In 2008, Comedy Central was preparing to roast Bob Saget. He seemed like a prime target, and they arranged an impressive dais that included everyone from the roast master John Stamos to the roasters that included Greg Giraldo, Gilbert Gottfried, Jeff Ross, Jon Lovitz, Jeff Garlin, Susie Essman, and even Cloris Leachman. Originally scheduled to appear was Artie Lange, who was replaced at the last minute by a reluctant Norm Macdonald.
Macdonald was not really a “roast” type, but agreed as a favor to Saget the night before. When Norm asked what he should do, the producer of the Roast told him to just be “shocking.” To Norm Macdonald, the shocking thing to do was to go in the complete opposite direction and do the cleanest, most boring jokes straight out of a 1950’s joke book. The comics were howling, the audience was confused, and Norm was clearly delighted with both responses.
Nobody could replicate his brand of humor. Whether it was a profane one-liner or a silly 20-minute run that danced around in circles for 19 of those 20 minutes, there was an artfulness to it all. And over time, he became regarded as a master of his craft. It may be cliche, but it’s never been more true. He was the kind of guy that they’d all gather in the back just to watch, on the edge of their seats to see what the f*ck would come out his mouth next. The more unexpected or nonsensical, the funnier. Plus, he had a quality that all comedians wish they had but few ever actually achieved: not giving a sh*t and just going where the laugh would take him.
A comic may act as if they don’t give a sh*t, but at the end of the day, laughter is truly the only barometer there is in stand-up. If the crowd isn’t laughing, a mental note may be made that it’s something to rework and fine tune. It’s a pretty safe bet to say that most comedians strive and work tirelessly to keep the audiences on their side. Then at the opposite end of that spectrum, you have Norm.
Norm Macdonald was perhaps the absolute king of appearing to not giving a sh*t. He once told Howard Stern “I don’t care if I bomb or kill. Nothing matters to me.” Did he like to bomb? No, he clarified. He followed that up with “Let’s put it this way. You get up in front of a group of people and try to make them laugh. Try your hardest to make them laugh, and then they don’t laugh. That’s funny.”
To Norm, nothing was funnier than the waiting period for a payoff that didn’t seem quite worth it. Take his famous moth joke for instance that he did on The Tonight Show in 2009. Nothing about the joke itself is funny. The joke is about as hackneyed and lame as you can get. You’d certainly never do it on TV. But Macdonald knew that making the audience wait and sit through five minutes of boring set-up and deliver a standard and unfunny punchline would deliver. And goddammit if it didn’t work. When he eventually gets to the payoff, the laughs are uproarious. The punchline was never the joke. It was all in the never ending journey to the punchline.
There is perhaps no better testament to Macdonald’s relentlessness as a comic when it came to a good joke than his constant O.J. Simpson quips on SNL’s Weekend Update. In 1995, you couldn’t turn on your TV without hearing people talk about the Simpson trial. It was everywhere, and people couldn’t get enough of the runaway circus. One of those people included MacDonald, who continuously made jokes and references to Simpson on Weekend Update.
These went on long after Simpson was acquitted and the public consciousness had moved onto the next story. And then there was MacDonald, still hammering away and making sure you never forgot the old news story for a second. This was a move that cost him his job at SNL, as the President of NBC was a golfing pal of Simpson. And even after all that, MacDonald has stated that he wouldn’t change a thing. In short, losing a job was worth the best jokes.
Everybody seems to have a good Norm story. When he wasn’t making people laugh onstage, he was constantly determined to keep everyone laughing offstage. And those stories – which range from ridiculous to incredibly insane – turned Macdonald from just another really funny comic into a mythical comedy legend. It was almost like Norm was a litmus test. If you brought him up to a stranger and their eyes lit up at the same time yours did, you became instant friends.
Today, the comedy community came out in droves to honor the late, great Norm Macdonald.
Every one of us loved Norm. Some of the hardest laughs of my life with this man. Most fearless funny original guy we knew. An incredible dad. A great friend. A legend. Love u pal. pic.twitter.com/2Pftw28uPc
— Adam Sandler (@AdamSandler) September 14, 2021
Just gutted about Norm. When I was going through a tough time after I was publicly defined as a “racist p.o.s.” Norm Macdonald was literally the FIRST person to reach out and tell me that he knew that was ridiculous, that he knew I was a good person and that he had my back. RIP
— david cross✍ (@davidcrosss) September 14, 2021
There was no one like Norm MacDonald ; Every time I watched him perform was a gift. Thank you Norm … thinking of you and your family on this sad day. pic.twitter.com/BfEtja3tqB
— Dave Attell (@attell) September 14, 2021
Sorry to hear about the death of Norm Macdonald. He was one of the greats of comedy. And he was also a really good guy. He will be missed. pic.twitter.com/wdZnnooKPE
— Brian Regan (@BrianReganComic) September 15, 2021
To so many people in comedy, me included, there was nobody funnier than Norm MacDonald. You always hoped he would hang around after the work was done, just so you could hear his stories and get a laugh. So hilarious and so generous with his personality. I’m gonna miss him.
— Seth MacFarlane (@SethMacFarlane) September 14, 2021
One of the funniest people #SNL ever produced is gone, but will never be forgotten. I’ve spent many an hour on YouTube over the years enjoying all the characters he gave us. In a word: HILARIOUS.🤣Thanks for a lifetime of laughs @normmacdonald. #RIP 💔 pic.twitter.com/pK9lK3Rz87
— Mark Hamill (@HamillHimself) September 14, 2021
Sad for the loss of a wonderful man and a great comic, Norm Macdonald. Prayers for his family.
— Tim Allen (@ofctimallen) September 14, 2021
One of the easiest things I’ve ever done was hire my bud #NormMacdonald to write the Roseanne show in 1992. Harder was letting him out of his contract in 1993 so he could take his dream job on SNL.Norm was fearless in comedy & life & his unique voice is missed by all of us today
— Tom Arnold (@TomArnold) September 14, 2021
Norm Macdonald has passed away. He was one of the best comics ever. After we talked in 2011 I couldn’t believe what an amazing talk it was. I still can’t. One of the best episodes. Here it is. RIP https://t.co/344Ph5pFjn
— marc maron (@marcmaron) September 14, 2021
My dear friend Norm MacDonald passed after a brave 10 year battle. He was one of our most precious gems. An honest and courageous comedy genius. I love him.
— Jim Carrey (@JimCarrey) September 14, 2021
Norm MacDonald was the comic who could find the funny in anything no matter how tragic. I’m sure he had a great take on his own untimely death but that’s beyond me. I’ll miss running into him at various comedy do’s. No matter who was there he was always the funniest in the room.
— Scott Thompson (@ScottThompson_) September 14, 2021
— Late Night with Seth Meyers (@LateNightSeth) September 15, 2021
We loved Norm MacDonald. One of a kind. https://t.co/0sXoCLEtuG
— Steve Martin (@SteveMartinToGo) September 14, 2021
This photo was taken after I was a guest on Norm’s show. At dinner the laughs just continued nonstop. He will be missed. RIP Norm Macdonald pic.twitter.com/DToJCUBdU2
— Gilbert Gottfried (@RealGilbert) September 14, 2021
Today is a sad day. All of us here at SNL mourn the loss of Norm Macdonald, one of the most impactful comedic voices of his or any other generation. pic.twitter.com/KQYuuz5eM9
— Saturday Night Live – SNL (@nbcsnl) September 14, 2021
Oh fuck. I was a huge fan of Norm Macdonald and I essentially ripped off his delivery when I first started acting. I would stay up specifically to watch him on talk shows. He was the funniest guest of all time. We lost a comedy giant today. One of the the all time greats. RIP.
— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) September 14, 2021
It’s like North America lost a favorite uncle.
— Thomas Lennon (@thomaslennon) September 14, 2021
When I was in college in New York, my girlfriend and two other friends who are dating went into the city for a night out. Norm McDonald, who had just joined SNL, was in the bar we were in. We struck up a conversation, and he was funny, kind, and all by himself there (cont)
— Matt Braunger (@Braunger) September 14, 2021
Devastated. Met Norm in Ottawa when he was in my audience at 17 years old. Been close for decades. We have lost a comedic genius. No other voice in comedy has been as uniquely prolific, brazen, dark, hilarious, and heartfelt. Love you forever, Norm. pic.twitter.com/V44nyouhQN
— bob saget (@bobsaget) September 14, 2021
I will miss you forever!@normmacdonald pic.twitter.com/guVNMZpyzM
— Artie Lange (@artiequitter) September 14, 2021
Even beyond the comedy community, Norm Macdonald seemed to make a strong impact.
No one enjoyed @nbcsnl’s Celebrity Jeopardy! more than Alex Trebek.
Everyone at Jeopardy! mourns the passing of Norm Macdonald, whose characters and humor always made us smile! Our hearts go out to his friends and family.
— Jeopardy! (@Jeopardy) September 14, 2021
— Senator Bob Dole (@SenatorDole) September 14, 2021