Norm Macdonald: Comedian whose dark jokes made him a TV favourite

Norm Macdonald: Comedian whose dark jokes made him a TV favourite
The Canadian was most famous for the merciless satire of his ‘Saturday Night Live’ segments – while his peers in the comedy world considered him a one-of-a-kind stand-up

Norm Macdonald, a comedian and 1990s cast member of Saturday Night Live, whose acerbic satires of news events as anchor of the Weekend Update segment led to acclaim and controversy over his continued jokes about OJ Simpson’s murder trial, has died aged 61.

The cause was cancer, said Whitney Brooks, executive assistant to Marc Gurwitz, Macdonald’s agent at Brillstein Entertainment Partners. Macdonald had apparently been treated for cancer for nine years without making his illness public. Further details were not available.

Macdonald worked in blue-collar jobs for years before becoming a stand-up comedian, winning acclaim in the mid-Eighties at a comedy festival in Montreal. He wrote for The Dennis Miller Show and for Roseanne Barr’s sitcom Roseanne before joining the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1993.

He was a standout writer and had a droll physical presence, often delivering over-the-top impressions of such figures as senator Robert Dole, broadcaster Larry King and especially actor Burt Reynolds.

Macdonald was instrumental in developing a sketch in 1996 that has since become a staple on Saturday Night Live: a spoof of the game show Jeopardy! with celebrity guests.

“When it came time to do the sketch, I went down and saw my wardrobe and there was a white beard and a bald white cap, and I said, ‘No, no, I want to do Burt Reynolds from 1972’,” Macdonald told radio host Howard Stern in 2016.

Wearing a black wig, a moustache and black leather jacket, Macdonald’s version of Reynolds smacked gum in his teeth as he wisecracked through the Jeopardy! skit, with Will Ferrell playing an increasingly exasperated Alex Trebek as host.

“Yeah, I’ll take the condom thing for 8,000,” Macdonald said as Reynolds. “That’s ‘condiments’,” Ferrell replied. “For 400.”

In 1994, Macdonald took over the anchor chair of the show’s Weekend Update segment, whose previous hosts included Miller and Chevy Chase. Macdonald often introduced Weekend Update by saying, “Now for the fake news”.

“It was my idea to say ‘fake news’ – as if you need to say that,” he told Playboy magazine in 1997. “When you do a parody, you’re supposed to pretend it’s real, so I thought it would be funny to say it’s not real. Later I found out that when I did some harder jokes, the censors would say, ‘Oh well, if he says it’s fake news…’ It turned out to be a disclaimer.”

“With others, you can tell the comedy, the humour is considered,” talk show host David Letterman told The Washington Post in 2016. “With Norm, he exudes it. It’s sort of a furnace in him because he’s so effortless. The combination of the delivery and his appearance and his intelligence. There may be people as funny as Norm, but I don’t know anybody who is funnier.”

‘No one funnier’: at the Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado

Macdonald had a deadpan, almost folksy way of speaking, delivering his satirical quips without so much as raising an eyebrow. If the audience didn’t get his jokes, he would often ad-lib a comment that evoked more laughter than the original punchline.

During his three years on Weekend Update, which he largely wrote himself, he changed the style of the segment from one heavily based on political commentary to a darker, more acerbic view of society. Rather than joke about president Bill Clinton, he would search for humour in the story of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer or in the collection of skulls found in the house of a Haitian general.

He was one of the first comedians on SNL to joke about Donald Trump, then a publicity-seeking real estate developer in New York. When Trump’s second marriage to Marla Maples was breaking up, Macdonald joked: “According to Trump, Maples violated part of their marriage agreement when she decided to turn 30.”

In another segment, Macdonald commented on the break-up of the marriage of actress Julia Roberts and singer Lyle Lovett: “Julia Roberts told reporters this week that her marriage to Lyle Lovett has been over for some time. The key moment, she said, came when she realised that she was Julia Roberts, and that she was married to Lyle Lovett.”

Macdonald was particularly merciless toward Simpson, who was tried in the 1994 killing of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. He often called Simpson a killer, even after Simpson was acquitted.

“Well, it is finally official: murder is legal in the state of California,” Macdonald said when the trial ended in 1996.

Don Ohlmeyer, president of NBC’s west coast division, was a friend of Simpson’s, and Macdonald’s comments did not sit well with him. Over the objections of Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, Ohlmeyer ordered Macdonald to be replaced as Weekend Update anchor in late 1997.

At the American Comedy Awards in New York, 2012

Ohlmeyer cited declining ratings for the show rather than the jokes about Simpson, but Macdonald went on talk shows to complain about his treatment, calling the studio boss “a liar and a thug”. Macdonald left SNL early in 1998 and never reclaimed the stardom he had during those years.

He acted in a few films, including Dirty Work (1998), a revenge comedy that received poor reviews. He was in several TV series, the longest of which, The Norm Show (later called Norm), lasted three years.

Mostly, Macdonald returned to stand-up comedy, appearing for years at comedy clubs and theatres throughout North America.

“I think a lot of people feel sorry for you if you were on SNL and emerged from the show anything less than a superstar,” Macdonald wrote in what he called an autobiographical novel, Based on a True Story (2016). “They assume you must be bitter. But it is impossible for me to be bitter. I’ve been lucky.”

Norman Gene Macdonald was born 17 October 1959, in Quebec City, where he grew up before his family moved to Ottawa in his teens. Both of his parents were teachers.

Macdonald left school in his teens and, as he later wrote, “had a whole bunch of jobs where all I needed was boots”. He was at different times a garbage collector, oil worker and logger. He said he happened to wander into a comedy club in Ottawa.

“So I said to myself, ‘This is great, I can do this,’” he wrote. “It’s much easier than picking tobacco in Tillsonburg, Ontario.”

Macdonald eventually settled in Los Angeles, but he never learned to drive. Over the years, he said, an addiction to gambling caused him to lose his fortune several times. He lost as much as $400,000 at a single sitting but said attending Gamblers Anonymous only gave him the urge to return to the craps tables.

In addition to his stand-up and occasional TV appearances, he had a video podcast, Norm Macdonald Live, from 2013 to 2017 with co-host Adam Eget. In 2015, Macdonald was the final stand-up comedian featured on The Late Show With David Letterman before Letterman’s retirement.

In tweets in 2016, Macdonald said novelist Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, could not compare with another Canadian writer, Alice Munro, and said Atwood was “chasing celebrity and promoting anything for a buck”. He deleted the tweets, but not before a sharp outcry.

Two years later, he said the #MeToo movement was recklessly endangering entertainers’ careers. He cited the cases of comedians Barr – who made racially insensitive remarks about former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett – and Louis CK, who admitted to sexual harassment of women. Macdonald faced an immediate backlash, including cancellation of an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Macdonald’s marriage to Connie Vaillancourt ended in divorce. Survivors include a son, Dylan Macdonald; his mother, Ferne Macdonald; and two brothers.

“When I was a boy, I was sure I’d never make it past Moose Creek, Ontario, Canada,” Macdonald wrote in Based on a True Story. “But I’ve been all over this world. Except for Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, and South America. Oh, and Antarctica. But that’s really splitting hairs. I mean, how many people have ever been to Antarctica?”

Norm Macdonald, comedian, born 17 October 1959, died 14 September 2021

© The Washington Post