On September 14, 2021 I was sitting on a couch in my home and checking Twitter on my laptop. I saw the name of Norm MacDonald come up on the right side of the home screen. I wondered why he’d be trending. Norm MacDonald had passed away.
I confess that when most celebrities die it has little if any effect on me. But Norm? I felt like I was kicked in the chest. Felt numb for a few days. I know you and I probably don’t know each other, but trust me, that kind of response is not typical for me. I’m fairly stoic in these matters. But this? Norm? Yes. Numb is the word. It was more than the loss of a great artist. His personal humility came through his work. And there were moments when his humanity showed through, as when he was reduced to tears in his final performance on the Letterman show.
Wait. That’s cliche and Norm deserves better. He wasn’t reduced. If anything, his tears elevated that moment. Expanded it. These weren’t the tears of someone who self-indulgently blabbers private matters every day on TV. These were the tears of a master craftsman who was expressing gratitude and honor to someone who had inspired him as a teenager. These were the tears of a man who, unknown to all but a few close to him, had acute leukemia for several years. He hadn’t shared it publicly, as he feared it would “affect the way he was perceived.”
Yes, leukemia. Imagine that. Keeping a private matter private. In an age where people puke the most inappropriate details of their lives on social media. All hail Norm.
Contrast Norm MacDonald not revealing his health problems with magicians making up false sentimentality to tell with a snowstorm performance. One keeps private matters private. The other attempts to create a fake intimacy to share with an audience, many of whom know it’s fake intimacy. So it’s a layer of fake on a layer of fake looked at through fake glass lenses.
Watch Norm’s two Netflix specials. They both begin with the jokes. There is no “let’s introduce the star” skit stuff at the beginning. They get right to the work at hand — the work of entertaining an audience, not the self-indulgence of pseudo-star crap many acts do.
Magicians like to say “I made the trick my own.” OK. Sure. Good for them. Now look what Norm did to a shaggy dog story like the moth joke. He made it an all time comedy classic. Same with the doghouse joke, which I can remember hearing as a kid. Too many times magicians equate “making it their own” with “I’ve learned to competently do the lines that everyone else does.”
Look at the leanness of this joke from a Letterman appearance:
“Yeah, with Hitler, the more I learn about that guy the more I don’t care for him.”
Followed by a strong ten second laugh. I’ve often thought that Norm doing that line is the perfect joke. It’s all punchline with the delivery itself being the setup.
Want some inspiration for how a quick magic trick could be transformed into a longer, tour de force magic routine? Watch Norm do his Janice routine on his first Netflix special. A TWELVE MINUTE chunk of laugh after laugh ending perfectly. It’s brilliant.
Dave Chappelle joked about how being canceled wasn’t all that bad after the reaction to his Netflix special, The Closer. When I heard his response I thought, “Well, it is easier to forget about being canceled when your net worth is about $50 million.” I think his retirement fund will probably be OK. This is not a putdown of Chappelle, rather it’s an assessment of the risks taken or not taken.
Now look at Norm. When he was told to stop doing OJ Simpson jokes on SNL he did more. And he was fired from SNL. And he wasn’t worth anywhere near $50 million. Don Ohlmeyer, an NBC suit, told him “he wasn’t funny.” The next season Norm was invited back to host the show and addressed his firing head-on in his opening monologue. It’s brilliant. It’s fearless. It’s hilarious.
I have posted a few times on Facebook the comment, “One just does not watch a single Norm MacDonald YouTube video. Nope. Watch one and prepare to block out a few hours of time.” Thousands have had the realization. He was a once in a lifetime talent. More important than that, from everything I’ve ever read about him (and, yeah, I’m a fan and have read much) he was a good and decent man.
Requiescat in pace.