• Norm Macdonald: Odd Man Out

    Norm Macdonald: Odd Man Out
    Saturday Night Live alum and stand-up comedy veteran Norm Macdonald is a man unfettered by Hollywood producers and sitcom stooges. He’s a man finally free to corrupt young minds in style. Come and get it, kids!

    By Dylan P. Gadino

    Having woken up minutes ago at his Los Angeles home, Norm Macdonald is, for the most part, still sleeping. Just to prove it, he speaks at a volume one would usually reserve for a mouth-to-ear discussion at a library. “I’m trying to get to the bottom of this Black Dahlia thing,” he says in what sounds like his trademark anti-pause cadence, like an old-fashioned desk clock being wound against its will. No doubt, he means the Scarlett Johansson/Josh Hartnett flick. “No… the case.” he says, a bit louder. “The movie only scratches the surface. There are too many unanswered questions.”

    It’s safe to assume that Macdonald’s concern, even in his tired state, is smothering in a thick coat of sarcasm. Why he’s being jokey about a 1947 murder case in which a 22-year-old aspiring actress was sliced in half and left in a field is a strange thing; not strange because he’s being offensive, but because of its arbitrary nature.

    This idea of poking fun at random topics for no reason and with no serious intent at all is a running theme on Macdonald’s new album, Ridiculous. On it, Norm turns away from stand-up to focus on the sketch— that volatile subsection of performed comedy that made the 42-year-old comic a household name during his tenure as the Weekend Update anchor on Saturday Night Live.

    Though producers tried to convince him to release a traditional stand-up album, Norm wasn’t hearing it. “There seems to be such a preponderance of stand-up albums out there,” he says. “The market is saturated.” Furthermore, he explains, his stand-up material is simply better left off of CDs.

    “I think my stand up is a little rough for an album,” he says. “It’s better for a night club and is definitely only for adults’ ears. I would never want children to hear some of it. It’s a little frightening.”

    There are two strange things about this reasoning. The first is that now he is not – at all – being funny. He’s dead serious about keeping his stage act away from kids. No matter how much you try to urge a punch line out of what sounds like mock concern, he stands firm.

    “If I see people under 18 in the club at one of my shows, I’ll switch my act completely,” says the father of 10-year-old son, Dylan. “I’ll just do all clean stuff. I don’t want to expose children to themes like death…especially death. There’s a lot of that in my stand-up.”

    The second funny thing about his reasoning is that even by most liberal standards, Ridiculous is not any more for children than is his stand-up. In Norm’s defense, though, no one dies on the album; though one guy’s wife sets him on fire while he’s sleeping in a sketch called “Burning Bed” and another character promises to “swallow a bottle of barbiturates and have the final bath of my life” after losing a sports bet.

    He’s quick to defend what seems to be a flimsy set of standards. “It’s more fun and it’s not very provocative,” he says of his album material. “It’s just a little wrong, ya know? It’s just in good clean fun. I would never do anything purposely provocative because I don’t like that kind of stuff. I don’t like shock value stuff or gross-out humor.”

    It’s true. Despite seemingly scurrilous material, if you really picked apart his bits, you’d be hard pressed to find something he said as truly offensive. Unless you’re offended by words and concepts regardless of the context or the intent in which they’re used.

    Case in point: In a three-part sketch about the world’s first two gay guys, the listener is treated to the sounds of Norm’s character abusing the ass of a character played by Will Ferrell, who incidentally sounds exactly like his Harry Caray impression. At the top of his lungs, Ferrell screams, “My ass is fire! My ass is fire! My ass is no more. It has been replaced by fire,” while an unaffected Macdonald – with an even tone – says things like,

    “I like it. It’s nice, huh?”

    Is it for kids? Not really. Will they be scarred after hearing it? Probably not. Is it offensive? No. There’s not enough substance. It’s just an excuse for Ferrell to yell absurd phrases.

    And besides, Norm admits he wanted to put something out there a little wicked for the youth to get their hands on. When he was growing up he became attached to a lot of Cheech and Chong, Monty Python and Richard Pryor records. “All of us kids listened to them when we weren’t supposed to,” he says. “I wanted to make an album that was not for kids but actually was for kids.”

    Though he was always a fan of comedy, especially Chevy Chase’s purposely bad impressions on Saturday Night Live, the Quebec City native never thought to grab a microphone and take to the stage. That is until he started attending a comedy club in Ottawa somewhat regularly and convinced himself that he could probably do better than the current crop of comics.

    So at 24, he abandoned odd jobs like working at a logging camp and an oil field and made his way across Canada hitting any comedy club that would have him. He would eventually move to Los Angeles and scored a gig writing for Roseanne, where his boss – a former stand-up herself – favored stand-up comics over Hollywood geeks.

    With a little help from good friend, Adam Sandler, Norm landed a writing gig at SNL; a year later he became, arguably, the most popular Weekend Update anchor of the show’s history. In what has become one of the comedy world’s most controversial decisions, NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer stripped Macdonald of the anchor chair in early 1998, nearly four years into his run. “He told me he didn’t find me funny,” Macdonald said at the time. “If that’s true, then I don’t think there has to be any other reason.”

    But insiders speculated Ohlmeyer’s close friendship with ex football star O.J. Simpson had something to do with it. Having been acquitted for the double murder of his ex wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, Simpson was then in the middle of his civil trial; Norm was constantly pegging jokes on the show to the obviousness of Simpson’s guilt. The day after his demotion – he was allowed to perform in skits only – Macdonald appeared on The Howard Stern Show, saying that he hoped Ohlmeyer would “take up skiing real soon.”

    No matter. Norm had garnered enough face time in the fake news chair to get some quick parts on Sandler’s Billy Madison, The Drew Carey Show and NewsRadio. By the time of his firing he had already begun work on voicing the main character (Lucky, the dog) on the Eddie Murphy flick Dr. Dolittle and the critically panned – but hilarious – Dirty Work.

    Macdonald’s new level of celebrity pushed him into the mainstream when he landed a sitcom deal with ABC. The Norm Show, on which co-creator Macdonald played an ex hockey player arrested for tax evasion and sentenced to community service as a social worker, premiered in March of 1999 and ran until 2001. Two years later Fox picked up another Macdonald sitcom creation called A Minute with Stan Hooper; this one died after three months.

    “That happens a lot with stand-ups,” says Macdonald. “Hollywood tells them, ‘You’re a great stand-up. You should be in a bad sitcom. You should be the worst actor of all time.’”

    Macdonald’s sitcom misadventures clearly haven’t hurt his career. He’s attached to no less than five movies through 2007 (including Bob Saget’s Farce of the Penguins and the animated Christmas is Here Again) and has recently sold his new script, Court Appointed Attorney to Sony Pictures. “But sometimes studios buy stuff and never do anything with it,” he explains. “But this a fucking funny movie. I’ve been in some goddamn shit. But this one is funny.”

    And if nothing comes of it, so what? Norm’s most at home on the stand-up stage anyway. “Stand-up is great because you could do whatever you want,” he says. “No one tells you what to do. With films and sitcoms there are always plenty of people who want to help. With any other form of art, that would be ludicrous. Like if Rembrandt were working on a painting and Leonardo DaVinci came by and said, ‘Hey I’ll do the yellow parts,’ it would become a bunch of shit.”

    So true.

    For more information on Norm Macdonald, visit www.comedycentral.com.

    Dylan P. Gadino

    Dylan is the founder and editor emeritus of Laughspin.

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