never get enough of him; one of my favorite spots was Norm calling in to talk about his newfound love of ventriloquism—or puppets, as Dennis insisted on calling them. “They’re not puppets, they’re ventriloquist dummies, and even that is a little epithetic,” says Norm, wounded. “I call them my friends. My friends in the bag.” During the call, Dennis is often just gasping for air and making little squeaky sounds. “Norm is so funny and so smart I can’t even predict he’ll ever assume his rightful position at the top of the medal stand,” he once mused all too accurately. “It’s sort of like Galileo or something of comedy, he’s not for his times in a real way.”

Howard Stern, of course, also loved him. “Many times when I’m feeling down I go on YouTube and I watch you,” he told Norm during a guest spot. “You are the man, you are my comedy choice, whenever I’m looking for something on YouTube or wherever it is, you’re my first comedy choice.” I love this clip where he hilariously laces into a Rolling Stone reporter who ambushed his friend Artie Lange; Norm came by his skepticism of the media the hard way, and years later it would once again prove to be well founded.

I also loved Norm’s appearance on The Best of Our Knowledge radio show, where they talked about menefreghismo, which is more or less the art of not giving a rat’s ass, using Dean Martin, one of Norm’s heroes, as an example. And Norm got to interview another of his idols, Robert Duvall, in a fabulous half-hour conversation. (More than once, Norm had cajoled a radio host into riffing on one of his favorite movie scenes, the one in The Godfather where a dryly menacing Tom Hagen is asking producer Jack Woltz to give Johnny Fontaine a plum part in his new film. Norm always took the Duvall role.)

As a guest, one of his best interviews was on Marc Maron’s podcast in 2011, where he touched on a huge range of topics, including his own mortality and his quest to strengthen his faith: “That’s what I’m trying to get to is God… I read lots of literature, Tolstoy, Faulkner, and faith keeps coming up… why are all these guys, it all comes down to faith, you know? It seems like every great fuckin’ novel I read, it seems like faith is the only salvation…”

Norm was always a seeker. He didn’t settle on some comfortable bit of dogma and say, “Okay I’m done.” So when he continued to talk about issues like faith and mortality in recent years, it seemed a natural extension of his soul searching rather than cause for alarm. If he had made his illness public, it would have colored everything he said and did; instead of really hearing him, a lot of people would’ve just nodded and said, “Well of course he’s talking about that now”. And it would have killed his unique style of take-no-prisoners comedy.

In fact he was appalled by celebrities discussing their illnesses—or even, in some cases, making it the cornerstone of their acts: “It’s almost, like, the height of narcissism when you think you’re going to be so brave as to talk about it in person when all you’re doing is garnering sympathy for yourself,” he told Chris Hardwick on the Nerdist podcast. “I mean, how is that brave? It seems cowardly.”

Given how fearlessly he tackled every topic, podcasting seemed a natural progression, and in March 2013 he launched Norm Macdonald Live, with guests including David Letterman, Bill Hader, Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Carrey. A steady dose of Norm, for thirteen episodes! It was like heaven. He even threw himself hilariously into the ads for his sponsors, saying with a straight face how he couldn’t wait to get home and listen to, say, Wynonna Judd’s new book on audible.com. The only one he couldn’t deadpan his way through was the ad for the Mangrate, a big ol’ manly set of cast iron grilling grates, which Norm and his guests ridiculed mercilessly until, as Norm recalled, he and the company parted ways “without amicability.”

Norm was a great host, because he devoured everything he could find out about his guests beforehand and then really listened to them as they told their stories, so it was more of a conversation than an interview. There was no formulaic road map, so he always took you somewhere interesting. Sometimes, as with Carl Reiner, the talk turned to old movies, which Norm loved and which make up about ninety percent of my bloodstream. When he recognized a photo of June Allyson in Reiner’s book, I felt my heart quicken. It didn’t surprise me when he talked about people like Buster Keaton or Robert Ryan but Jesus Christ, he even knows June fecking Allyson!

Norm’s friends often fretted over their host. Super Dave Osborne kicked the series off with a rant: “I love you. A man as brilliant as you is doing a podcast for 18 people. And Kim Kardashian’s mother has a talk show.” Kevin Nealon asked what he was doing with himself, and if he had a publicist. And Bob Saget said over and over again how good it was to see him.

But after 26 episodes across two years, his podcast was offline for all of 2015 and most of 2016, before one last season appeared that fall. Then he was gone again.

In 2018, Norm was set to resume his podcasting career, this time on the mega-platform of Netflix, when an interview with The Hollywood Reporter went off the rails. Norm mentioned that he had put two dear friends, Roseanne and Louis CK, in touch with each other after both had been cancelled into oblivion for their wretched behavior; he felt they were each in a unique position to understand what the other was going through. His comments were taken to mean that he thought their ordeal was worse than that of victims—something he never said or even implied. In fact his actions were prompted, in part, by concern that Roseanne—a loyal friend who had given him his first big writing job in Hollywood—sounded so distraught he feared she might harm herself.

The Twitterverse, which feeds on outrage the way vampire bats feed on blood, went wild. Trump hair-tousler Jimmy Fallon even cancelled Norm’s Tonight Show appearance because some of his staffers “were crying” over it.

Wow, drama queen much? If you come that unglued because of a misinterpreted comment from a complete stranger, what would you do if something genuinely horrible happened to you in real life? Would you have to go straight into a care home? Meanwhile, of course, Norm was coping with something truly catastrophic, and doing so with incredible grace. You can only imagine what was going through his mind having to deal with this petty, narcissistic crap.

This would sort of be a non-celebrity version of what happened to Norm:
You: “I’m going to the hospital to visit my best friend. He was stupidly speeding and hit another car.”
Everyone on Twitter: “But what about the people in the other car?!? Do you not care about them at all?!? I am literally shaking right now.”

Norm tweeted, “Roseanne and Louis have both been very good friends of mine for many years. They both made terrible mistakes and I would never defend their actions. If my words sound like I was minimizing the pain their victims feel to this day, I am deeply sorry.” And he went on The View to further clarify what he meant in the THR interview: “I said that not many of us have gone through this and so you should talk to each other because you’ve… you’ve… and then the guy said well what about the victims and I said well the victims haven’t gone through this. I was talking about this particular event. Of course the victims have gone through worse than that, but I’m gonna get a victim to phone Roseanne?”

The idea of being lumped in with predators clearly horrified this genuinely decent man. But while he never minimized the victims’ pain, he somehow managed to make light of his own: “I don’t want to be tossed in with people who did… not crimes but sins… I barely have consensual sex, let alone…”

Watching him go through this, I swung back and forth between welling up with tears and vibrating with rage. And then at the end, one of the hosts said something like, “So are you going to watch everything you say from now on?” And he smiled politely, but sort of crinkled his eyes like, “Wow, really?” And I thought Thank God!

The only thing stronger than Norm’s reputation for brilliance was his rep among his friends as a truly good person. And that spilled out publicly too. I remember hearing a radio interview where a woman from Hawaii called in to say she saw him at the airport and wanted to talk to him but he was rude. (Norm took his extended family to Hawaii every Thanksgiving.) And he seemed surprised and distressed: “Did you come up and say hello?” It turned out she hadn’t, but was discouraged when they “made eye contact” and he didn’t seem happy. Which is shocking, cause, you know, most of us skip giddily through airports, especially when we’re shlepping our entire family in tow. He apologized profusely (for having done nothing wrong) and said when people do come up to him, he usually talks to them “endlessly.”

Then there’s this amazing clip. How many heckling exchanges begin like this?

Heckler: “Hey you’re not very funny!”
Comedian: “Pardon me?”

At any rate, once the internet jackals had their bellies full—or grew bored and moved on to fresh prey—the Netflix series Norm Macdonald Has a Show hit the air, with guests including David Letterman, Michael Keaton, Jane Fonda, Jerry Seinfeld and one of Norm’s musical heroes, outlaw-country singer Billy Joe Shaver (the original “Old Chunk of Coal”). “I’ve watched it and I’ve talked to other people who find it compelling… you can’t take your eyes off,” said Dave. And it’s true. It wasn’t a talk show you had on in the background while were you doing other things. You wanted to sit down and watch it. They were great conversations because he was great company.

It should’ve been renewed for another season, but it wasn’t; apparently there weren’t a sufficient number of clicks for the suits in the suites. But Jesus, at a zillion-dollar behemoth like Netflix, does everything have to do blockbuster numbers? Whatever happened to quality niche programming?

Watch the 10 episodes before they’re pulled down; some of the content on there has the shelf life of buttermilk in a shorted-out fridge. (Though perversely, now that Norm is gone, the clicks are probably up exponentially.)

When Covid-19 took hold in the spring of last year, Norm hosted a few brief, fabulous shows from his sofa, Quarantined with Norm Macdonald, with guests including Bob Saget and Roseanne. Norm first met Bob when he saw him at a comedy club in Ottawa as a teenager.

“You made fun of me and I had weird hair and you said, uh, take the ribbon from your hair and you kept coming back to me,” Norm recalled. “And then I afterwards like an idiot went up to you at the bar, like people do, like as if they’re part of the act and I was like, hey should we talk? And you were just trying to get ladies, you know…”

“Well I think it’s the way you said shall we talk. It was almost like saying get in the car…”

The videos lasted just five episodes, and not a lot was heard from Norm for a while. But that was pretty much true of the whole country, the whole world even.

When David Letterman guested on Norm’s podcast, he told him, “We always worry a little about you because we regard you as the top of the heap, the best of the best, the funniest of the funny, the guy who has it in every fiber of his being, not conjured, the real thing.”

A lot of us who never knew him worried about him too. He seemed like he was carrying a lot around inside him. Was he depressed? Was he taking care of himself? Was he okay?

I feel like Norm should have had so much more, you know? Mostly a lot more years. But more everything. And damn whatever forces held him back. But I’m so grateful he pushed through, especially these past nine years, and gave us everything he did.

Six years into the illness that would claim his life, Norm posted this:

At times, the joy that life attacks me with is unbearable and leads to gasping hysterical laughter. I find myself completely out of control and wonder how could life could surprise me again and again and again, so completely. How could a man be a cynic? It is a sin.

I could go on and on (you may have already suspected that), but I’ll close with a couple of things. First, a compilation from a while ago, of fellow comedians talking about how incredible he is. Thank you for loving him and for letting him know you did.

And finally, Bob Saget’s beautiful tribute to the friend he held so dear.

Love and safe journeys, Norm. I hope all the answers you searched for, and everything you yearned for, were waiting for you on the other side.

10 Comments

  1. James

    Awesome job worth the wait

    • Thank you so much, love! I really put my heart and soul into this.

  2. David Webb

    Great portrait of a man who was underappreciated by the public although revered by his fellow comedians.
    Also enjoyed the intro about the bad date….this kind of personal touch elevates your writing to a whole new level.

  3. I’m laughing. I’m crying. I think I’m even glad to be human.

    • Thank you so much, Paddy! I know you, as a classic film kindred spirit, knows what it’s like to deeply grieve someone you never met. I appreciate the kind words, and hope this finds you well!!

  4. M

    This is beautiful. Thank you for writing and sharing this. I have liked Norm over the years but have didn’t realize how gutted I would be when the news of his passing hit. To learn that he is such a loving, fiercely loyal, genuine person, trying to make people laugh despite the pain, he’s really left us way too soon.
    I am guilty of taken him for granted while he was alive. I wished the Norm show would ran a bit longer and he would have had a better film or TV career. At his best he resembles a young Paul Newman and at times Brando, yet there is a affability about him that would have made him a bigger star that never materialized. His quote about Count Chocula is really devastating for me.
    My apologies for such a long winded reply. This is such a beautiful summary of the life of a man who I find endlessly fascinating. RIP Norm.

    • Nothing long winded about it, I loved every word. Thank you for sharing your feelings.

  5. ee

    what a great job you did doing a real coverage of his work ❤

    • Thank you so much, it was a real labor of love!

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