Norm Macdonald, that plain-speaking Canadian comic who died this month, aged 61, showed us how to respond with humour and humanity in today’s era of identity politics, virtue signalling, political posturing and polarisation.
Norm showed us how to be normal, and it was hilarious.
A comic of singular vision and brilliance, his signature was a punch line that was as simple as it was true: a pure statement of the hilarity of life.
In a not unconnected way, Norm was also a committed Christian believer, a fact significant enough in this era to be opined about in the pages of the New York Times.
After dropping out of high school in Quebec in the ‘70s, Norm travelled to New York and rose to prominence in the 1980s and ‘90s.
He became one of the most influential comics of his generation. A stand up comedian who never wanted to do anything else – no late night show, sitcom or movie career for Norm.
His brand of stand-and-deliver, unapologetic, counter-punching humour never changed either, even as the world around him became almost unrecognisable.
Warned by an NBC executive to stop making jokes about O.J. Simpson (the former NFL star acquitted for murdering his former wife in 1995, but later convicted in a civil trial), Norm went straight back onto his regular gig on Saturday Night Live and delivered a string of OJ Simpson jokes.
He was sacked on the spot.
Later that week he told his friend David Letterman, on another network:
“This executive told me I was fired from the show, and I said ‘oh no, that’s not good – why is that now?’ and he said: ‘well, you’re not funny’ and I said: ‘oh, that’s even worse news!’”
Several years later, with the ratings of Saturday Night Live tanking, Norm agreed to return to the program.
Like a space cadet from the future, sent back to make us all laugh, Norm often appeared lost in the delivery of a long anecdote, only to gather the threads together at the end and deliver a simple, true, deadline, to devastating effect.
For example, the now famous Moth Joke, told in extended form, complete with Russian literature flourishes, to cover a seven-minute gap that opened up in the schedule of the late show of his friend and fellow comic, Conan O’Brien.
At other times the deadline would jump out at you from nowhere, shocking in its simplicity.
For example, his spot on the Late Show with David Letterman, about that usually unfunny topic: the world wars:
“The only country that truly worries me is the country of Germany. I don’t know if you all are history buffs or not, but …”
There followed a hilarious history lesson on the Germany going to war with “the world” and almost winning. It was funny and true – Norm’s kind of comedy.
In the 2000s Norm fell from the public gaze, assumed by many to be struggling with booze and gambling, which had taken its toll in periods in his life.
But he never fell completely from view, with his online program, Norm Macdonald Live, featuring panel discussions with his friends and associates from the comedy world. More recently, Norm’s public presence morphed into a YouTube channel, intriguingly titled I’m not Norm, showing and re-showing compilations of Norm’s many, many television, online and radio spots over the years.
Norm made a virtue of being normal – a striking achievement in our times.
It turns out that normal is a hilarious counterpoint to our rainbow times, weighed down by a million brittle, diverse identities.
In contrast, Norm laughed at himself and the world.
This attitude was informed by his Christian faith, about which he became more open, late in his life, tweeting in 2018:
“At times, the joy that life attacks me with is unbearable and leads to gasping hysterical laughter. How could a man be a cynic – it is a sin.”
This highly intelligent, erudite, man had clearly thought a lot about the human condition and what might lie beyond this life.
In quite a Catholic statement, for this non-Catholic, Norm said that faith wasn’t just a matter of luck or happenstance – one had to make an active choice to believe.
Norm had chosen to believe and, as his days drew to a close, his faith in Jesus Christ, the “suffering servant” who “was afflicted yet did not open his mouth”, may have influenced his decision to not speak about his illness publicly. One priest has speculated as much.
May I suggest that Norm, however, may have had something else in mind?
Norm had this joke he used to tell: when a famous celebrity passed away he would quip:“Man – I didn’t even know he was sick!”
Norm is now passed and his decision to choose faith in the Christian God has either been correct or not, as he once very clearly outlined, echoing Pascal’s Wager.
But his journey through suffering also bore fruit, as he suggested in 2018: “I am in search of the true faith of course. It’s been a rather long, tough journey, for me, at least.”
And we didn’t even know he was sick.
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