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Norm Macdonald Was an Agent of Comedy Chaos

The comedian, who died Tuesday after a long and private battle with cancer, was a singular talent who always committed to the joke

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It would do a great dishonor to Norm Macdonald—the beloved comedian and Zen provocateur who died Tuesday, at 61, after a fiercely private nine-year battle with cancer that seems to have shocked even his biggest fans—to not start off by revisiting his single nastiest joke. Or at least one of the nastiest jokes Norm’s larger adoring public knows about, one of the nastiest he even bothered trying to get on the air as host of Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” during his spectacular and triumphantly doomed run on the show in the mid-’90s. He told this story—about a gentlemen’s disagreement with SNL overlord Lorne Michaels over a “Weekend Update” bit—to Playboy in 1997. I imagine Norm told this story a lot. Hell, I tell it a lot. But this quick, rude, magnificently wrong, nuclear-grade-cringe anecdote says it all about one of the funniest men who ever lived and his willingness to say anything to prove it:

I did this joke in which I showed that picture of the girl running away from napalm in Vietnam. I said, “In gossip news, Woody Allen’s dating again.” Lorne told me not to do it, and I told him he was wrong, that people would like it. Then I did it in dress rehearsal and there was this insane audience reaction that went on for two minutes: hate. I was completely wrong.

I still imagine this scene sometimes. I would rather not, but I do. The sound of that crowd, the moans, the outrage, the revulsion. Was it a deafening roar? An agonized near silence? Which is worse? Which is funnier? Two minutes of hate, he says. Huh. But what I can picture most clearly is Norm’s face, that placid little half-grin, eyes shining, affable and cuddly as ever, just ecstatically amused by all of it, reveling in the chaos he’d unleashed. Drinking it all in like a cool pitcher of lemonade.

You are born knowing that Saturday Night Live was better before you were born. And even clueless ’90s teenagers could sense that the show’s true iconoclast superstars—also including Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and Chris Rock—wouldn’t last on the show for long. Too brazen, too raw, too volatile, too “completely wrong.” Destined to be fired and destined for greatness. Sandler and Rock, of course, became true superstars; Farley died of a drug overdose in 1997. True greatness, true volatility works like that: It’s all or nothing. Except with Norm. He found, of course, a middle ground, a proud comedy extremist with phenomenally broad appeal, and a widespread rep as, indeed, one of the funniest people alive without any conventional breakout A-lister moment, no blockbuster movie, and no undeniable hit TV show. Any of that would’ve only diluted his genius, or at least tried.

So I am grateful for everyone on Twitter right now flagging his great vintage SNL skits, but I gotta say I have virtually no memory of Norm in any plain old sketch: To my mind he was, from the onset, a chaos agent, a cheerful and deadly ghost in the machine, an Andy Kaufman–adjacent destabilizer. A comedy purist in the sense that he was disconcertingly willing to get down in the mud. He got demoted from “Weekend Update” in early 1998, supposedly for making too many O.J. Simpson jokes, and jumped right onto David Letterman’s couch to talk all about it. (“I’m serious! I talked to a guy who said I’m fired.”) He left SNL for good soon thereafter. He starred later that year in Dirty Work, a riotously mean-spirited black comedy that best paid tribute to the Norm Macdonald mythos by bombing. He returned to host SNL in ’99 and put on Burt Reynolds’s hat. That year he tried a sitcom, Norm, that lasted three years. From there he had more time to devote to his true calling, which was being the single greatest talk-show guest of all time.

So this is 1997, on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and Courtney Thorne-Smith is ostensibly being interviewed here, and what am I even doing, you know this. When a famous person dies, especially in such harrowingly abrupt fashion—nine years he fought cancer in near-total secrecy, my god, that is awful, that is so bleak and yet serene, so heartrending in just an exquisitely queasy über–Norm Macdonald sort of way—like 80 percent of the internet knee-jerk reacts with the same anecdote, the same all-universe highlight. And this is Norm’s. I won’t spoil it in the very unlikely event you know anything about this website but don’t know this; suffice it to say I feel terrible for Thorne-Smith throughout, even as my giddy delight intensifies, and Conan’s full-body explosion when Norm spells “B-O-R-E-D” is just the single greatest thing.

He did stand-up. Tons of it. A lifetime’s worth of it. He considered it his life’s work. “In my mind, I’m just a stand-up,” he said in a 2018 New York Times Magazine profile that hailed him as a man still in search of the perfect joke. “But other people don’t think that. They go, ‘Oh, the guy from S.N.L. is doing stand-up now.’” He wrote a 2016 memoir that was, in its own inevitable irascible way, profoundly moving. One of his last major endeavors was a 2018 Netflix talk show that at the time I found just baffling, a relentless deadpan deconstruction (from the title Norm Macdonald Has a Show on down) that of course with a little distance was the only way he could’ve played it, the only Norm Macdonald talk show that could’ve been true to him, convincing his first guest, a thoroughly perplexed David Spade, that they hadn’t even started taping yet after their whole interview was over. I will rewatch it now, and I will process, very slowly, the fact that the man on-screen is very sick and already has been for nearly a decade.

That Netflix show’s rollout, punctuated by some of the deepest and most fascinating interviews of his career, was mired in cancel-culture controversy too tiresome to even recount here. To judge him by any rubric of correctness—any definition, any era—is a greater dishonor still. Bad-faith assholes eager to say the worst, most hurtful shit they can think of were always eager to claim him as a truth-telling warrior, but that’s the greatest dishonor of them all. His philosophy was never Say anything. Hurt anybody. Fuck you if it hurts you. He took comedy as far as it would go, and your full-body cringe was guaranteed, but he took you with him. When he punched, he punched up. And nobody hit harder. Sometimes he hit so hard you didn’t even feel it.

And so this is the other group-mourning Norm talk-show clip that’ll reverberate through your Twitter feed for the next 72 hours. Conan again, 2009 now. Won’t spoil this one either, but again, I’m pretty sure you already know it, you already love it, and you will profit enormously from watching it again anyway. Just revel in the look on Norm’s face when the punch line finally hits, the oceanic calm as Conan—once again as happy, as delighted as I’ve ever seen him—explodes into giggles. “My congratulations to anyone who stuck it through to the end,” Conan announces, when the applause finally dies down. Sometimes I think Norm Macdonald, to his infinite credit, was the only one who truly did.