Comedy’s Pontiff

R.I.P. Norm Macdonald.

Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and the author of Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom, and other books.

“Well, it is finally official. Murder is legal in the state of California.” That was the way Norm Macdonald, then anchor of the “Weekend Update” segment on Saturday Night Live, responded to the 1995 acquittal of O.J. Simpson on charges of killing his ex-wife and Ron Goldman.

During O.J.’s trial, Norm had hammered at O.J. every week. He didn’t care that most American blacks - in defiance of mountains of evidence - insisted on O.J.’s innocence. Or that his O.J. jests consequently made NBC execs nervous that blacks would accuse Norm, and by extension the network, of racism. Or that O.J. was a golf buddy of Norm’s own boss, NBC president Don Ohlmeyer - who, indeed, after telling him repeatedly to cut it out, ended up firing Norm from the “Weekend Update” gig, explaining to him that he “wasn’t funny.”

In fact Norm, who died last Tuesday at 61 after privately battling with cancer for nine years, was the funniest of them all. He was also the gutsiest. He went after all the sacred cows. It wasn’t just his O.J. jokes that made network honchos fear charges of racism: they reacted the same way to his regular gags about Michael Jackson, whose marriage to Lisa Marie Presley failed, he reported, because “the two were never a good match: she's more of the stay-at-home type while he's a homosexual pedophile.”

The Clintons were also weekly targets during his 1993-98 stint on SNL. And he didn’t just go after them on that show. Appearing on The View shortly after the 2000 election, he was asked about his friendly relationship with the president-elect, George W. Bush. “I love George Bush, man,” he said, blithely indifferent to the show’s far-left tilt. “He’s a good man. Decent. He’s not a liar or a crook or a murderer. You see, I think we should get the homicide out of the White House.” When a puzzled Joy Behar asked: “Who are the murderers?” Norm replied with cheerful casualness, “Oh, Clinton. He murdered a guy.”

Though Barbara Walters tried to play it light, she was visibly scandalized - which, of course, was Norm’s objective. “Move on,” Walters demanded. His expression sunny, he asked: “You didn’t know that?” She warned him, sharply, not to make such accusations on her show. Still grinning, he responded: “I thought it was a matter of public record!” Finally, when she seemed on the verge of a stroke, he agreed to meet her halfway: “All right - manslaughter!” Rarely has such brilliant waggery been seen on such an otherwise invariably insipid show.

(Years later, when Walters announced her retirement, she was universally hailed as a pioneer of TV journalism and trailblazer for women in the media. Only Norm told the truth: “She was horrible. She just started this whole celebrity journalism thing.” As for Joy Behar, she “reminds you of your drunk aunt with her funny opinions.” Indeed, The View itself, he pronounced, was nothing but “henhouse horseshit.”)

He loved playing mind games with clueless talk-show hosts. A few years ago, Larry King asked him: “What don’t people know about you?” His reply: “I’m a deeply closeted gay guy. I’m not coming out, though.” Larry, wide-eyed, plainly thought he was being handed a scoop: “Wait a minute. What are you revealing here today?” Norm: “I’m not revealing anything. I’m saying I’m deeply closeted.” They went back and forth like that for a while; Larry was clearly befuddled, while anybody with a sense of humor could see that Norm was jerking him around royally. “But,” Larry finally asked, still not getting it, “doesn’t that mean you’re gay?” And Norm acted as if he’d been insulted: “Hey, hey, hey - easy, buddy!” Sheer gold.

The responses to Norm’s death - especially from fellow comedians - have shown that he was admired, even loved, far more than he probably realized. Over the course of his career he picked up many friends, and had a son (now a teenager) by a woman to whom he’d been married in the 1990s, but he seems to have been, in many respects at least, a lonely soul. According to news reports, he shared his cancer diagnosis with absolutely no one, living alone with it for nine long years. One can only imagine what that must have been like, especially for a man much of whose material, from the outset of his career, could be very dark.

Not that ever forgot to make it droll. His DVD Me Doing Stand-Up (2011) contains several terrific minutes on the notion that alcoholism is a disease: “It’s the only disease where you can constantly drink booze. In fact, that is the disease.” He was sardonic about the purported anonymity of testimony given at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: “What better way to keep a secret, when you come to think of it, than to tell a roomful of drunks?” In another bit, he mocked the ubiquitous news-media cliché (which I, of course, employed at the beginning of this piece) that so-and-so had “lost his battle with cancer”: didn’t this imply that the individual in question had, in the end, perhaps gotten “kind of cowardly”?

Idiots didn’t appreciate Norm. He was too smart. In fact he was a genius. But he played dumb. “I don’t have opinions,” he claimed in his last DVD, Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery, claiming that at parties he sought out people who looked as if they were as dumb as he was - by which he meant, he explained, that they were willing to talk with him about comic books. He claimed to know nothing about politics - or much of anything else. In fact he was obviously a hell of a lot smarter, better informed, and more well read than any of the politics-obsessed celebrity nitwits on Twitter.

Unlike them, he didn’t take himself seriously. He didn’t take showbiz seriously. If he had far less success than others who were far less talented, it was because, in their essential superficiality, they cared more and pushed harder and were careful not to rock the boat. The great majority of Hollywood celebrities want above all to fit in. They’re scared to death not to - hence their lockstep politics. Norm was the absolute opposite. If it occurred to him that he could get into hot water by saying something, he felt obliged to say it. And the more discomfort or outrage he ended up generating, the more he’d double down.

Somehow he was constitutionally immune to the cowardice, phoniness, and pettiness that are endemic in showbiz. When he was invited to write a memoir, he could have used the opportunity to settle scores - with Ohlmeyer, with SNL producer Lorne Michaels (who’d failed to defend him from Ohlmeyer), and with the many critics who’d panned his movie, Dirty Work (1998), and TV series, Norm (1999-2001), both flops that became cult favorites. Instead, unwilling to invade others’ privacy, he wrote a faux autobiography, Based on a True Story (2016), that was one long shaggy-dog tale, absurdist and fanciful and bearing only the most tangential relationship to his actual life story. The Wall Street Journal called it “Dostoyevsky by way of 30 Rockefeller Center.” As for Michaels, Norm ended up conducting a perfectly friendly interview with him on his 2018 Netflix series Norm Macdonald Has a Show.

Indeed, by all accounts Norm was a remarkably decent man with a generous and forgiving spirit. When other comedians, at the height of the #metoo movement, called for Louis C.K. to be cancelled over certain vulgar but consensual activities, Norm urged forgiveness; when Roseanne Barr, for whose sitcom he had once written, was fired from the sitcom’s reboot after tweeting a supposedly racist comment about Valerie Jarrett, Norm dismissed the accusation, noting that Roseanne had always done her best to hire female and minority scriptwriters.

He didn’t drink. He didn’t smoke. He didn’t drive. (He did, however, have a terrible addiction to gambling that caused him to lose everything he had - purportedly at least twice.) And in later years he began to get religion. An exchange with none other than Roseanne on his often riotous podcast Norm Macdonald Live (2013-17) was simple and strangely moving. “I believe in God,” he said. “Me too,” said Roseanne. “That’s as far as I go,” he said. “Me too,” she said. “I don’t need your buddy Bill Maher telling me I’m an idiot,” he said. Not your usual talk-show fare. Speaking with Larry King on a later occasion, Norm seemed to have evolved in his faith: “I’m a Christian. It’s not stylish to say nowadays.” Larry: “Are you devout?” Norm: “Yes.” “Do you believe in the Lord?” “Yes, I do.”

In 2015, when he was a judge on a show called Last Comic Standing, the audience whooped it up over a contestant who served up a glib, familiar, painfully easy PC routine ridiculing a Bible-reading Christian and suggested that his own Holy Books were the Harry Potter series. Even Roseanne, a fellow judge, called him “brave.” But it was Norm who was brave, rejecting the crowd’s dumb, reflexive consensus and saying “I don’t think the Bible joke is brave at all. I think if you’re going to take on an entire religion, you should maybe know what you’re talking about. J.K. Rowling is a Christian and J.K. Rowling famously said that if you were familiar with the scriptures, you could easily guess the end of her book.”

It is no contradiction that such a superb comic ended up becoming a sincere Christian believer. Great comedy often arises out of great pain. So does great faith. Look at any genuinely first-rate stand-up and you will likely find a dirty-mouthed slob who is also a highly sensitive soul, intensely aware of the suffering around him and unable to come up with any remotely effective palliative response other than a bunch of filthy jokes or a big dose of gallows humor. In a way they’re pastors, administering relief in the way they’re best suited to do. Which would make Norm Macdonald something of a pope - the only difference being that he is one pope who will have no successor. 


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