Norm Macdonald is one of the funniest stand-up comedians of the last 30-odd years. That’s pretty much a fact. But why he never found a good mainstream home for his razor-sharp-rube persona since he left — okay, was famously fired from — Saturday Night Live, in 1998, remains one of comedy’s great mysteries. The talent has never been a question. Pretty much everything else has. You won’t find many answers, though, in Macdonald’s new book, Based on a True Story: A Memoir. Part personal history and part meta riff on celebrity memoirs, the book, it quickly becomes clear, is also just partly true (and all hilarious).
Fresh from an appearance on his friend Howard Stern’s Sirius show, Macdonald talked about the book from a table at the 30th-floor lounge of a midtown Manhattan hotel. Dressed in a dark-blue tracksuit and snacking on an orange and a couple apples, the 56-year-old Canadian was in an expansive mood, and a little drowsy from the antibiotics he was taking, as the conversation ranged from the challenge of writing, to the problems with contemporary comedy, to a recent Buster Keaton–esque backstage encounter with Donald Trump.
There’s a thing you do in the book, where you take the kernel of a real-life event, and then craft an outlandish and obviously not-real story out of it, that feels very different from a lot of contemporary, more personally revealing post-Louie comedy. Did you ever have any impulse to write something more confessional?
I do not like confessional comedy. I don’t like it at all. Nothing can be easier than being confessional. Confessional is bragging. That’s all it is.
It’s bragging to draw from your life experiences?
People think things are tragedy. They’re not tragedy. If you get cancer, that’s not a tragedy. If your mother dies when she’s 30, that’s not tragedy. That’s life. You don’t yell it from the rooftops. It has no place in comedy.
So I guess you’re not a fan of the wave of TV shows that’s followed Louie? All those shows clearly based on the star’s real life?
Louis C.K. is a genius. But every genius breeds a bunch of fucking idiots. These people say, “I can do that.” But they can’t, they just think they can. I don’t understand all these comedy shows that forget about being comedies. It’s absurd. There shouldn’t even be a prevailing style of comedy, anyways. People should be individuals.
There’s also a parallel trend to the confessional comedy I’m talking about, which is comedy that’s much more explicitly concerned with identity issues. I’m thinking of people like Amy Schumer or Aziz Ansari. Are you also disinterested in social-commentary comedy?
If you can tell me one funny, socially relevant joke I’d give you a million dollars. Comedians, when they get really good, and nowadays they don’t even have to get good, reach a point where they feel they should be philosophers. I’ve heard it said even that the modern-day philosophers are comedians. I read modern-day philosophers! I’m sure they’re insulted when they’re compared to people who work in smoky nightclubs and hit on waitresses for a living. Social commentary — I don’t know. Have you tried watching Murphy Brown lately? Those Dan Quayle jokes …
I’m a little surprised to hear you say that, especially about the confessional stuff.
That doesn’t really even have a place in social intercourse. Confessional is meant to be something you do in a dark booth beside a holy man and whispered.
You really believe that?
I know you’re a big Bob Dylan fan. Doesn’t he have a bunch of confessional material?
I don’t think Bob Dylan is confessional in any way. I know Bob Dylan. I read biographies of him. I don’t see it.
So a Bob Dylan song like “Sara” — Bob Dylan’s wife at the time was named Sara. And in it he sings “I wrote ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you.” That’s the title of a song by Bob Dylan.
That was a love song for Sara but, you know, he hates Sara’s guts now. That’s always the problem with that kind of shit. But there’s something about confessional comedy. I guess it depends on what the joke is. If the joke’s funny, it’s funny. But if you say, “I blew a priest …” I don’t give a fuck. It doesn’t shock me. Tell the police or your family, but I don’t care. Confessional comedy is the worst kind of comedy I’ve come across.
Parts of your book are pretty clearly riffing on the idea of the celebrity memoir. There’s all this over-the-top drug use and bad behavior. Did you have any particular books in mind when you were writing?
I just tried to find books that made me laugh. The one thing about books is that the humor section of the bookstore is where all the least humorous books are. Huckleberry Finn, Woody Allen’s books of short stories — those two have a lot of laughs in them. I know my book’s crazy, but I hope it’s grounded in some way.
What’s the part about sharing liquid morphine with Lorne Michaels grounded in?
I’ve been wondering if I’d get any interviewers who thought this stuff was straight. We have to be very careful not to slander anybody with our satirical answers, okay?
Oh, now you’re careful.
I guess if I’m gonna drop bombshells, I gotta be ready for collateral damage.
The way you write about your time on Saturday Night Live makes it clear that the show is a bit of a millstone for you.
I mean, it feels … it’s alright to be pigeonholed because everyone pigeonholes everybody. I remember I used to work at the post office and I was really hungry for watermelon once, so I ate like five pieces of watermelon at this post-office party. So anyways, this one guy who also worked there, for the rest of the time I worked at the post office, he was like, “You gonna have any watermelon today? It’s the watermelon guy. We should get you a watermelon.” And I’m like, “it only happened once.” But it helped him to identify me and doing that is completely natural, I do it. The truth of it is that I do stand-up. So it’s thousands and thousands and thousands of hours of stand-up comedy compared to, I don’t know, 1,000 hours of “Weekend Update.”
Do you still watch SNL?
Yeah, I watch it.
What do you think of it?
I don’t like agenda comedy. I guess I could say that.
That’s what you feel the show’s turned into?
Yeah, it’s too big to fail. But there’s something distasteful when you watch — I don’t know how they’re gonna do it this season, but if Donald Trump is displayed as an idiot all the time and Hillary’s not, then it shows they’re out of touch with what people think, and it’s just not fair.
I don’t think anybody who likes Donald Trump has a shortage of places to see positive things about Donald Trump. And vice versa with Hillary.
That’s true. But even Fox doesn’t like Trump anymore.
Aside from their comedy treatment, what are your feelings on Trump and Hillary?
I don’t think he’s as dangerous as everyone is trying to pretend. I don’t want him to be president, but I don’t think simply by being elected he would be any more likely to start a war any more than Hillary would. The Democrats didn’t exactly get lucky with Hillary. My God almighty, she’s the only person in the world who’d be at risk of losing to Donald Trump. Biden must be going ‘why the fuck didn’t I run?’ But I definitely don’t want Trump to be president. You’ve got to be able to apologize and you’ve got to be able to say you’re wrong. You’ve got to have some humility. You know I was on Fallon the same night as Trump?
Did you meet him?
Well, what happened was, after the show, he came out and was just standing there. So I said, “Mr. Trump, a picture?” And he said, “You betcha. Just give me a minute.” Then he turns and walks down the hall, all the way to the other end, and gets on the elevator. “Just give me a minute,” and then he leaves the building. It was hilarious, like a Buster Keaton movie or something.
What’d you think of people criticizing Fallon for being too easy on Trump?
It was absurd. Being hard on people is not what Fallon does. We’ve come to this crazy idea that entertainers should be political experts. Jimmy just likes to laugh and have fun and not hurt anyone’s feelings. He’s a real sweet kid. But mostly, what do you expect from Jimmy Fallon? You have to stick with what you’re best at.
Well, for you, how difficult was it to write comedy for the page rather than the stage?
Well, they’re both the hardest thing, but in different ways. Stand-up is the hardest thing ever because it requires you to get laughs. My first-ever time writing sitcoms, I’d go, “Oh, we’re fucked. This thing is going to bomb.” But people would go “No, no they’re good” and sure enough, yeah, the studio audiences would laugh, because they were complicit, you know? They’re on your side. On TV, every single joke kills. That’s not what happens with stand-up. You have to earn every laugh. Another thing is that there’s no room for interpretation in stand-up. That’s why I don’t think stand-up is an art.
Because there’s no ambiguity about what the outcome of the experience of it should be? Is that what you mean?
I’m not educated, but I think art means something that two different people can look at and see two different things. But with stand-up, it’s all about getting that noise — getting that laugh. And it has to come for everyone at the same time. Everyone has to think the same thing at the same time.
I saw Louis C.K.’s stand-up show a few days ago, and he had this section where he was talking about how doing stereotypically “black” or “Chinese” voices was racist, but the voices were still funny. And I was wondering how many people in the audience were making that distinction, too.
I don’t know what other people think about this stuff, but Louis and I talk a lot and he really thinks that the essence of comedy is noises. I would say the essence of comedy is physical, but he thinks it’s sounds. So there I think he’s right, that the sound he’s making is funnier than the observation.
What was hard about writing the book?
It took me forever. I’ve been doing stand-up for years. I’ve never written a book. And also, I’m not educated. You don’t have to be educated for stand-up, but to write a book, you should be educated.
Plenty of dummies write books.
Maybe. I think I’ll take a class if I ever do it again. I need to learn more techniques. When I did my first hour of stand-up, I thought it was good. Now, I look back and it sucked. So oh my God, I probably need five books before I write a good one.
There are a couple times in the book where you have these sort of blatantly old-fashioned and casually, ironically sexist remarks. Stuff like,”My publisher is a girl and it’s about time, I say.” Do you ever worry that kind of material, which you perform a lot in your stand-up too, gets misunderstood?
A lot of people misunderstand making fun of sexism as sexism. But who cares? I remember I was on some show where they were asking me about women and I said, “Women are the greatest thing in the world because without women there wouldn’t be any cookies.” So if you took that serious, that doesn’t mean I’m sexist; that means you’re fucking retarded. Of course if I said that and I was serious, I wouldn’t be sexist — I would be mentally retarded.
I’ll often see you engage with people on Twitter. Does exposing yourself to the conversations happening online at all make you think twice about telling certain kinds of jokes? Are you ever apprehensive about what the reaction might be?
I never go, “Hey, I want to do an offensive joke.” I’m not interested in offending anybody. I’m only interested in making them laugh. So if I ever offend anyone, then something’s gone wrong — either with me or with them. Usually it’s with them. I’m the expert at telling jokes, so what’d be the point of my listening to people who know nothing about comedy? That’d be like if people were saying to Picasso, “What’s with that nose?”
Have you always wanted to write a book?
When I was in grade school I wrote constantly. I would always write about students in my class and have them fall into some awful disease or be stricken by some tragedy. I got called into the principal’s office a couple times because I’d hand these stories out to the kids.
Like, “Here Jimmy, in this one you get cholera?”
A little more clever than that. Like, I would have the kid’s mother in the story be an alcoholic ‘cause I knew the kid’s mother was really an alcoholic. Then I started writing seriously around when I was 19 or 20.
Yeah, that I thought was good. And then when I was informed it was no good, I stopped. I decided, well, I gotta be educated but I didn’t have enough money for that. So that’s when I started reading a lot. I’ve probably read a thousand books right now. Only the classics. I’m pretty sure I only learned to do stand-up by seeing every good stand-up, so I hoped to eventually learn to write by continually reading great writers.
What are you reading now?
There was a Washington Post profile of you over the summer, and it was interesting to me how the piece was trying to answer this question of why you can’t get a new TV show. But has the world of comedy ever felt like a meritocracy to you?
It was sweet that they portrayed me like that, but comedy is not a meritocracy. If you think it is, then you’re going to be a pretty bitter person. And about getting a TV show, I would think if there were a room of people and somebody brought up my name, I’m guessing two or three people out of ten won’t want me, and that’s enough to make sure it doesn’t happen.
“A room of people” meaning network executives?
Yeah, but what they don’t understand is that because I can do stand-up at such a high level, I can do any type of comedy. I can do the hardest things. I mean, the book was incredibly challenging, and I did that. But I know I’m a niche comedian. I’ll never be fully mainstream comedian, although I’ve thought of trying to do that.
By changing your material?
Yeah, I thought, Why don’t I just be Bob Hope? That would be fun. I could’ve made even more people happy by doing that, but I decided to go a way that I knew wouldn’t be as lucrative or successful. And mostly I’m glad I did.