Sunday, September 19, 2021

Sunday Best: Rest in Peace Norm MacDonald

File:Norm Macdonald.jpg
photo by playerx from laguna hills,ca, US


I was only a late fan to the late comedian.

Growing up I knew Norm MacDonald primarily from two things: Saturday Night Live and Billy Madison.  In both cases he failed to make an impression with me.  Throughout the years, I would see him pop up from time to time, but he didn't really make it onto my radar.

And yet, he was adored by other comedians.  He was one of David Letterman's final hand-picked guests.  He was constantly lauded by other stand-ups.  I've heard more than one famous comedian say that there was no one funnier than Norm.

You have to understand that as a kid I loved stand-up comedy.  I used to stay up on week-nights from 11pm-midnight to watch A&E's Evening at the Improv.  I had comedy tapes of Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, and others.  The art of stand-up is one that I truly admire.

As I grew older and I saw how comedy was becoming less and less funny (or perhaps I was losing my sense of humor).  I began to revisit some of Norm's old material, particularly from when he hosted Weekend Update on SNL.  What I discovered was a with and delivery that I missed as a kid.  When I was younger, his jokes went over my head.  Now, I can see how he pushed boundaries in order to find laughs that no one else would get.  His OJ jokes continue to make me laugh.  He spent weeks using a recurring punchline, "Or so the Germans would have us believe" in order to set up an even bigger punchline out of nowhere.

I will admit that when I listen to his stand-up shows, it sometimes goes a little too blue for my tastes.  But even there I can now see his intelligence.

Norm MacDonald was actually an incredibly well-read person.  He read broadly and deeply.  And yet, he always played the part of the stumbling idiot.  That's part of what made his jokes even funnier.

He could pull off a simple three sentence joke like: "Cliff diving, there's an interesting sport.  There doesn't seem to be a lot of margin for error.  You're either 'Grand Champion' or 'Stuff on a rock.'"

But he could also spin a set up to its breaking point.  If you've never heard his Moth Joke, please look at it.  As humor is subjective, I'm sure some won't enjoy it.  But that was the joke that made me go from liking him to loving him.

The thing that all the comedians admired him for was that he was completely dedicated to comedy as an art.  He wasn't someone who wrapped himself into knots about it like Jim Carrey playing Andy Kaufman.  But Norm only cared about if something was funny.  He didn't care if it was offensive or politically correct.  If he found a joke, he would go with it.  You can see that in his time on shows like The View or in the legendary episode where he rips into Carrot Top in front of his movie co-star Courtney Thorne-Smith on Late Nite with Conan O'Brien.

He constantly searched for the perfect joke, which was one where the set up and punchline were the same.  The closest he came, Norm said, was when he said, "Lyle Lovett and Julia Roberts are getting a divorce and people close to the couple say the reason is because he’s Lyle Lovett and she’s Julia Roberts."

It was also this fearlessness that supposedly got him fired from SNL.  The story goes that an executive at NBC was friends with OJ Simpson and told Norm to ease off of the accused murderer.  For a comedian, the Weekend Update spot is a prime set on one of the most watched comedy shows in history.  Rather than cower, Norm doubled-down and did more jokes about Simpson.  And so Norm was allegedly fired for not bending the knee.

Another thing that set Norm apart was that he was public about his Christian faith.  In interviews he seems to struggle a lot with all of its implications, but for a man dedicated to jokes, he sure seemed to take the question of God seriously.  He was a man with serious flaws who wrestled with a lot.  He was a gambling addict, but he once joked, "It may be a disease, but its the only disease where you can win money!"  He was married with a son, but he and his wife separated after 11 years.

He had other TV gigs besides SNL, but none really took off.  I remember him fondly as Mike Heck's brother on The Middle and a surprisingly compelling sentient blob Yaphit on The Orville.  He had one major movie Dirty Work, which I have not seen and was a box office bomb.

Nine years ago,  he was diagnosed with leukemia and he did not make it public.  He once said that if a comedian got up and talked about their fatal diagnosis that it would be "the height of narcissism."  As always, Norm just wanted to make people laugh.  It was about the audience, not himself.  Even as he was struggling with his leukemia in secret, he would deliver jokes like, (I'm paraphrasing) "I hate when they say 'He lost his battle with cancer.'  That's no way to die.  'What a loser that guy was!  Last thing he did was lose!  Here's the thing... I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure when the guy dies, all of the cancer in his body dies too.  So to me, that's not a loss.  Worst case scenario, it's a draw!"

I marvel that he wrote that joke while knowing that the cancer inside him would probably end his life early.  But Norm took that and turned it into a joke.  Even in something as horrible as cancer, Norm tried to find the funny.  I imagine many people were offended by his comedy.  And to be sure there are things that Norm said that I didn't like.  But I always got the sense that there was no real offense in it.  He was always simply trying to dig into the uncomfortable spaces to find the humor hiding underneath.

And even though Norm has gone to stand before the Lord, the laughs he gave us will echo on for years to come.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord and may perpetual light shine upon him.  May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.

Rest in Peace, Norm MacDonald.

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