As the person who covers the entertainment world, it falls to me to write show biz obituaries. While it’s always a sad duty, this one hits especially hard for me and my wife/co-writer, Laura Ainsworth. Comedian Norm MacDonald has died at 61 of cancer, which he had reportedly been fighting for nine years. His producing partner Lori Jo Hoekstra said he kept it a secret because comedy came first and he never wanted that to color how people saw him.
For a comic who never became a major star, Norm’s death was met with a massive outpouring of grief and accolades from fellow comedians and hardcore fans like us. Seth Meyers called him the “gold standard” of comedy and admitted the hardest part of doing “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update was not reading jokes the way Norm would say them.
He had a distinctive voice and delivery, a unique and unpredictable perspective, and most importantly of all in this cancel culture age, he was utterly fearless. If he thought a joke was funny (and to those of us who “got” his sense of humor, he was gutbustingly funny), no matter how bizarre the premise, he would pursue and expand on it, even if the audience greeted it with silence (you could usually hear a few fellow comedians in the back, howling with laughter.) One of the funniest things you’ll ever see on TV is Norm on Conan O’Brien’s show, using up his entire segment to tell an ancient, rambling, deadpan shaggy dog story with a groaner of a punchline that somehow was hilarious all the way through.
When Laura and I used to write our syndicated topical radio service, the Comedy Wire, nothing made me prouder than to write a joke that I could describe as “a Norm MacDonald line.”
These days, what passes for a “joke” on “SNL” is a smug two-minute political lecture. Norm could pack more laughs into two short sentences (“College radio reports that the #1 band this summer was Better Than Ezra. At #2: Ezra!”) He defied orders to stop doing O.J. Simpson jokes even when it got him fired. He didn’t care if he bombed, got fired, the audience didn’t get it or Twitter mobs cried about being offended: if he thought it was funny, he went with it. And to me, he was always right. He ruthlessly mocked leftist icons like Bill and Hillary Clinton at a time when other comics were giving them a free ride. He even dared to joke about COVID (“None of us know how we’re going to die… Well, we know NOW.”)
He was also surprisingly intelligent, once taking home $500,000 on a charity celebrity edition of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (he also knew the answer to the million dollar question, but Regis talked him out of trying for it.) I still remember him lecturing a comic on a talent show for performing a lazy Christian-bashing bit that the other judges loved.
Norm was a “comedian’s comedian,” but to his cult fan base like us, he was one of the funniest men of all time. You never knew what might come out of his mouth, but you knew it would be hilarious and like nothing that anyone else would think of. And if someone didn’t like it and took offense, he couldn’t care less. Let’s hope more comedians take inspiration from him and reclaim comedy from the humorless woke mobs.
Here are a few of Norm’s more mainstream funny moments, courtesy of Fox News. You’ll find many, many more on YouTube.