I had just finished an interview with Christopher Saam, a local and recent comedian on a nationally televised game show, when I saw a text from my wife.
She texted me to tell me that my favorite comedian, Norm Macdonald, had died of cancer at age 61. During our interview, Saam mentioned that he thinks a good comedian not only makes you laugh, but makes you think. That’s probably why Macdonald was my favorite comedian.
He excelled at crafting jokes with a keen sense of clever puns. But neither did he shy away from more philosophical and existential subjects like death, religion and the meaning of life. And, to the surprise of many fans, he was a fan of Russian literature. (He even had a short-lived book club on Twitter where he discussed books like “Lolita,” “The Cinephile,” and works by his favorite writer Tolstoy.) Met at the Four-Lane Intersection of Darkness, absurdity, depth and sheer stupidity.
Even when Macdonald’s comedy ventured on the offensive, as he sometimes did, he played it with an almost childish innocence that dulled nervousness and revealed the absurdity inherent in everything he joked about. And although he never spoke publicly about his cancer, he often joked about death. Jokes are what Macdonald seemed to live for. And while I really enjoyed listening to him tell stories about his time hosting the “Weekend Update” segment of “Saturday Night Live”, his film work, life on the stand-up comedy circuit. or the stories of his infamous gambling habits, as he sometimes did as a guest on talk shows and podcasts, what I liked the most was when he was just telling jokes. Good or bad – and sometimes particularly bad – Macdonald just liked to tell jokes.
The night I found out he was dead, and for several weeks after, I watched YouTube clips of his stand-up and late-night appearances, his 2017 Netflix comedy special “Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery “and his 10-episode Netflix talk show” Norm Macdonald has a show. ”
Macdonald was known to be a hilarious guest on a talk show (he said “the moth joke” – a Dostoyevsky novel sandwiched in a daddy joke – on “Tonight’s Show with Conan O’Brien ») but his Netflix series shows that he was also a great host. His guest list predictably included David Letterman and David Spade, but also had a few surprises like Judge Judy, Jane Fonda, country singer and friend Billy Joe Shaver. The show had some great conversations. But the highlight of the show, in my opinion, was the last segment where he handed out blue cards with jokes printed on them and then just took turns reading those jokes with his guests.
The jokes weren’t all winners, but that was sort of the best part. They would sometimes go over the heads of the guests, because sometimes the guests didn’t seem to understand that some of the jokes were deliberately bad – and you could see Macdonald’s delight in the particularly bad ones. They were just jokes for jokes, nothing more.
For example: “I can’t stand blocked bodies of water. It’s like, ‘Iron on, Lake Superior.’ Or “Why are the dogs running for the door when the doorbell rings?” It is seldom for them. Or “It might sound crazy, but [loud inarticulate screaming]. ”
During an episode of “Norm Macdonald Has a Show” with Drew Barrymore, the conversation drifted to the subject of mortality – which surprisingly has often been the case with a comedy show. They talked about the funeral and Macdonald said something like, “When I die I want all my friends to come together” and then, after a perfectly timed break, added, “and try to bring me back to life.”
And in some ways, in the days after his death, I think his fans brought him back to life by sharing their favorite lines. I thought I had heard many of his best lines, but after his death I saw a lot that I had never heard or read before. Like this one, from a 2018 Vulture interview where Macdonald once again reflects on mortality.
Macdonald: “… You know, I think about my deathbed a lot.”
Vulture: “What do you think?
Macdonald: “I don’t think I should have bought a deathbed in the first place. “
Mike Andrelczyk is a writer for the LNP. “Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.