Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Norm Macdonald, 1959-2021

You guessed it: cancer.
September 14, 2021
Norm Macdonald, 1959-2021
DEL MAR, CA - SEPTEMBER 16: Norm McDonald performs during KAABOO Del Mar at Del Mar Fairgrounds on September 16, 2017 in Del Mar, California. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Norm Macdonald, dead at 61 following a long and private battle with cancer, was the consummate comic’s comic. Beloved by standups and audiences alike, even when they were somewhat befuddled by the laconic nature of his act, Macdonald’s theory of comedy was as simple as it is terribly difficult: He thought the joke should be the punchline.

This would sometimes get him into trouble, as famously happened during his run as the host of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live, a stretch during which a single man became both an avatar of everything monstrous about America’s twin obsessions with celebrity and race and also, oddly, a walking punchline the length and breadth of which was “this guy obviously did it.”

That the walking punchline was O.J. Simpson, and that the walking punchline was also the golfing buddy of NBC exec Don Ohlmeyer, made it all the funnier.

I feel bad reducing Macdonald’s life—or, at least, introducing it—to this one event because if you’ve read his novelistic memoir, you become keenly aware that Macdonald himself is keenly aware that there’s a certain segment of the population that will only ever know him as the fired Weekend Update guy. “If I am remembered, it will always be by the four years I spent at Saturday Night Live and, maybe even more than that, by the events surrounding my departure from that show,” he wrote in Based on a True Story. “I can see that my life since SNL has been a full sprint, trying with all my might to outrun the wolves of irrelevancy snapping at my heels.”

This—along with his description of touring basement comedy clubs where groups of fans, most of them men dragging along bored wives or girlfriends, ask him for pictures and call to mind his glory days as a way of recapturing their own lost youth, staving off their own descent into death and irrelevancy—is one of the few moments of genuineness and sincerity in the book. These moments are sad if only because they reflect the spirit of someone who doesn’t want to acknowledge the depth of love his peers felt for him.

I’m sure there will be many tributes in the days to come from comedy’s leading lights, like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock; they’ll have better and more interesting things to say about his style of comedy than I do. All I’ll say is that the way he looked at a joke, understood how it worked, and then inverted it to make it work in an entirely different way is sheer genius. Doing stale, clean one-liners at a roast (a venue notorious for its profanity) of Bob Saget (known to those performing the roast for his behind-the-scenes profanity) only works because he’s playing on the audience’s perception of Saget (the family-man sitcom dad from Full House) and the knowledge that the audience understands Saget’s real reputation among the comic swells assembled.

As such, a simple joke like “There are times when Bob has something on his mind. When he wears a hat,” is actually an incredibly complicated, deeply amusing feat. It’s like a triple lutz of comic deconstruction. Its levels have levels. But at the base of all of it was Norm.

I sometimes wonder if Norm understood just how important he was to a generation of comedy fans who, by and large, found him via the internet. Watching his legendary old segments with Conan O’Brien and David Letterman (he was the final standup act on Letterman’s final show, as fitting a designation of greatness as any standup can receive), we found a kindred spirit, someone who understood the absurdity of the whole format yet reveled in playing along (except when he reveled in not playing along, as Courtney Thorne-Smith and Carrot Top could attest).

It makes sense then that he’d be so good at the talk show format, even if he wasn’t really given the space needed to do much with it. Treat yourself to his Netflix series; unlike most talk shows, it eschewed topicality, featuring instead chats with the famous and talented whose careers piqued his interest. As such, it remains watchable in a way that so many other talk shows don’t.

Macdonald acknowledged his reputation as a “dry” comic whose humor was of the chuckle-snort variety rather than the belly-laugh variety; it almost felt like a defense mechanism when it would come up in his book. But that variety of humor, the sort of drily self-aware recognition that it’s all a joke, everything, that every moment in politics and life and entertainment and society is simply absurd if you state it plainly, is the lingua franca of social media. If you grew up watching Norm Macdonald you have an intuitive sense of how comedy in 280-character bursts works.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association