Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Norm Macdonald

The head of the DPN Talent agency says “he defined American humor with honesty and blunt force.”

Leave to a Canadian to do that.

The Canadian was Norm Macdonald, who has died of cancer at age 61.

Norm truly was a Canadian comedian at the start. At the “Just For Laughs” festival in Montreal in 1986, one of his sketches involved the country’s three main political leaders—Brian Mulroney, John Turner and Ed Broadbent—in a Grade 2 arithmetic class. He also explained why NASA chose Canadian Marc Garneau to travel on the space shuttle. “They needed a subject for their motion sickness study; and it was either a Canadian or a chimpanzee.”

Parts of the festival were taped and aired on the CBC. The Toronto Globe and Mail described Macdonald’s bits as “unremarkable imitations” and “a few tired jokes.” It wouldn’t be the first time critics would assail his style of comedy. (The same Globe critic declared Andrea Martin “not particularly funny.” That gives you an idea of his headspace).

What else was his stand-up act like then? The Ottawa Citizen of March 9, 1987 revealed what he was performing for more than $30,000 a year:

He steps onto the stage and, staring into the lights, launches straight into his routine, seemingly unaware of the crowd.
"I was going to give up smoking," he says, "but then I heard the government was planning to give heroin to cancer patients. So I thought I'd hang in there for a while."
Laughter and scattered applause.
His material is topical and intelligent. Though most of the laughs are long and loud, a joke that was a hit at the early show seems to fly high above the heads of the people at the late show: Macdonald is doing a vignette from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as it might be done by Archie and Edith Bunker.
"Beware the oides of Mawch," he squeals in a great Edith Bunker imitation. But the blank faces and near-silence that greets the material quickly tells Macdonald that the only Caesar this crowd knows about comes in a glass with a celery stalk.
"Never mind," he says, moving quickly onto more successful material.
In an interview after the show, Macdonald says one of the first things comedians have to do is "get a sense of the level each crowd is at.
"If something isn't working, it doesn't matter how well it went over somewhere else. You'd better find something they will laugh at, damn fast."
He once appeared at a London, Ont. club during lunch, when the audience consisted of "three little old ladies having a pension party. I scrapped most of my act and tried to remember every old Bob Hope joke I could think of."

But Macdonald told the paper he had to leave Canada to make big money because there were ten times as many comedy clubs in the U.S. And that’s what he did.

His timing was good. American cable TV seemed to be filled with stand-up comedy programmes and Macdonald seemed to get a shot on all of them.

Then he got a big break with regular appearances on a late night show. No, not Carson. Here’s part of an interview with him in the January 6, 1990 edition of the Ottawa Citizen:

Four years ago he was a mild mannered Ottawa file clerk who worked up the nerve to get up on the stage at Yuk Yuk's and tell some jokes.
Now Norm Macdonald is making monthly appearances on the Pat Sajak TV talk show, he has an apartment in Los Angeles and performs in comedy clubs across the United States.
For 28-year-old Macdonald, success in the competitive world of stand-up comedy has come faster than he ever expected. ...
He's an improved comedian from the one who faced the hot lights for the first time on amateur night at the club and told some jokes about Joe Clark and John Turner, he says.
"I don't remember what my jokes were. They were pretty lame. I did political jokes, social jokes, because I thought that's what I should be doing, since this was Ottawa," Macdonald said in an interview at the club Thursday night after his first performance.
"I think they laughed, but not very much. But I knew I could be better. I knew I could come up with better material, so I kept at it."
Before taking up comedy full time, Macdonald had a variety of unsatisfying jobs, including a file clerk at an insurance company. He says he decided to try comedy because he suspected it was something at which he would succeed.
"I was never the class clown. I'm not a wisecrack. I don't have fast comeback lines in a conversation. But I knew I could be funny when I have time to develop some material." ...
After a few performances, Macdonald says he learned quickly to abandon the political material and find humor from experiences in his own life.
"People relate more to things that happen to you every day. That stuff almost always goes over better," says Macdonald, who spent his teen years in Ottawa and attended Gloucester High School. ...
On being caught smoking by his father: "I was eight. Or 11. One of those ages. He grabbed a giant cigar and made me smoke it right to the end. (Pause) "That's when I started smoking cigars really heavily."
On his doubts about the Oedipus complex: "When I was eight years old I couldn't even understand my dad's motivation. Dad, she makes a nice baloney sandwich, can't you leave it at that?"
In a segment on the moronic questions on The Dating Game, he launches into a falsetto voice to imitate the airheaded contestants: "Bachelor number one: If I were a Popsicle, what would you do with me?"
He deepens his voice to imitate the typically razor-sharp wit of bachelor number one.
"Well, first I'd unwrap you, if you know what I mean. Then I'd hold your sticks, if you know what I mean."
He even sends up formula stand-up jokes in a lengthy segment on smoking.
"I quit cold turkey. Next I'm planning to give up smoking. (Pause). "HA HA HA. A little kindergarten joke there for you."

Macdonald’s obits mention he died of cancer. He first battled the disease more than 30 years ago. The Montreal Gazette of May 4, 1991 reported:

MacDonald has slain them twice on David Letterman's show in recent months, and just finished shooting a one-man comedy special to be broadcast next week on the U.S. cable service HBO. ...
MacDonald's career is back on track after a detour: the former furniture-mover received several promising offers after his gig at the '86 comedy fest, but then he was afflicted with stomach cancer. He spent a year recuperating, and had to start again from scratch on the comedy-club circuit.
MacDonald now kids about giving new meaning to the expression "dying on stage." And routines about fallen cliff-divers trying to make a comeback are more than just gags - they seem like eerie metaphors of his career.
Although recovered, he's uncomfortable discussing the past.
"I tried joking about it in my act at first," says MacDonald, sprawled on the king-sized bed of his Montreal hotel room. "But it didn't work. People thought I was making it all up. And when they realized I wasn't, I think it freaked them.
"It certainly gave me a new perspective on my career and life. I live better, and I quit smoking. But my attitude has changed too. Before I used to do a lot of dark material with an edge - now I try not to offend people as much, although I'm still as dry as I was."

In 1992, he landed a gig writing for Roseanne Barr (years later, getting grief for defending a racist comment she had made) was added to the cast of Saturday Night Live a year later and then being chosen over Al Franken to do the “Weekend Update” section of the show (Franken then decided to leave).

Critics hated the show and hated Macdonald. A sampling of reviews at the time:

● Norm MacDonald [w]as the stiffest Weekend Update anchor since Kevin Nealon. – Manuel Mendoza, Dallas Morning News and syndicated.
● Norm MacDonald, who has taken over “Weekend Update” from Kevin Nealon, isn’t working out at all. – Jim Bawden, Toronto Star.
● [T]he "Weekend Update" sketch was at first a showcase for the wonderfully weird and schizoid talents of a young Chevy Chase. Everyone else, emphatically including the latest occupant of Chase's chair, Norm MacDonald, has been simply a script-reader. – Robert P. Laurence, San Diego Union.
● This season Norm MacDonald has taken over anchoring duties from Kevin Nealon, but the switch is hardly an improvement. – Diane Holloway, Austin American Statesman.
● Norm MacDonald has been upgraded to “Update” anchor, but is watering down the dark misanthropy that made him such a welcome bit player. – Rick Marin, Newsweek.

However, Macdonald did have a supporter in John J. O’Connor of the New York Times:

[T]he venerable "Weekend Update" has perked up considerably with the arrival of Norm MacDonald as the new anchor delivering the non-news, things like Ken Burns's next television project being a series on "History of the Dorky Haircut" or a "Cats" anniversary on Broadway being "the 5,000th time a guy turned to his wife and said, 'What the hell is this?'"

And Frank Wooten of the Charleston Post and Courier noted in a column in the December 6th edition:

On Saturday's "Weekend Update," deadpanner Norm MacDonald, who hasn't fired many winners, finally scored a direct hit after reporting the in-prison slaying of Jeffrey Dahmer:
"Just before the fight, Dahmer threatened, 'Hey, don't mess with me, pal - I used to eat guys like you for breakfast.'

Macdonald’s “Update” began to rankle NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer who, according to Tom Shales’ and James Andrew Miller’s book ‘Live From New York,’ “mounted a relentless, obsessive campaign to get Macdonald removed from the post. Ohlmeyer was a long-time golfing buddy of O.J. Simpson, but insisted Macdonald’s removal in January 1998 wasn’t because he would open a “Weekend Update” after Simpson’s acquittal with “It’s now official: murder is legal in the state of California.”

Macdonald didn’t want to carry on with SNL after that; he complained he had to “put on a Bob Dole mask” and “appear in people’s sketches every week on some lame premise.” (Dole apparently liked Macdonald’s impression). He finally got off the show and moved on to other things. Perhaps they were lesser things. But Macdonald is being remembered today for his bemused expression giving way to quirky and sometimes forthright humour.

1 comment:

  1. RIP to the one and only Norm MacDonald. I
    dead about earlier and posted it to Facebook & twitter(TM).