As most would know already, the great Canadian comedian Norm MacDonald has left us following a private battle with cancer that lasted almost a decade. He was 61 years old.
I don’t even remember when I first became aware of Norm. It was probably when he was anchoring Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live back in the 90’s, although I was most likely too young and too Australian to understand all his jokes. His wit and brutality made him seem fearless. It seemed no one was safe with Norm behind the desk.
Norm’s minor role in Billy Madison seemed to suit his laconic style perfectly. If anyone could be believed to be a mature-age drunken slacker mooching off his friends’ money, it was Norm. And I say that with nothing but love and respect.
He was a man not afraid of controversy, as his monologue upon his return to SNL as host demonstrated. The irony of being considered not funny enough to be a cast member to then suddenly being asked to host was a point he drove home mercilessly.
He also antagonised the cast of The View, hilariously making them visibly uncomfortable as he persisted in commenting about how Bill Clinton “killed a guy”, which is another story altogether in itself.
His regular appearances on talk shows with the likes of Conan O’Brien and David Letterman were perhaps where he shined brightest, bouncing effortlessly off other guests and turning interviews that seemed to be dull and drowning into some of the funniest television ever. His intervention into Courtney Thorne-Smith’s interview on Conan is perfect example as he hilariously belittles her co-star Carrot Top.
At other times he would fill his entire guest spot with a drawn-out, meandering joke that seemed to be going nowhere. The punchline was often deliberately anti-climatic, with Norm seemingly taking absolute pleasure in screwing with the host and the audience. Need an example? There is perhaps none finer than the classic Moth Joke.
As Letterman called time on his show, Norm delivered a classic stand-up spot which he seamlessly followed with a heartfelt tribute to David and his career. It was everything Norm in just a few minutes: brilliant comedy, genuine honestly and deep respect.
Norm’s stand up was as fearless and funny as anything he ever did. His special Me Doing Standup featured a long sequence which began with “I would never kill a lady in cold blood” followed by Norm launching into a detailed description of exactly how he would do that very thing. In today’s world it’s a risky bit, but Norm added just enough irreverence and cheeky innocence to pull it off.
In Hitler’s Dog: Gossip And Trickery he spoke of how people battle with cancer and if they die it’s like they’re a loser. In light of his passing from leukaemia, I find this quote suddenly laden with much greater meaning than when I first heard it.
“When you die, the cancer dies as well. So to me, that’s not a loss, that’s a draw.”
Can’t fault the logic there.
Any man who can battle cancer for nearly a decade while still making people laugh and working as though he’s fit and healthy can never be considered a loser. The fact that the cancer prevailed in the end is irrelevant. It is the defiant act of a courageous and strong individual, somebody wishing to be defined and remembered by their body of work, not their diagnosis. The man himself might have called his fate “a draw” but I’m giving him the win.
Celebrity deaths have never really affected me too greatly, with a few exceptions. Chris Cornell’s passing shocked me. He was a big voice during my teenage years and his talent as a singer, songwriter and musician was undeniable. He wrote songs I related to and he wrote music I loved. His death was a real shock.
Norm MacDonald’s death has had a similar affect. Partly because it was so unexpected, I guess. But mainly because I have held such respect for the man for so many years and been so entertained by him for so long. Like so many, I admired his immense talent, range and humility.
With his passing, the world is a little less funny.
To me, Norm MacDonald was always a hard comedian to categorise because he seemed to be able to do just about anything. Crude or clean, modern observation or old-timey gags and even Dangerfield-esque quips, Norm could do them all. It always flowed naturally and kept the audience guessing.
Many of his greatest jokes were blatant lies masquerading as truth, but the twinkle in his eye let you know you were being had. You didn’t mind, because it was much more fun to see where his lies would lead.
Sometimes Norm seemed more interested in amusing himself at the expense of the audience rather than getting the laughs. In reality he probably craved the audience validation as much as any other comedian, but if so he sure as hell wasn’t letting anyone know that.
In a crowded comedy landscape he was a unique voice, a distinct personality and a courageous performer, both for his range and his ability to be unashamedly himself for so long. He was far more intelligent than he let on and he was a master of his craft.
Like many I have spent much of the time since Norm’s passing binge-watching his performances and appearances online. We should be grateful for sites like YouTube that have become virtual museums and memorials to so many great entertainers. To have the comedy of Norm MacDonald available at your fingertips is truly a privilege. I’m almost as grateful for the technology as I am for having been able to enjoy the work of the man himself.
For an “old chunk of coal” you brought immense joy and laughter to so many. We thank you.
Rest In Peace, Norm.