The one-year passing of comedian Norm MacDonald really snuck up on me this year. September 14th marked the one-year passing of the 61-year-old comedian from Leukemia; that he had evidently been facing quietly and never addressing to the public.
In the past year, I’ve really fallen in love with Norm MacDonald’s work. In true artist fashion, I never realized just how great the comedian was until he was dead. And that’s my own fault of course… Despite my film literacy and cultural savviness (I’ve written 4,500-word essays on the works of medieval poets like Thomas Mallory), I am a complete dunce when it comes down to pop culture. Comedy in particular is one of my most glaring omissions, despite many comedians being some of our most (bizarrely and unfortunately) respected public figures.
And as I’ve come to realize, Norm was arguably the most talented comedian of his generation. He was an honorable structuralist who dedicated himself wholly to the craft of stand-up comedy and had memorized dozens of hours of touring standup. He’d had a brief career as the most memorable host of The Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live, but effectively destroyed his career when he refused to stop making O.J. Simpson jokes against the wishes of the network.
He’d also ingratiated himself into Adam Sandler’s group of regulars alongside the likes of Rob Schneider and appeared in several of the comedian’s (very bad) movies as a minor character.
To date, his most notable standout works are the middling 1990s comedy Dirty Work and his rambling insane memoir Based on a True Story. He’d held down a few short gigs as a talk show host but mostly seemed to operate his career as a for-hire voice actor in shows like Fairly Odd Parents, Family Guy, and The Orville and as a traveling stand-up comedian, where he was always a master of his craft.
What’s really come into focus in the past year though is his surviving standup clips on YouTube, which are comedic masterpieces. Norm MacDonald was known for two things on stage: anti-comedy and intentional bombing. He was the most talented man in the world when it comes to making the audience the butt of the joke and his best clips are those where he refuses to break character as the audience is absolutely groaning and booing him as he smirks through his lines.
Nobody in comedy could bomb as hard as he could and still come out on the other side unscathed!
You see this best in his infamous bits like The Moth Joke, his Hitler Jokes, or his podcast with Dave Osborne, where half of his humor is him just fiercely and determinedly tapdancing across moral lines to watch as his audience and guests react in abject horror.
Few ever accused Norm MacDonald of being a sincere bigot though (shy of his occasional brushes with cancel culture), because he wasn’t. He was close friends with Dave Chapelle, our most famous Black comedian. The guy probably didn’t have an ounce of genuine hatred within his heart, but he could see bullcrap and wanted to find ways to make it funny.
He could go on The View and accuse Bill Clinton of murder and it’s the funniest video you’ll ever watch because you know the joke is that The View sucks!
Of course, that ability to distinguish between earnestness and bullcrap was part of what made his comedy so sharp. What really attracted me to Norm MacDonald was the earnestness underneath his performance. Norm got somewhat infamous in the last few years of his life for being outspoken as a conservative, openly criticizing many of the most sacred cows of modernity.
In his final standup special on Netflix, he very specifically wrote jokes about Transgenderism, the single most hot-button topic of our era. He was totally willing to grab the third rails of politics and let it shock him, maybe because he knew it couldn’t truly hurt a dying man. He was willing to stand athwart common narratives and call them out, even just for the sake of a joke but often to point out the ways our narratives make us cliche or shallow. In one particularly memorable case, he called out a gay comedian who was making fun of a street preacher on the grounds that making jokes about the Bible was the most common and easy thing to do in Hollywood.
He seemed to understand where the lines were drawn and also where the lines OUGHT to be drawn, and despite not seeing himself as someone of great importance or merit he was happy to call the world as he saw it.
There was a more serious side of Norm MacDonald that was always deeply buried in his material. For one, he had a curious habit of name-dropping extremely obscure literary references into his material that would go over the heads of his viewers. Most of the characters he names in the infamous Moth Joke are references to obscure Russian literary characters. He bragged on several occasions that he spent all his free-time rereading Mark Twain novels and spending time with his son. He also claimed in one interview that he’d dedicated his life to celibacy to focus on more important things in his life, like fatherhood and literature.
Beyond that though was his cryptic relationship to faith. One of the most enigmatic features was his latent theism. Norm never appears to have fully committed to any religion. In one of his Netflix specials, he mocks the idea of religion. That said, in his interviews, he’s also extremely unsympathetic to nihilism and atheism. He’d apparently spent the last decade of his life in quiet seclusion, reading Christian and Jewish theology texts and trying to contemplate the nature of mortality and morality, and coming to some kind of deep respect for faith.
“The Enlightenment turned us away from truth and toward a darkling weakening horizon, sad and grey to see. The afterglow of Christianity is near gone now, and a stygian silence lurks in wait.”
It’s unclear if he ever came to a conclusion on the subject. In one interview, he described himself as a “Jewish Theist”, but at other times he goes to bat for Jesus. There are several interviews where he picked fights with the likes of Larry King or other hosts who downplayed the idea of the existence of God. He went as far as to claim that scientists were always wrong about everything.
Norm MacDonald was probably not a genius. If fact, most of his ideas are rambling, inconsistent, and incomplete. You can tell there is a deep thinker underneath all of the questions he raised but he doesn’t appear to have come to any serious conclusions about his life.
If nothing else, he did go out with his final note being a continuation of the earnestness that made his material so subtextually powerful. In his final standup special, he ends his raw performance in front of a webcam simply by telling his mother that he loves her and saying goodbye. He died a few days later in the hospital.
His final note to the world was one of love, instead of a joke.
The legacy he leaves behind is definitely messy. He’s a master craftsman who doesn’t appear to have ever fully developed his masterpiece. There was no great central piece of art or long-running accomplishment he could point to. He couldn’t hold down those kinds of jobs. What is left though is priceless!
As much as I found Dirty Work and Based on a True Story as frustrating upon initially interacting with them, they’ve really blossomed to me as I’ve come to realize just how much of Norm’s voice is in them. Now that he is gone, there is a finite supply of Norm McDonald out there in the world and all of it is precious. I’m deeply thankful for YouTube channels like I’m Not Norm that have done the good work of delving into his extensive backlog and cataloging as much of Norm’s work publicly as humanly possible.
No matter what, we’ll always have The Moth Joke! God-speed Norm!