Norm MacDonald on Standup, Acting and Artie Lange

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I recently interviewed Norm MacDonald about his new show, Sports Show with Norm MacDonald on Comedy Central. But in addition to talking about his new show, we also discussed his recent standup special, his approach to standup, why he’s not the greatest actor, and what’s going on with his friend Artie Lange.

When was the last time you did a special before your recent Comedy Central one?

This was the first one. I did a half hour special like 15 years ago.

Are you ever afraid now, because most comedians say once you commit it to tape and once it’s been on TV, you can’t really do it live again.

Oh no, I’ll never do it live again, no.

When you knew that you had to pick stuff that you know you wouldn’t do live again, did that kind of play into what you wanted to do for the specials? Stuff that you knew that just maybe you’ve done a lot? Was that part of your decision process?

Well, I’ve got lots of material. I probably have like 6 or 7 hours, so I just try to pick stuff that has kind of a theme to it. Because I just do different stuff all night, every week. So it was hard for me to pick out. I didn’t have really…I just tried awkwardly to put things together as if they made sense.

That whole large bit about the woman who vanished, and the fact that a killer puts people in shallow graves, that kind of thing, that is quite a long bit of comedy. How tough was that to get that into the special, since it’s such a long bit?

Well I told them it had to be long. Because it was a rather delicate piece of comedy that took me a long time to get right…like 5 or 6 months, which is a very long time for me. And it was a very delicate piece that had to go on that length in order for me to maneuver the rapids of that particular subject. And I had to do it, I had to inject a lot of silly stuff at the right time to make it all palatable. So it wasn’t just one…I mean it was definitely the hardest one I’ve ever had to do.

Are you glad you don’t have to do it anymore or are you kind of sad?

Oh yeah, every time I do something, I’m like… You know, sometimes I’ll do standup on Letterman and stuff, I’m always thrilled I don’t have to do it anymore. Yeah, definitely. I get tired of everything very, very quickly. As soon as it’s written, you get tired of it.

In the special, someone yelled OJ to you and you launched into an OJ bit. Do you get people doing that often, like you’re some sort of comedy jukebox or something?

I do. I think it’s because of Saturday Night Live. It’s just this crazy place that locks you in forever. Which is cool. It’s really cool to be part of the alumni there. But people will yell like “Burt Reynolds” or like impressions I’ve done. And I don’t really do impressions. On SNL, they put a mask on you so you’re kind of like the guy no matter what. But yeah, people yell out. I always did standup, but then any of the other stuff I did was always just an adjunct to standup, so I’d forgot then I’d go back and do standup and people wouldn’t know…I always thought people knew me as a standup. But some people would know me as, I don’t know, I did a voice of a dog or something in some movie, so they’d know that. So I didn’t realize until I got out. But yeah, people even think I do impressions, and they think I know about the news because of Weekend Update.

So they’ll ask you to do, say, “Germans love David Hasselhoff” or something like that? They’ll actually ask you to do stuff you haven’t done for years?

Yeah. And often, it’ll be the punchline that they yell out. (chuckles)

Like you said, you don’t live on your old stuff. Do you understand why some comedians do live on their old stuff, especially as they get older?

No. I mean, well, I understand it, but I mean, it just seems, if you’re going to go around doing standup, it doesn’t seem very interesting to me to say the same thing over and over again forever. It seems like it would drive me insane. I just, because I think I’d lose my mind, don’t do it. That’s why I can’t really understand people wanting to do that.

Why do people memorize it though, as if it’s their favorite songs? It’s kind of…I’ve memorized bits. It’s just something you do.

Yeah. Yeah. Well, yeah, I’ve memorized other people’s bits. I can’t memorize my own.

Well I’ve memorized George Carlin’s stuff…

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I bet people probably couldn’t even memorize my own since I can’t. But like George Carlin, it’s word for word, you know, like he’s an incredible wordsmith that way, whereas I’m just yammering. I’m yelling out the punch line.

But it makes it sound a little bit more natural that way.

Well, since I don’t really speak naturally, I mean, I don’t…I can’t memorize things and then speak naturally. That’s like acting, which I’ve never been able to do much. I memorize the thing when I’m acting, then all of a sudden, I can’t say it naturally. What I kind of do in my standup is, I know the punchline, and I just find my way there. And then I loosen up and think of some funny stuff on the way to to it.

Which is what I saw on the special, which really, I thought was a great way to do it.

It was fun, yeah, it was fun.

And then, by the way, when you said the voice of dog, I keep thinking of your Christmas commercial a couple years ago with you and Steve Buscemi.

Ah! I love Buscemi, man! It was like oh, doing a commercial’s lame. And then they’re like, Buscemi’s doing it. And I’m like oh, it’ll be cool, man. (nasal laugh)

Just doing like you and Steve as gingerbread men, it just was such a different vibe, that commercial, and I actually was happy they played it the next year, too.

They did!

It just was one of those ads where it’s just like…it was just very funny. It was just not expected and was just very funny.

Thanks. I’ll tell Steve that.

You guys weren’t in the booth together…I mean, usually that kind of stuff you do by yourself.

We weren’t in the booth. And it’s funny because we know each other, but in that case, Steve was in NY and I was in L.A.

So, I’ve been a fan of the Stern show forever. I don’t listen as much lately, but you introduced Artie Lange to Stern fans, and kind of helped kind of bring his profile up. First of all, have you talked to him at all lately? And when you heard what happened to him…how things turned out with him and what happened to him? How’d you feel about it? What were your feelings about it when you heard about it?

Well I felt really bad. I was very surprised by it. First of all, I’ve never heard of anything like that in my life. But you know, a lot of us had been trying to do things for Artie for a while, you know, to talk him into stuff. I’ve talked to him lately, and he’s doing a lot better. I think staying away from show business for a while is definitely a good idea. A lot of people have told me, hey, Artie should come back, and stuff. But I think he should stay away for a while. It’s just too difficult. Because I know guys just drink booze, but they can’t go on the road and do standup because…let alone if you’re famous for it. He was in a very deep place where all his fans were his enablers, you know? That’s really, really difficult. Wherever you go, someone’s handing you something.

It was a weird spot, because he was really famous and sold out theaters and his book did well, but it was all Stern fans. A lot of them were Stern fans.

No, I know. But I used to go to see him at places and he’s go, do you want to do a set? And I’m like, are you crazy? The whole crowd was just crazy people yelling about Beetlejuice and Crazy Alice and stuff.

Right. Did the show…maybe not the show itself, but did like him being on the show kind of accelerate what was going on with him? Like what might have been his problems kind of exacerbated or accelerated them? Was just being on the show that way?

Well, he became famous for the behavior, you know. So that was what made him famous. It’s very hard for Artie now to try to…that’s why he has to step out of the public eye. Because that’s what made you famous, now he has to remake himself and reinvent himself as a character, you know. He doesn’t have that in him anymore.

Is he doing standup at all, or is he completely out of it right now?

A little bit. A little bit. You know, a little bit at a time. He just wants to… He can’t go do a big room event yet because he doesn’t feel comfortable yet. Once in a while, he’ll do small spots to get some material worked out.

Joel Keller is a senior writer/editor for AOL TV, as well as whoever else writes him a check. Like Norm MacDonald, he tells jokes that don’t get laughs… but not on purpose.