“He never wanted the diagnosis to affect the way the audience or any of his loved ones saw him. Norm was a pure comic,” Macdonald’s friend and producing partner, Lori Jo Hoekstra said in a September 14th statement announcing his death (via Deadline). “He once wrote that ‘a joke should catch someone by surprise, it should never pander.’ He certainly never pandered. Norm will be missed terribly.”
With a quick wit but painfully slow delivery, Macdonald was known for long walks to bamboozling simple, left-field punchlines. His “Moth” joke, delivered during a 2009 appearance on Conan, is a particularly beloved example of his tension-snapping genius. In fact, his particular style made Macdonald a favorite on late night talkshows, whether he was leaving the hosts in the wake of us non sequitur riffing or ribbing his fellow guests.
The Canadian native got his first job in Hollywood was as a writer for Roseanne, for which he wrote during the sitcoms fifth season between 1992 and 1993. Simultaneously, he wrote for the short-lived The Dennis Miller Show. He left the sitcom world when he was hired as a Saturday Night Live cast member in 1993. Though known for his impressions of Quentin Tarantino, Burt Reynolds, Bob Dole, and others, Macdonald’s true mark on SNL came as the anchor of Weekend Update. He chaired that post for three and a half seasons between 1994 and 1998.
MacDonald was eventually removed as Weekend Update anchor after SNL head Lorne Michaels was pressured by NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer, who was a close friend of O.J. Simpson. Though Ohlmeyer initially told Michaels not to let his relationship with Simpson impact the program, three years of Macdonald implying the accused murderer was guilty apparently pushed the brass too far. Macdonald later backtracked on his belief that his Simpson jokes led to his ouster, noting that he was generally insubordinate during his time on the show.
Despite being replaced by Colin Quinn as host of Weekend Update, Macdonald remained an SNL cast member through early 1998. Still, animosity between the comedian and NBC remained, as the network refused to air ads for Macdonald’s movie Dirty Work. Co-written and starring Macdonald, and directed by Bob Saget, the film performed dismally at the box office, but went on to become a cult classic for comedy fans.
Macdonald’s first movie role actually came in 1995 when he played Adam Sandler’s drunken buddy Frank in Billy Madison; throughout his career, he would frequently cameo in Sandler’s productions. In 2000, he starred alongside Dave Chappelle and Danny DeVito in the critical and commercial flop Screwed; like Dirty Work, that movie has earned somewhat of a cult following.
While his live-action appearances never amounted to much cinematic gold, Macdonald had a relatively successful career as a voice actor, giving voice to Lucky the dog in the Dr. Dolittle franchise, and appearing in films like 2006’s Farce of the Penguins and 2019’s Klaus, and TV shows like The Fairly OddParents and Mike Tyson Mysteries.
His biggest post-SNL TV success came from the sitcom The Norm Show, which ran for three seasons between 1999 and 2001 on ABC. Macdonald played an ex-NHL hockey player who, after gambling on the sport and not paying taxes, is sentenced to five years of community service work as a social worker. He also appeared on shows like The Drew Carey Show, NewsRadio, My Name Is Earl, The Middle, and most recently The Orville. He even played Colonel Sanders in a number of absurdist KFC commercials.
In 2018, he hosted the Netflix talk show Norm Macdonald Has a Show, but he only had that show for a single season. He also had a video podcast called Norm Macdonald Live, which ran for 36 episodes between 2013 and 2018. Unlike many stand-ups, he sparsely released albums, only having three to his name: the sketch album Ridiculous from 2006; 2011’s Me Doing Stand-Up; and Netflix’s Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery from 2017.
Below, revisit some of Macdonald’s most memorable moments, including some classic Conan appearances and a compilation of his SNL O.J. Simpson bits.