Norm Macdonald, Saturday Night Live comedian, dies at the age of 61

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Norm Macdonald, the vicious, sometimes controversial comedian known to millions as the Weekend Update anchor on Saturday Night Live from 1994 to 1998, died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 61.

His manager Marc Gurvitz confirmed the death. Lori Jo Hoekstra, his longtime production partner, told entertainment news agency Deadline that the cause was cancer, something he had been concerned with for a while but had largely kept private.

Mr. Macdonald had an expressive style on the stand-up circuit, first in his native Canada and then in the United States. In 1990 he made his routine on “Late Night With David Letterman” and other shows. Then, in 1993, his big break came: an interview with Lorne Michaels, a compatriot from Canada, for a job on Saturday Night Live.

“I knew that although we were from the same nation, they were worlds apart,” wrote Mr. Macdonald in “Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir” (2016), a fictional work with occasional hints of biography. “He was a Toronto cosmopolitan, urbane, the guy who would be comfortable around the Queen of England. I was a Hick, born on the barren, rocky bottom of the Ottawa Valley, where the richest man in town was the barber. “

In any case, he got the job, and for the next year he was the anchor chair for the Weekend Update segment. In skits he impersonated Burt Reynolds and Bob Dole and played other characters.

Mr Michaels said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that Jim Downey, the show’s then chief writer, first brought his attention to Mr Macdonald.

“Jim just liked the intelligence behind the jokes,” he recalls.

And Mr. Michaels saw it too.

“There’s something in his comedy – it just has a harshness,” he said. “He’s also incredibly patient. He can wait ”- that means waiting for a punch line.

That, said Mr. Michaels, was what made Mr. Macdonald stylistically different from other Weekend Update anchors.

“I think the audience took some getting used to,” said Michaels. “It wasn’t an instant hit. But he just grew with them. “

However, in early 1998, Mr Macdonald was booted from the anchor chair, allegedly at the behest of Don Ohlmeyer, President of NBC Entertainment, West Coast, who is said to have been annoyed by Mr Macdonald’s relentless ridicule of his friend OJ Simpson.

Mr. Macdonald stayed a few more episodes but did not return for the 1998-99 season. His television activities after “SNL” were mixed.

“Norm” (originally called “The Norm Show”), a comedy about a former hockey player, ran on ABC from 1999 to 2001. “Sports Show With Norm Macdonald” on Comedy Central lasted only a few months in 2011.

“The avid fan will see two patterns in his television work,” wrote Dan Brooks in a 2018 article about him in the New York Times Magazine. “It’s invariably funny, and it’s invariably canceled.”

But Mr. Macdonald said he didn’t consider himself a television performer first and worked as a comedian throughout his career.

“In my opinion, I’m just a stand-up,” he said to Mr. Brooks. “But other people don’t think so. They say, oh, the guy from ‘SNL’ is doing stand-up now. “

Although Mr. Macdonald is known for “Weekend Update”, he hasn’t done much up-to-date material in his own routines. He liked jokes that would continue to be funny in the future.

One of his most famous is one he told on “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” in 2009 about a moth going to a podiatrist. After a minute-long setup in which the moth pours out various emotional problems, the podiatrist asks the insect why it came to a podiatrist and not a psychiatrist. Mr. Macdonald’s punchline: “And then the moth said, ‘Because the light was on.'”

Mr. Macdonald’s sense of humor sometimes got him into hot water. In 2018, for example, he drew criticism for statements that appeared to be defending comedian Louis CK, who was accused of sexual misconduct, and Roseanne Barr, who was under fire for a racist Twitter post. (Louis CK had written the preface to Mr. Macdonald’s 2016 book, and Ms. Barr hired him to write her 1990s sitcom, Roseanne.) When apologizing for these comments, Mr. Macdonald made a remark who have favourited Down syndrome people mocked.

Missteps aside, Mr. Macdonald was always good on a late night talk show for a few unpredictable minutes or more.

“I’ve been interviewing Norm for 18 years and he’s consistently broken every talk show rule,” O’Brien told the Times in 2011. “He’s telling anecdotes that are obviously wrong. His stories have always been the routines of farmer’s daughters who he swears happened to him. “

Mr. O’Brien added, “When Norm steps out from behind the curtain, I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen and that electrical charge comes through the television.”

Norman Gene Macdonald was born in Quebec City on October 17, 1959, according to IMDB.

In 1998, his brother Neil told The Record of Ontario that Norm flirted with the newspaper business as a young man but purposely missed an interview for a job as a copyboy because he wasn’t serious about the job.

“He once said he was interested in finding out the truth, but he hoped it would be within walking distance,” Neil Macdonald told the newspaper.

He also recalled his brother hyperventilating in the washroom at Yuk Yuk’s, an Ottawa comedy club, before going on stage for his first stand-up appearance. But he got it together and, as comedians say, killed it.

In 1984, Mr. Macdonald was adroit enough to open for comedian Sam Kinison for four months.

Eventually he made his way to Los Angeles and was hired as a writer for “The Dennis Miller Show” and then for “Roseanne” in 1992.

“I never wanted fame at all, I just wanted to do stand-up,” he told The Ottawa Citizen in 2010. “When I came to Los Angeles to do more stand-up comedy, I found that people wanted me to do other things that I really didn’t want. “

“Stand-up,” he added, “is a strange kind of job that if you’re good at it, you assume you’re good at other things in show business, which you usually aren’t.”

Mr. Macdonald wrote the 1998 film “Dirty Work” in which he starred with Don Rickles, Chevy Chase and others. His other credits included the “Dr. Doolittle ‘films in which he provided the voice of a dog named Lucky.

His survivors include his mother, a son and two brothers, his manager said.

“He was an original,” said Michaels, “and he didn’t compromise in a business that was based on compromise – show business.”

Dave Itzkoff Reporting contributed.


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