‘Comedy is surprises, so if you’re intending to make somebody laugh and they don’t laugh, that’s funny.’ — Norm Macdonald.
‘But now that I am older I cannot understand why I uttered those words, what was my motive in that joke…’ — from ‘A Joke,’ by Anton Chekhov
‘Last week, I saw my psychiatrist. I told him, “Doc, I keep thinking I’m a dog.” He told me to get off his couch!’ — Rodney Dangerfield.
My uncle, Ivan Plemyannikov Riopelle, an old railroad bum who in his roustabout youth worked odd jobs in mines, lumber yards, and dockyards, is my small coastal town’s most respected doctor, and, as some would have it, thinker. One day, while I was helping him organise his papers, he began to speak to me of a confused man he’d met while working as a lumberjack in the barren wilds of icy Ontario. This man, he said between puffs of his pipe, was out looking for his dog, who had escaped after the man had tried to trim its unruly fur with a pair of rusty clippers. The man, a professor of logic, had been walking around in the snow in search of the animal for two days, but he wasn’t having any luck as he couldn’t remember his dog’s name to call it out. He recalled that it was named after an old joke that went on for too long, then ended abruptly, and dubiously. Can you guess its name? he asked my uncle, who now asked me:
‘Was it Shaggy Dog? As in a shaggy dog joke, like the ones Norm Macdonald always tells on talk shows?’
Norm Macdonald—seal clubber, deeply closeted homosexual, comedian—has died after drawing with cancer, following a nine-year battle that he seemingly kept secret from everyone but those closest to him. The news was met online by a tidal wave of shock, grief, and laughter as people shared clip after clip of Norm Macdonald being, impossibly, the funniest man alive.
What does that title mean when you’re dead?
As a comedian, I’m all too familiar with the contradictory truth that jokes and comedy can not and must not be analysed or explained, as such, and that doing so is folly that’s tantamount to treason. Yet, like long periods of unemployment and bombing, dissecting jokes is something comedians do habitually, almost instinctively, despite our best intentions. It is impossible to watch another comedian and not begin noticing their ticks, tricks, and tells. Do it long enough, and few performers will surprise you. The ones that do are the ones that keep you hooked on an art that can often feel like a bad habit.
If I approach Norm Macdonald as a writer—a mediocre culture critic of modest intellectual means—then I suppose I could stab at his mercurial persona and his remarkable ‘deadpan,’ or criticise his off-coloured takes and long history of purposefully (wilfully) shoving his foot so far in his mouth that he makes you gag on his behalf. These would be the middling thoughts of a middling critic approaching the wooly force that was the enigmatically straight forward, Norm Macdonald.
As a middling comedian however, I come up blank. The response I have to Norm Macdonald is one of primordial awe—beyond that, even—a kinda Stendhal effect, where I’m overwhelmed by a complexity and, dare I say, a purity, that I’m too enraptured by to grasp.
But like all comics I’m a hypocrite who can’t shut up, so I’ll take a crack.
Norm Macdonald loved jokes. All the hyperbole I can throw his way can be whittled down to that simple truth. He was an acolyte and maestro of jokes—a true impressionist, not in the mode of fellow SNL alum Dana Carvey, but in that of the masters: Anton Chekhov and Rodney Dangerfield. Like any great impressionist he was able to break a thing down to its fundamental shapes. His comedy worked geometrically while defying the laws of geometry: his jokes were five sided triangles that he slid through circular slots while telling you he only knows about squares. He performed in the shadow of a sacrilegious paradox—that a joke can be right and the audience can be wrong—and made you believe it.
Magic. Devilry. Sublime!
A gambling addict who lost his fortune upwards of three times, Macdonald performed a bit like an old card-shark banned from every casino in town, plying his trade running a three-card monte game in the hotel carpark. In every movement, quip, and (vitally) pause, there was the essence of a mountain of chips being slid across the table. All-in. Double down.
No one bet against the house like Norm Macdonald. He would roll dice on a bit until it was beyond bankruptcy, beyond redemption, beyond salvageable, until it was beyond believable that he’d pulled it off, and was raking in his winnings. Here was a guy attempting to get one over on millions of TV viewers—on Letterman, on Leno, on Conan O’Brien—and pulling it off, again and again and again.
Like all gamblers, he had a tell. That twinkle in his eye that was a literal twinkle, those boysih apple cheeks, and that Huck Finn smirk, always on the cusp of breaking into an ecstatic grin. He was a grifter, a conman, and the most honest man in show business. Each set played out like a masterful heist: he cased the joint, he picked his marks, he played the sucker, lured in the rubes, tripped the alarm, then made off with the darn whole show. By that point, he’d succeeded in making everyone in the room an accomplice, left with nothing but their laughter to show for it. A massive Bob Dylan fan (Letterman always played him in and out to Dylan songs), he was like Dylan’s raking bank-robber, Jack of Hearts: there was no one quite like him.
You can watch any of the thousands of the ‘funniest Norm’ clips shared after his death and watch the electricity creep up his spine and out his eyes, surge through the talk show’s couch, up and over the desk, jumping the host’s necktie, dropping into their mic, then bursting out into the studio audience, out across America, and now, out through time to you, sitting laughing at your phone, feeling as though you’re sat between him and Andy Richter, buzzing.
Macdonald doesn’t fit easily into the current ‘discourse’ around comedy, and perhaps never has. Letterman described him as ‘genuinely peculiar’, and if, like me, you are genuinely peculiar yourself, you can watch Norm and know that that peculiarity isn’t schtick. His zealous love of capital C ‘Comedy’ and capital J ‘Jokes’ as a means of expression with a very deliberate end (to be funny) prevented him from fitting comfortably into an industry that has only grown more cynical and shallow as its progressed. When careers are made and unmade by the algorithm, formed as it is by middle-brow tastes and focus-grouped moments, it’s hard to imagine a Norm Macdonald ‘type’ (a genuine oddball) being cast on something as undaring as SNL. In the age of the comedian as 22yo influencer, jokes are lucky to get a look in. Comedians now play the role of pseudo-journalists, espousing aphorisms like mindfulness blogs. Someone saying ‘you know, with Hitler, the more I learn about that guy, the more I don’t like him,’ seems like something from another age, or perhaps another planet.
Norm Macdonald was not so much a fossil as he was a cryptid. He stumbled in like a retired civil war general possessed by an alien host—an outlier, a scoundrel, a saboteur, a secessionist of sorts. You can watch him MC hollow corporate awards nights or roasts and plough through them like an old steamboat pilot glacially ramming a party yacht. A loveable turd in the punch bowl, that you happily drank from.
In his enlightening chat with Marc Maron on his WTF podcast, Macdonald discussed his desire to find faith, as a means of accepting death, and appreciating the beauty of life more, but he was put off by religion and church. Hearing Macdonald discuss comedy, his unbridled and lifelong love for it, the ecstasy it clearly brought him as a fan and an artist, it becomes clear that it was his faith, and stand-up was his church. ‘There should be a different word for a joke that people laugh at,’ Macdonald said in an interview, ‘there should be a higher one.’ He was an apostle for yucking it up, and he converted many souls.
Perhaps Norm was the reincarnation of that other great illusionist, Harry Houdini. Houdini loathed people who believed in magic but not the the magic trick. He would often jump on a competing magician’s stage to expose their hackery, then wow the audience with the same trick done right. One of my favourite clips of Norm Macdonald, that I think says so much about how others viewed him, is from an appearance he made on Conan O’Brien’s TBS show with his old SNL ratpack (Sandler, Spade, Schneider, Swardson). In the clip, titled ‘Norm steals the show’ on YouTube, you can watch as he reveals the clunkiness of his peers by saying and doing next to nothing, at first, slowly unspooling a web of gags and goofs which ensnare Sandler, Conan, and the rest one by one, until they have no choice but to submit to Norm’s funniness.
Comedians are envious by nature, it’s the cost of mimicry and imitation. It makes laughing at other comics hard, especially when you’re on the same rung of the same rickety ladder. But there’s a beautiful feeling you get as a comic when you see a fellow comedian—a friend, a rival, an open mic rando—pull of a bit or schtick or gag so impressively and emphatically that your ego dissolves, and you let go, and laugh your ass off. Watching this clip you can see Norm’s peers—his old friends—most of whom became more famous, more wealthy, more widely known than him, seething in he knowledge that he’s the only genius amongst them, then relenting, and losing it at his enviable yet inimitable funny.
A comedian’s comedian. That old curse, broken only if you make it your truth, as Norm did.
It’s macabre to think that his death played out like one of his jokes: long winded, circuitous, it’s punchline a shock even though it was hidden in plain sight. It was like something from Chekhov: the beloved monk, toiling through pain, leaning over death towards joy.
After learning of his death, I spent the entire day watching Norm Macdonald clips, sometimes pausing one on my laptop to watch another that popped up on my phone. I was interrupted when my uncle called me to say that he’d received an email from that professor of logic, who he’d helped in the windswept woods of Ontario all those years ago. ‘We never found the dog,’ my uncle said over the phone, ‘but the professor just saw a tribute reel to some news anchor who’d passed away, which caused him to remember his dog’s name. Can you guess it?’
Norm Macdonald, a short gallery.
The moth joke
Bob Saget Roast