Rest In Peace, Norm
Tuesday, I got a message from my friend Garnet Fraser, a writer with the Toronto Star. The message began “I don’t know how the Norm news is hitting you…”. I knew none of this “Norm” business he mentioned, but just the one name was enough for me to google “Norm Macdonald”. And then the articles came pouring into my laptop.
It was announced that Norm Macdonald had passed away at the age of 61 after a “battle with cancer” (Norm’s words from a bit about his uncle, but yet fittingly about him). A wave hit me with every post, and this feeling that the world at this moment was now less funny. And the world knew it. Better Than Ezra posted condolences remarking that Norm’s joke about them on SNL’s “Weekend Update” was one of the best jokes he’d ever written for the segment. They were right.
Garnet warned me that I might get a call from one of the Star writers looking for comics to talk about Norm’s influence and sure enough, I got one. I talked with Donovan Vincent about my run-ins with Norm, his legendary status in the community, and what made him great, and got choked up in the process. I had a couple of sentences make their way into the article that you can read HERE.
When I started out in comedy in the year 198-none-of-your-goddamned-business I was raw, dumb, and eager. I’d watch every comic that I had the chance to. I would make sure that I saw every comic that came to town at least once so I could watch and learn. When Norm came to town, you ran to the club and cancelled your plans for every night that weekend.
He was a great to behold and it was noticeable at that early stage that he was destined to be great. He got called up from the amateur nights to the regular Yuk-Yuk’s touring roster quickly. And it was great also watching him figure comedy out with us. It was just he was leaps and bounds ahead of where we were developmentally.
That said, it was fun to see him screw up. Me and the other amateurs gathered at the back of the Kitchener Yuk-Yuk’s one night. Norm was doing the middle act spot before the headliner. He was still that new at this. We all knew Norm’s jokes to the point that we all watched Norm roll into one of his jokes that called back to another one of his jokes earlier in the set. Only one problem: he hadn’t told that first joke yet that the callback joke relied on. He’d skipped over it for some reason and now the callback joke that he was about to say wouldn’t make sense. Every comic at the back of the room saw this happening. It was like watching the street below from atop a condo building as two cars crash in an intersection. Nothing to do but watch the pain. Norm said the punchline “Cucumber!” to a dull thud. No one in the audience moved. It made no sense. We watched the realization on Norm’s face grow as he saw what he’d done. Not missing a beat, he turned to the audience and said, “Why did he say ‘cucumber’? I don’t know.” Now there was laughter. Still, none from the audience, but every comic in the back made up for it.
Norm’s early success in the Ottawa amateur scene had him promoted quickly and part of the touring Yuk-Yuk’s roster. As a part of the Ottawa community at the time we all saw Norm as one of us. He was our God among men. I had done shows with Norm, played poker with him once where he helped me with my confusion over one hand saying “Todd, drop that like a bad cheque.” Norm was one of those comics that you’d wish nothing but success for. When he got his network television debut in the US on The Pat Sajak Show (kids, ask your parents to ask their parents), we gathered round televisions and programmed VCRs (again kids…parents) to watch one of ours make it to TV. This was to us what Steven Wright’s appearance on The Tonight Show was to the Boston comedy scene. I watched his set live and then watched it over and over and over again on my VHS copy.
By the time Norm started doing the Weekend Update segment on SNL, we knew this is where the legendary status would start. Weekend Update was and is the most anticipated part of Saturday Night Live, that everyone would see him on. The world would get to see what we all knew. They would see his genius. It’s like showing someone Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels for the first time. You get to see them react to brilliance. We knew that that role was the perfect job for Norm, and we were right.
What made Norm a hero was the example he set. His comedy was biting and honest, cloaked in perfect word choices. He’s described often as “off the wall” and “quirky”. Yeah. He’s that. But he succeeded because of that, not despite it. Norm proved to a generation of comics that you could succeed doing comedy that you wanted to do. You could perform and tell the jokes that you wanted to tell and be successful by fully committing to the bit. No comic ever watched Norm perform and not think to themselves “I gotta give my jokes a re-think here”. It’s easy to fall into the traps of giving an audience what they want, and not deliver what you want. It wasn’t just his jokes he’d tell his way. Street jokes were a huge favourite of his, giving every “Guy walks into a bar” joke the Norm delivery and cadence that would drive folks like Conan crazy. It was a joy to watch.
Norm was a troubled soul who had his demons. That he battled cancer privately without anyone knowing is a testament to him as a person. However, there were clues had looked for them. When he was moved to tears on his last Letterman appearance, he would have been dealing with cancer for two-to-three years, making the emotion of the moment more visceral.
The celebration of his life has been made easier by social media. Now everyone throws forward clips of their favourite aspects of his work. Stand-up clips, desk pieces, panel moments from talk shows. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate the life of a legend. We would not have some of the great comics we have today without his influence on them. We would not have the audacity and bravery in a lot of comedy out there without him. And now we all get to share him with others. Like us watching him on SNL from Ottawa, you get to watch people see something from Norm they never knew existed before and laugh.
Norm, you may have left us, but you will never be gone.