Norm Macdonald was Tolstoy in sweatpants – even when he texted you in the middle of the night

One thing Norm Macdonald would have hated, besides dying, is the Deadline story…

Norm Macdonald was Tolstoy in sweatpants - even when he texted you in the middle of the night 1
Norm Macdonald was Tolstoy in sweatpants - even when he texted you in the middle of the night 2

One thing Norm Macdonald would have hated, besides dying, is the Deadline story announcing his death. Not the part about being one of the most influential cast members of “Saturday Night Live.” He’d be cool with that. The thing about his “nine-year private battle with cancer.”

I can see the dimple-wide grin as he repeats the words slowly. “Private … battle … .” Then a pause and a look up at the audience, arms frozen awkwardly at his sides as he waited exactly as long as he should to deliver his next line.

Actually, we need not imagine this. He told the story of his Uncle Bert battling bowel cancer onstage in 2011. “In the old days, they’d say, that old man died,” Norm continued. “Now they say, he lost his battle. That’s no way to end his life. The last thing he did was lose.”

Turns out, Uncle Bert didn’t actually exist. Norm admitted that, when I was writing a Washington Post profile of him in 2015. Which is why it’s hard not to think of the Bert bit as we think of Norm, quietly dealing with the terrifying reality of his own cancer for almost a decade. In this age, when it has become fashionable to write a confessional essay when you eat a bad oyster, Norm offered not a peep about his illness. 

The semi-pathetic first thing I did when my editor told me on Tuesday that Norm had died, at just 61, was send the comedian a text. “Oh Norm. Please tell me this is not true.” Because it felt so horrible, and I wanted to imagine it as some elaborate, Andy Kaufman-esque ruse. 

Then I began searching through old texts for clues. I have about 400 in my phone, dating back to when I started working on the profile to the final one on July 2. Norm often had story suggestions (“Brody Stevens. It’s really the biggest story in comedy right now but no one has written an article,” he wrote this summer). We would also commiserate about the health struggles of our aging outlaw country hero, Billy Joe Shaver, who died last year at age 81. Then there were the semiregular “Geoff, you there?” notes I might get at any hour of the night. I’d write back when I woke up a few hours later, usually getting no response. 

Did he ever seem sick? Did he ever let on? Not to me. His last tweets, from mid-July, were characteristically about golf and a Milwaukee Bucks game. And my last text exchange with him, from July, came after I noticed he was scheduled to play some gigs in Boston later in the year.

“I miss seeing you do standup,” I wrote. “Looking forward to this fall.”

“We’ll see, Geoff.” 

This seems prophetic now, but didn’t strike me as significant at the time.

Last night, I joined countless other Norm appreciators in “clip mourning.” A few buddies came by, we toasted the master and YouTube’d through the moth joke on Conan, the Saget roast, and the final monologue on David Letterman’s late show. Then my friends left and I spent another two hours surfing through the “Weekend Update” bits he delivered from 1994 to 1997, and other unexpected gems, including the time he aggressively did not come out to Larry King. 

Norm Macdonald was Tolstoy in sweatpants. 

He loved great books, old country music. He loved his mother, Ferne, his son, Dylan, and his ever-present producing partner and friend, Lori Jo Hoekstra. (His father died in 1990 and Macdonald’s only marriage ended in the late 1990s.) He had a gift for math and more than a streak of obsessive compulsiveness, which may explain his issues with sports gambling. He could work cleaner than Mr. Rogers or bluer than Redd Foxx, depending on what the joke required.

Norm’s informal delivery, his ease onstage, could give the false impression that what he did came effortlessly. Fans sometimes even speculated that he was performing drunk, though I never so much as saw him sip a beer in the 15 or so times we were together. The Norm I saw was meticulous about his comedy. 

There was the concept and there was the execution. Both required deep thought, lots of lined paper and practice. This is how you become so good that virtually everything you do goes viral. 

And his range was startling. Norm could write one-liners so sharp they made your eyeballs bleed. Then he could pull off something like “Tex Hooper,” which is on his 2006 comedy album, “Ridiculous.” The nearly 20-minute musical sketch centers on a country singer making a comeback who has, unbeknown to his producer, changed his sexual orientation during his absence. It is profane and hilarious and sometimes tasteless. I played it for Sinead O’Connor, an appreciator of comedy, a couple of years ago as we sat on her front porch in Ireland. 

Norm lived for the kind of freedom to produce work like “Tex” and would grumble whenever he felt compromised, whether over a Netflix producer’s insistence on the lighting of a comedy special or the cuts made to a Funny or Die video in which he gave a mock commencement speech centered around the directive “do not fiddle with your keys over a grating.”

Norm hated groupthink and conformity. A few years ago, a writer at the New Yorker referenced him as a Republican and Norm was horrified. He would have felt the same way had he been labeled a Democrat. He wrote to me wondering how such an error could be corrected; I passed him New Yorker Editor David Remnick’s email and it was. 

There were times when I did wonder what was real and what was a put-on. Did Norm really believe Margaret Atwood was “incapable of writing a novel,” as he tweeted? Had he really spent the day hanging with Bob Dylan and listening to music? His Twitter feed could explode without warning, whether to deliver play-by-play of a meaningless hockey game or to debate strangers over religion. “Scripture. Faith. Grace. Christ, Glory of God,” he once tweeted. “Smart man says nothing is a miracle. I say everything is.” 

He wanted to be successful and was cocky, or at least confident, about his comedy skills – damn, he was the best – but he was anything but a careerist. Norm did not avoid delicate subjects because they could hurt his job prospects. In fact, he sometimes seemed to steer his way into inopportune controversies.

In death, many of the tributes are referencing his supposed defense of Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr and criticism of the #MeToo movement. Here is what really happened. In 2018, in the lead-up to the premiere of “Norm Macdonald Has a Show” on Netflix, I remember talking to Norm during an interview. He mentioned that he had been speaking with Barr. She had just been fired from ABC and was unable to stop crying on the phone. Norm was worried about her well-being. Then he thought of Louis C.K., the scandalized comedian whom he had remained in contact with. “I can’t think of anybody who understands what it means to lose everything in one day more than Louis,” Norm told me. “So I set up a call between them.”

This was Norm, a human being who wanted to help an old friend. But when he told that story in the Hollywood Reporter soon after, he found himself recast. He was suddenly the serial masturbator supporter and #MeToo doubter. He showed up at “The Tonight Show” to promote his Netflix show and was met by Jimmy Fallon, who told him he had been canceled from the night’s lineup. He eventually had to appear on “The View,” uncomfortable in a suit, making an apology. His talk show, effectively his last real project, was doomed.

That’s not what I want to think about today. 

I am thinking back to when I first reached out to him, in 2015. He said he had liked my story on Eddie Murphy and agreed to be interviewed.

On some stories, I battle managers and publicists and assistants to get proper access. My guess is that everybody pretty much gave up controlling Norm around 1996. When he agreed to the profile, I went to Norm’s apartment. There was a pair of athletic socks, inside out, on the floor. We talked while he ate a lot of Klondike bars. We watched ESPN as I eyed the stacks of scribbled pages on the coffee table. I waited for my moment, assuming those papers were prized. Then I simply asked.

What is that? 

Oh, it’s my book, he told me. 

Can I look at it? I asked. 

Go ahead, he told me. It’s garbage.

In reality, “Based on a True Story: A Memoir” was a classic and, like Norm, totally original. There were hints of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” but also twists on the countless tell-all memoirs that line bookstore shelves. Norm managed to meld genres, which also created a problem. He complained that stores were placing “True Story” in the memoir section when it should be in fiction.

For all the gonzo comedy in the book, I was always drawn to a section called “The Final Chapter.” It’s as moving as anything Norm wrote, and I imagine it was his way of coming to terms with the industry and his place in it.

“When people come to see me do stand-up,” he wrote, “it is because somewhere in their memory I live on SNL, dressed as a young Burt Reynolds, insisting Alex Trebek refer to me as Turd Ferguson. 

“They tell me they are big fans and they don’t care what their girlfriends say. They understand me even though they know good and well that nobody else does. I’m dry, they say. The next time I come to their town, they don’t show up.

“The only thing an old man can tell a young man is that it goes fast, real fast, and if you’re not careful, it’s too late.”

It’s beautiful writing and not surprising. Norm disliked lazy language. He hated being called a “comedian’s comedian.” That made him feel as if he was an acquired taste or not capable of drawing a large audience. He once snapped at me when I told him, after a set, that “it was a good crowd.”

“So it was the crowd,” he said, “not the jokes?”

Norm was not without his flaws. He did not always work well with others. There was a fog of dysfunction surrounding him, leaving you outside his condo gate as you wondered if he really didn’t know how to use the buzzer. He would make plans and then ghost you for two days. Or maybe he just forgot. But the reason those of us who knew Norm whined about his flakiness is because he was simply such great fun to be around. We wanted to spend more time with him. 

When my story was published in 2016, I figured our relationship would end. But that wasn’t Norm. He used to badger me, while I was doing his profile, to admit we were friends. I told him that reporters can be friendly but not friends. That our job is to serve the story first and that might mean writing something that might not please a subject. That didn’t seem to bother Norm, though he seemed bruised by the we-can’t-be-friends part. 

He remained open and trusting, though, as the piece came together. I told him how much I enjoyed our text exchanges and that I wanted to reprint them with the story, which was something I had never asked a subject before. He agreed. And over the next few years, Norm and I kept in touch. 

As I sit here thinking about him, I’m wondering what he would want to see today. I suspect the reams of tributes, many of them from people he barely knew, would not mean much. There were only a handful of comedians – Letterman and Albert Brooks, to name two – whose praise really moved him. 


So I’ll just end with what Norm felt was the perfect joke. He told it on “Weekend Update.” The setup and the punchline are nearly identical. 

“Julia Roberts told reporters this week that her marriage to Lyle Lovett has been over for some time. The key moment, she said, came when she realized that she was Julia Roberts and that he was Lyle Lovett.”

Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com

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