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Norm Macdonald was the real thing



Norm Macdonald was the real thing

The news of comedian Norm Macdonald’s death on Tuesday at the age of 61 from cancer hit me like a blow. Macdonald is someone I have only seen once, in 2018, when I was working on Talk of the Town. I can remember feeling exhausted and wishing that I could find the perfect column for him. Macdonald was preparing a Netflix series. It was a sort of inside-out talk program, which was incorrigibly dubbed, “Norm Macdonald Has a Show.” This removed all restrictions that would have prevented the show from being viewed by an audience. He was performing standup comedy in San Jose, California. I was also in San Francisco, so I brought my notebook and went down to meet him on the morning train. Our plan was to meet at his hotel, then go to the Winchester Mystery House. It is a tourist attraction in the area, and I thought it would be a nice backdrop to our interview. But it was not. Macdonald met with me in the lobby of the hotel in sweatpants and trainers. He was wearing a sagging orange shirt and a polo shirt. He had just woken up. John Steere, his assistant in his twenties was leading him to a meat sandwich with dip. I glared at my watch furiously as he did so while I sat down. We had already missed our seats when we got in the SUV to get to the Mystery House. So we just shrugged and turned around. The realization that I was less a reporter attempting to capture an interview during the day than I was a travel writer on the standard train traveling with me was made clearer by that moment.

Like many people my age, I mostly knew Macdonald as the host of “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live” in the late nineties. Colin Jost, one of the presenters, described Macdonald in that role as his main model. Like many others my age, I lost track of him in the ten years since. He had three seasons of his own sitcom (“The Norm Show”) and a popular podcast (“Norm Macdonald Live”), as well as a series of interview podcasts (“Norm Macdonald Live”), a comic book that was written as a fake memoir (“Based on a True Story”)). A Netflix special called “Hitler’s Dog”, which I adored, brought him back to my attention in 2017.

His style was suited to semi-dissipated Middle Ages. Macdonald was a Canadian author who had lost his teeth while writing “Roseanne.” His jokes were often framed as a dry, TV-guide-and-flannel-style comedy. (“You know how you say boys have “Gaydar” – they can see other homosexuals? He said it in “Hitler’s Dog”, one of his set-ups. Yet, he was also a performer and writer. His mature style was based upon a rich vocabulary, ironic niceties, and grins that were offset by his zonklike emptiness. Nobody was more adept at creating a joke between their set and their punchline than he. This ability is best demonstrated by his “moth” routine. In it, he used a lame joke to tell a story about a moth that goes to a podiatrist’s …”)office. Then, he delivered a three-minute meta-gag.

When we were just halfway through our interview, I realized that I had mistakenly taken Macdonald’s deadbeat personality for his true worldview. It was not and it wasn’t. It wasn’t and it wasn’t. He charmed me at first by saying he needed glasses all his adult life. But after losing his children’s glasses, his vision became blurred. “I guess if i put on glasses now it will all be in high resolution,” he said. The Macdonaldic turn described normal human vision to be a decadent television broadcast. It was surprising to see how sensitive he was about creative work. I was especially impressed by the Russians who wanted me to discuss Tolstoy. His art was beautiful and he exuded joy. Our best moment was the one after the failed expedition to his hotel suite. He spontaneously gave Steere his assistant Steere who was working on a comic about dogs. It was a kinda handicraft lesson. Although it was a complicated and lengthy exchange, certain twists and turns were memorable.

Steere patiently explained, while scrolling through his notes on the laptop. “And then I say, ‘Does anyone have big dogs? I have a hundred and fifty pound dog named Chewy. Chewy is a five-year-old Great Dane that my girlfriend and I saved as a little puppy. ‘ ”

Macdonald murmured to me, “Saved.” “I didn’t know what that meant. I always thought they had got into traffic … “

“‘So cute. Love him so much. I even slept with us,'” Steere read. “We had no idea how big he was going to get. At some point there wasn’t enough room for the three of us -“

“All right, let me just suggest that,” said Macdonald. “Don’t be afraid to just say things.” He counted the components on his fingers. “’Do you like big dogs?’ “Pause.” ‘I have a big dog.’ ” Break. “’He’s a Great Dane! His name is Chewy. He weighs a hundred and fifty pounds. ‘ That is the end – that is the great information. “

‘It’s just me and Chewy now, but luckily I discovered that Chewy is a chick magnet.’ ”

Macdonald said, “Chick Magnet sounds a bit stupid but it’s all right.”

“Chicks love my dog,” said Steere. “And the end for that is, ‘I’ll admit, it’s pretty uncomfortable to bang a girl doggy style while she’s looking on in confusion. I feel so guilty- ‘”

“You see, this is a bit of a confusing joke,” Macdonald interrupted sternly. “Because you don’t quite understand why he’s confused. The real joke is what? “

“‘I feel so guilty,'” Steere continued. ‘He’s going to get me girls and I’ll cut his balls off.’ ”

Macdonald winced and was then buried. “So the joke is” – he started counting on his fingers again – “he has you girls, you have to have sex, and you feel bad because you cut his balls off. ”He frowned. “But it sounds like you made yourself feel bad about getting you girls and then you cut his balls off. Although you won’t admit it, it’s the way it is.

As Macdonald Steere verbally edited this entire plot in this manner, adjusting the order and rationalizing the logic, and fine-tuning tone, clarity, and pace, I was spellbound. It was amazing to see how alive he became during this process. It was touching to see his generosity. I saw it more than once. It is a cliché to see comics haunted by the Peter Sellers riddle: the feeling that there is nothing there, except the radiance on the stage. Macdonald may have had some elements of this predisposition. It was amazing to me to see how excited and nervous he was that night in Greenroom. However, the endless wasteland of his day was also animated with the help of a stream people who came to watch him. There was Steere; there was a relative with a mental illness whom he patiently looked after over the phone; and there were several friends and comics to whom he had offered his assistance. He said that he had just put Louis CK (and Roseanne) in touch in hopes that they could talk about their career slumps. This was something I later reported, which sparked controversy. As he explained it, his logic was that he wanted them to be strong enough to withstand their punishments. He was concerned that any comic he knew would lead to self-harm.

This gesture of basic human care may seem insignificant to some people, but to me it was. I find it questionable to speak of a self improvement project in relation a man having breakfast with dip meat sandwiches. However, that day I felt Macdonald was as busy as anyone, and it was hard to believe. The fake norm stumbles upon a fake account about his death on his Wikipedia page at the beginning of his fake autobiography. He laughs. He then reads the line again. He wrote that he had read the line again as if he were imagining a stranger reading it in a few years, or even decades. “So this is my life, these words on this screen? Although it doesn’t add much, it is just a list of facts. And I assumed it was a mans life. But it’s so much more. It must be, doesn’t it? “He knew it was like that.

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