' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Norm Macdonald

Thursday, September 16, 2021

In Memoriam: Norm Macdonald

Deducing Norm Macdonald’s ‘best’ joke is, of course, merely a matter of personal taste. I have always been partial to a relatively minor one from his time holding down the Saturday Night Live Weekend Update desk in the mid-90s. After explaining a daily fine of a million dollars was levied against Microsoft for trying to monopolize access to the Internet, Macdonald deadpanned “Analysts say that at this rate, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates will be broke just ten years after the earth crashes into the sun.” There’s a folksy fatalism to his delivery, both for our future and our present (past), that is right in my wheelhouse and at which Macdonald excelled. (“Note to self, ” he counsels his tape recorder in “Dirty Work.” “I don’t want to live.”) But, perhaps the most revealing Macdonald joke was the one you probably saw plastered all over the Interwebs the other day when it was announced, all of a sudden, that Macdonald had died at the age of 61 after an entirely private decade-long battle with cancer that retroactively makes perfect sense given that his autobiography was fiction. That joke, told to Conan O’Brien during his brief run on The Tonight Show, about a moth’s visit to the podiatrist, is not really a joke; it’s a shaggy dog story that takes an eternity in Network TV Time, building to a gleeful groaner of a punchline, leaving Conan hilariously, palpably desperate to just get this over with. Macdonald, though, sets up the joke by explaining it was told to him earlier in the day by his driver. Surely this was not true, but framing it this way emphasized how the joke wasn’t really in the joke itself but in the telling of the joke. To me, that was Macdonald’s gift. 

Macdonald was a remarkable stand-up comic. The best, as David Letterman, whose smart aleck groove was similar to Macdonald’s, proclaimed on Tuesday. “Always up to something, never certain,” Dave Tweeted of Norm, “until his matter-of-fact delivery leveled you.” Matter-of-fact delivery; what a way to say it! If anyone taught me that comedy was as much a matter of tone as material, it was Norm Macdonald. The bit in his 1991 HBO special, “One Night Stand”, about waking up in the middle of a dream - “You ever have a really good dream and then right in the middle of the dream you wake up? And there you are, back in your stinking life again?” - was not especially penetrating in its insight, just in the golly gee willickers, what are you gonna do way he said it.

In telling that Bill Gates joke, and thousands of others, Macdonald would take his voice up a decibel on the punchline and then pause, staring you down, figuratively or literally. Almost every O.J. Simpson joke he told on Weekend Update, the ones that probably got him fired from the same gig, were like that, punchlines as blunt instruments designed to obliterate any Both Sides rejoinders before they could even begin. I remember Bob Newhart once describing a joke as the kind you laughed at in the car on the way home. Macdonald, on the other hand, wasn’t waiting for you to get in the car; he was waiting for your response right now. If you didn’t laugh, he figured he’d done his job just as well as if you had. Letterman did this too, of course, that way he would go back to a joke that didn’t work, again and again, but Macdonald, if he wanted, could build an entire set out of those jokes. 

My favorite Norm, though, was always the storyteller. His numerous appearances on Letterman, in fact, were less interviews than the Norm Macdonald Storytelling Hour, the host setting him up with some ostensibly innocuous question and then giving his guest the floor. My favorite Norm appearance on Letterman, maybe because it was one I happened to watch when it originally aired, was Macdonald recounting his game of Scrabble at a Victoria Island bed and breakfast run by “Old Harold Delaney.” It’s not a joke but it’s not quite a shaggy dog story either; it’s like a long drawn-out skit told to us rather than performed, a 1930s radio bit with a 1990s sensibility. (You can watch it here. Fast-forward to about the 17:00 minute mark.)

Macdonald appeared on that 1998 Letterman episode to promote his new movie, “Dirty Work.” It was not well received critically, currently pulling down 14% on Rotten Tomatoes, as if that means anything. “(M)ore groans than laughs,” goes the pull quote of the L.A. Times’ David Kronke, seeming not to get what the movie’s star is all about in the first place. About Macdonald’s Mitch and Artie Lang’s Sam opening a revenge-for-hire business, “Dirty Work” is not plot-less, per se, but pretty close, more like a series of Norm Macdonald stories strung together by semblance of a plot, every joke made in the image of Macdonald’s ironic aloofness and wry bemusement. At the conclusion, when Mitch is purposely wrecking an opera sponsored by property developer Travis Cole (Christopher McDonald), the movie’s villain, Cole cries “You’re ruining Don Giovanni!” “Don Givoanni?” Mitch asks, the tenor of Macdonald’s voice essentially breaking the fourth wall without him having to look at the camera. “Who’s that dude?” “The opera!” Cole clarifies. “You’re ruining the opera!” “Oh, the opera. Yes,” Mitch confirms, as McDonald suddenly seems to remember now that, yes, he’s in a movie. “Yes, we are ruining that.” The mock confirmation in Macdonald’s voice there, it slays me.


The high point of “Dirty Work” is kind of a shaggy dog story through the looking glass the other way. Mitch and Sam hide dead fish all over a drug dealer’s McMansion to exact revenge in the name of a fed-up neighbor. In the middle of their mischievous act, however, the homeowners return, picking up the scent of the rotting fish which causes their current drug deal to suddenly combust yielding an explosion of violence. Crucially, the movie never cuts to what’s happening in the other room; we just listen, as the savagery and death absurdly escalates. It’s basically a visual manifestation of one of Norm’s rambling stories, just told by the voices in the other room, cosmically transforming Norm into Conan during the Moth Joke, listening in abject horror, waiting for the whole thing to be over. 

1 comment:

M.E.V. said...

Loved his roles on SNL and his appearances on the talk shows.