Norm Macdonald is my favourite comedian. Norm has the greatest talent for delivery of any comedian... "... it says here on this card."
His talent seems to be almost 100% just his comedic timing and delivery. The content of what he says is almost meaningless. He often uses old standard jokes from other comedians, or just tells long, pointless anecdotes, but is able to make them funny. In this sense he's the purest comedian there ever was.
For me, what engrosses me most about studying Norm Macdonald's career is that I want to understand why he's so underappreciated. Despite his evident brilliance he's never had a consistent, successful starring vehicle. Here's a chart graphing each episode of TV and TV talk-show appearance he's made:
(I'm missing data for Dennis Miller Live and any radio appearances:)
His best chance for a long-running TV gig might have been the Late Late Show, which he's been up for several times:
One of the most brilliant comics in the world deserves a consistent TV gig! Fortunately he's been putting on the brilliant Norm Macdonald Live on YouTube, but the production values are low and the audience is about a tenth of what it would be if it was on a major network.
In the late-night universe, there are TWO kinds of comedy:
- NBC: straight, obsequious: Leno, Fallon, Meyers
- CBS: offbeat, crazy, stream of consciousness, awkward: Letterman, Ferguson
Conan was the oddball being on NBC, and that's why eventually he had to be let go and moved over to TBS.
Norm definitely fits into the second category.
Norm has never been on Fallon's or Meyers' shows, and had been on Leno just a few times. In contrast, he's one of Letterman and O'Brien's favourite guests:
At this point in Norm's career, it seems unlikely he'll be given a coveted network talk show position. This is a tragedy. But it's also understandable from a business perspective: he's independent and uncontrollable. He has shown again and again to be unwilling to take feedback or criticism from network executives. However, I think he rightly understands that the foundation of his comedy is that rebellious streak, and if he ever neutered himself, he wouldn't be funny, and therefore it would be pointless for him to give in. After all, a huge part of his comedy is doing or saying outrageous things that make everyone uncomfortable.
In fact, I'd argue that the quality of his comedy increased after his firing from SNL. He's said to Conan that he's been "worn down by years of failure" whereas Conan has known "only success". He's right, and I think Norm has come to realize this has only made him a better comedian. In the early 1990s he had a smarmy cockiness that did not serve his comedy well. Now that he's more bitter or just doesn't care about looking good or seeming "cool" anymore, his comedy is more raw, and more real. Basically, his 1998 firing, and later setbacks, made Norm humble, and more real, and even funnier.
I'd be okay if he settled into a comfortable pattern of 2-3 network talk show appearances per year, a 13-episode season of Norm Macdonald Live, and then going out on the road doing standup for the balance of the year. He's done that for the past two years, and if he keeps that up for the next five I'd be happy for him. Still, the brilliance of Sports Show with Norm Macdonald, which was cancelled after just 8 episodes in 2011, shows how much more he could do if given the chance. The show pulled in about 1 million viewers a week, but that was about 25% too little for Comedy Central to keep the show going.
Still, unlike standups who enjoy having a rigourous schedule of shows like Leno or Seinfeld (likely because they get to travel in private jets), Norm would likely prefer not to have to be subjected to a brutal road schedule each year. On 9 Feb 1996 on Letterman, using an anecdote from early in his career about a show "outside of Red Deer, Alberta", he mentioned how much he dislikes the standup road schedule:
Another option might be if someone took him on as a permanent sidekick. Conan is the obvious choice here, but of course he already has the excellent but far less ascerbic Andy Richter. Andy has a sweetness about him that Norm completely lacks. Norm's favourite thing to do is to utterly eviscerate someone with comedy, and then sarcastically say "naw, you're a great guy". Despite their differences, both Andy and Norm work great as Conan's sidekick.
Questions for Norm
Having compiled a lot of data on Norm Macdonald, I have a few questions for him. Maybe someday I'll get an answer.
Question 1: The Lost Conan Years
You were on Conan 12 times from 1995-97, ending with the infamous Courtney Thorne-Smith appearance. But then other than once in 1999 to promote Norm Show, once in 2003 to promote a Minute with Stan Hooper, you didn't appear on Conan's show again until 2009, during his Tonight Show days, when he fought to get you on the show 3 times despite you having nothing to promote except local comedy appearances:
So, why didn't you appear on Conan's show more in the years 1998-2009? Were you blacklisted on NBC during that time because you publicly spoke out against Don Olmeyer on Letterman, on 7 Jan 1998? You did appear on Leno in 2003, 2005, and 2008, though.
Was it because you lived in LA? Was it because from 1995-97, it was convenient for you to drop in on Conan since you were in the building anyway for SNL? Or was it because at the time Conan was starting out and couldn't find "big name" guests? That doesn't make sense because Letterman had you on 4 times in 1998.
Question 2: The Lost Homeless Man Joke
What is the ending to this joke you started about the homeless man on Letterman, 21 May 1996?
Also, what's the story about why Letterman wouldn't let you finish the story? You were clearly on good terms with him he had you on the show 10 times from 1996-1998.
Question 3: Your Late Thirties
What did you do in your late 30s? (2001-2003). Your son was young (8-11), were you raising him? You had a 2.5 year gap between the end of the Norm Show and A Minute with Stan Hooper where you had no mass-media appearances.
Question 4: Personal Life
When did you get married, when did you get divorced? Are you currently seeing anyone? Did you raise your son, or did your wife? From what it appears in recent appearances and tweets, you seem close with your son.
Question 5: Vices
Do you still smoke? You used to smoke, when did you quit? How bad of a smoker were you?
You say you've only drank 3 times in your life, but people have commented on reviews of your standup that you sometimes seem incoherent and slurred in your speech. Are you taking drugs of some kind? You gave some drugs to Roseanne Barr when she appeared on Norm MacDonald Live, is that because you take them regularily?
Question 6: Carrot Top
What does Carrot Top think of the classic moment you had on Conan on 15 May 1997?
Here are some further resources on this wonderful comedian:
Great article on the infamous Carrot Top interview from 15 May 1997:
On Norm Macdonald, the Greatest Talk Show Guest Ever
Norm MacDonald Live reviews:
"His producers were toying with the idea of charging two bucks per program, but Macdonald is a man of the people. He thinks the idea is “ridiculous”. Ditto soliciting donations “like you’re a communist or something”. So it will remain free for all."
“They wanted young guys, so they got this guy from The Big Bang Theory,” he says of actor Simon Helberg. “He was nice enough but completely uninteresting. And then no one watched it! Like, no one cared. My idea was to get guys as old as possible, like before they died. Because I find those old guys will say anything because they’re not in show business anymore.”
2010 Norm Onion A.V. club interview
SNL norm as letterman:
First appearance on Letterman, 9 May 1990:
An anecdote Norm told in August 2014 after Robin Williams' death about what happened after that appearance first appearance:
Thanks to epguides.com for Norm's talk show appearance information dating back into the 1990s.
Here's a link to the underlying data used for the charts in this post.