No one did comedy like the late Norm Macdonald, because no one understood comedy like Norm Macdonald. He was a stand-up not just first and foremost, but in his entirety. Hollywood often balked at his ability to headline a movie or TV series, and that was likely just fine with him — his craft was the joke, not “acting.”
“There’s a craft to comedy that’s not an art,” he told Larry King in 2018. “Because the craft is this: You have to make the audience make a specific noise at a specific time all together. Art is open to interpretation; stand-up comedy is not. You must get the exact same — it could be silence, it could be anger, it could be anything — but you have to have that same noise from every single person in the audience. If it’s mixed, you’re dead.”
That idea that the comic had to elicit the same response from everyone in the room, and that that response didn’t have to be laughter, is what gave him such a unique approach to his comedy. He could be chatting with The View hosts and do everything in his power to irritate all of them, and chalk that up as a win. He could play up his own irreverence in an impersonation of Burt Reynolds, and we’d all accept that it was Burt Reynolds. He could obnoxiously take over a late-night interview he wasn’t involved in, and steal the spotlight.
If the audience found him irritating, he won. If the audience found him controversial, he won. And if the audience found him hilarious, he won — and so did everyone. His willingness to go for it in any direction at all times was the key to his fearlessness.
Macdonald was a master of toying with expectations, of snapping tension or upending the, well, norms of polite society. It didn’t matter where he was, whether it be a late-night couch, Saturday Night Live‘s Studio 8H, or the stage of a comedy club, his diehard dedication to deadpan never wavered. Until the end, his humor was crafted just the way he wanted it, and that alone would be worthy of legend. The fact that he also happened to be hilarious was just the polish on the masterpiece.
As we celebrate the life of the comedian, who left us at the age of 61 following a nine-year battle with cancer, revisit five of his most stunning comedic moments below.
— Ben Kaye
05. Joking about O.J. Simpson on SNL’s Weekend Update
During Macdonald’s tenure on Update, the O.J. Simpson murder trial saw the droll comedian making fun of Simpson frequently. This came to a stop when Don Ohlmeyer, the president of NBC’s West Coast Division, who, uh, happened to be friends with O.J., removed Macdonald from the Weekend Update chair in late 1997. Coincidence? We think not! Anyway, before his removal, Macdonald made almost too many O.J. jokes to count — though many of them are in the below compilation, for your convenience. Notable iconic line: “Murder is legal in the state of California.” — Gab Ginsberg
04. “Chairman of the Bored”
After nearly derailing an interview in which Conan O’Brien was simply trying to have a conversation with Melrose Place star Courtney Thorne-Smith, Norm Macdonald may have made Conan laugh the hardest he ever had throughout his long-running show. Throughout the interview, Conan keeps tossing Norm knowing glances, leaving pauses in the interview where he knows Norm is going to interject. He’s playfully irritated with his guest, trying to keep things focused on Thorne-Smith, before he finally throws in the towel. “Do something with that,” Conan challenges him weakly — and Norm sure does. — Mary Siroky
03. Triggering The View hosts
Watching Norm Macdonald as a guest on The View in November of 2000, you can tell just how much fun he’s having. With the episode taking place in the aftermath of the infamous recount of the 2000 US Presidential Election, Macdonald enters and immediately stirs the pot with The View‘s hosts, claiming confidently that Bill Clinton is a murderer and that Bill Cosby has, well, never done anything wrong.
The women are horrified, tense, and do their very best to keep the interview with him on track — but Macdonald is dead set on having a good time and getting a bit of a rise out of everyone. Even though his comments were in jest, it’s a hilarious example of just how far Macdonald was willing to go for a laugh — and how subversive and smart he could be at the same time. — Paolo Ragusa
02. Playing Burt Reynolds during Celebrity Jeopardy! on SNL
Of his many frequent appearances in Saturday Night Live sketches, a true Norm Macdonald highlight is his portrayal of Burt Reynolds in the Celebrity Jeopardy! segments. He’d play brilliantly off of Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek and Darrell Hammonds’ Sean Connery, firing quick zingers at everyone around and making immature jokes, all while hiding behind his charming, gum-chewing grin.
It seems as though his Burt Reynolds appearances were designed specifically for Macdonald’s cheeky, wise-cracking delivery — take the Celebrity Jeopardy! segment from Season 25 in 1999, where Macdonald dons an oversized hat midway through the sketch, derailing it almost entirely. It’s a perfect example of his comedic confidence and ability to steal the show at any moment. — P.R.
01. The famous moth joke on Conan
One of his most famous late night moments, the “Moth” bit is quintessential Norm. Dry as toast even in the setup to the setup, he launches into a “The Aristocrats”-style backstory about a moth in the midst of a terrible mid-life crisis. He paints a picture of a creature at the end of his rope, utterly defeated and depressed, the depths of absolute despair — and the punchline is “moths are attracted to light.” It’s simple, it’s stupid, and it’s genius.
And the depth of Macdonald’s greatness is even further revealed when you realize Conan’s impatience shatters the tension before the joke gets to its turning point; it’s likely all that stuff about a spider dangling over an “everlasting fire” was just Macdonald thinking on his feet to reset the tension. His delivery may have been slow, but you can bet Norm was always quicker than you.