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Norm MacDonald Mastered the Art of Being Himself

It wasn’t his jokes that were funny — it was him

If you’d asked me yesterday, or even this morning, who my favorite working comedian was, I would have answered “Norm MacDonald.” So, much like everyone else who was a fan of his, I was completely shocked when his death was announced on Tuesday, following a private, nine-year battle with cancer. Like many people do following the death of a famous person, I plan to dive into my favorite highlights from MacDonald’s career later tonight. But while my list of classics include the same entries as most other Norm MacDonald fans, there are a few deep cuts that I’m particularly excited for.

Before getting to that, I wanted to say that just because MacDonald was my favorite comic doesn’t mean I was always up on what he was doing. I have no interest whatsoever in sports, so I never tuned into his short-lived Sports Show, and though I had the pleasure of seeing him live back in 2015, I haven’t paid too much attention to him lately, especially in light of some of the shitty comments he made regarding the #MeToo movement. Still, I’d cite him as my favorite stand-up because he could make me laugh like no one else, and he did so with seemingly little effort thanks to his wry, utterly unique delivery.

My love for MacDonald began on Saturday Night Live, where his singular style was well-suited for “Weekend Update,” but poorly suited for pretty much anything else. I was just a kid at the time, about 10 or 12, but I remember plenty of jokes about O.J. Simpson and other people I didn’t know — MacDonald’s nasally voice and sly, slow-burning jokes had me laughing regardless. And though I hesitate to call them “impressions,” his characterizations of Bob Dole and Burt Reynolds were also hilarious, particularly during “Celebrity Jeopardy!” where Burt Reynolds donned a big hat and renamed himself “Turd Ferguson.”

From there, I followed MacDonald to the movie Dirty Work, which is a hilariously juvenile film directed by Bob Saget. If you’ve never seen it, the premise is simple: MacDonald and his friend Artie Lange open a “revenge for hire” business where they pull pranks on people for money. It wasn’t profound, but the simple premise let MacDonald do what he did best: Be himself. Generally speaking, MacDonald didn’t really play characters, nor did the audience really want him to — we just liked the “Norm MacDonald” persona. After Dirty Workbut for memorable cameos in the movies of other SNL alumni — his film career floundered, perhaps because they just tried to do much with him, like with convoluted crime comedy Screwed.

Keeping things simple was always when MacDonald was at his best. Famously, he did a super-clean roast of Saget in 2008, rifling off cornball jokes like, “Bob has a beautiful face like a flower — yeah, cauliflower!” Over the past decade, I’ve rolled my eyes time and again when I’ve seen people refer to this as “a brilliant piece of anti-comedy,” making use of a trite, nonsense description that MacDonald himself hated. It wasn’t anti-comedy, it was straight-up comedy. Yes, the jokes were bad in that set, but that’s not why they were funny. Norm MacDonald was funny. His delivery in that set was the same as it was in Dirty Work and “Weekend Update,” and that’s why it worked.

Besides, MacDonald’s style of joke-telling didn’t come from nowhere. When asked who influenced him, his most common answer was Bob Newhart. If you’re familiar with Newhart’s comedy, it’s easy to see why. Much like MacDonald, his style of delivery was always more important than the actual jokes. His nervous hemming-and-hawing is what made him a household name, and for MacDonald, his hesitating delivery was a big inspiration. Along these lines, I’d like to bring your attention to a piece MacDonald did on a comedy album in 2006, which featured a hilarious sendup of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” It was his personal tribute to Newhart’s brand of comedy; it’s nowhere near as well-known as the Saget roast, but it’s right up there in the amount of laughs it delivers.

All that said, my single favorite thing MacDonald did was the long-forgotten sitcom The Norm Show — later renamed Norm — which began in 1999. The show was very much a run-of-the-mill workplace sitcom, but it suited MacDonald perfectly because it, once again, kept things simple. The show took its time and allowed for MacDonald’s unique sense of anxious timing to dictate the scenes. It also had a good cast, including Artie Lange, Roseanne veteran Laurie Metcalf and the late Max Wright — the dad from ALF — whose eternally-flustered persona proved to be the perfect foil for McDonald’s rebellious snark.

Was the show breakthrough in any particular way? Nope. In fact, it only lasted three seasons before being cancelled. But much like Dirty Work and “Weekend Update,” The Norm Show allowed MacDonald to do what he did best: playing “Norm MacDonald.” It was a persona he honed to an absolute art form — one that not even Turd Ferguson could touch.