Here’s why Norm McDonald was comedy royalty. It’s not ‘SNL’
Letterman proved to be a key figure in Macdonald’s career, a champion of stand-up work (the talk-show host said no one was any fun) who did comic books in the final weeks of his show. Macdonald breaks his distinctive scathing style, ending with a surprisingly moving tribute, displaying an emotional side that was usually hidden only beneath the surface of his comedy.
In a 2017 column, I argued that it was his sensitivity to McDonald’s comedy language, plain talk of his distinctive poetic brand. He created stylish turns of phrase and the flourishes of people seem conversational and offhand. Bob Dylan’s boyfriend, Macdonald, was also a sponge at the effects of speech or unusual words, borrowing and rearranging them to create odd-sounding sentences.
But describing him only as a master of joke writing misses out on his agility, horribly deadpan delivery and, above all, an unparalleled level of commitment. He never ran out of jokes and never strayed. You see it in their Bob Saget roast: the conviction to move on despite the tangle of reaction. He pleased the crowd without pleasing the crowd. And none had a nimble and more confident sarcastic voice, which he found humorous in obscurity. There was a surprisingly awkward moment on David Spade’s talk show a few years ago when Macdonald told Jay Leno that he was probably the best talk-show host ever, and no one, including Leno, was able to tell what He was honest.
There’s a lot of fun in this marginal space between honesty and just jokes. One of MacDonald’s most influential exploits is an entire memoir that remains there. It’s one of the greatest comedian memoirs, but also a frankly depressing mix of fact and fiction, cliché and originality. It’s a lot of fun, sometimes exhausting, sometimes intelligent. The title, “Based on a True Story,” isn’t just a lie. It lies in his belief that, as he says, “There’s no way to tell a true story. I really mean a truth, because of memory. It’s just not good.”
Just because you can’t really tell the truth doesn’t mean art can’t get closer to the truth. In an interview with New York Magazine, Macdonald pointed to the trend toward confessional art, saying that he thought art was about hiding. that was revealing.
The fact that he battled cancer for a decade was something he certainly didn’t advertise in his work. His death came as a shock to many. But the clues were everywhere. Death has been one of his favorite subjects in recent years. In a great viral moment, he delivered one of the earliest and best comedy club sets about Coronavirus. This was at the improv in Los Angeles in March 2020, before the venues were closing. “It’s funny that now we all know how we’re going to die,” he said. “What order is this about?”
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