in memoriam

The Unique Genius of Norm Macdonald

Photo: Michael S. Schwartz/WireImage

When a comedian asks another comedian for their favorite comic, the answer is often “Norm Macdonald.” The stand-up, who died on September 14 at age 61, seemed physically incapable of insincerity, pandering, or presenting a hackneyed premise. He only got laughs his way. You will hear a lot in this sad time of remembrance about his fearlessness and his willingness to stick with a joke even when the audience didn’t get it, and all of this was true. But what made Macdonald one of the all-time greats was his utter, mind-blowing originality.

Macdonald delivered jokes in a way no one else did before him. The first time you hear it, his odd intonation stops you in your tracks. You can’t place it: He’s from Canada, but it isn’t iconically Canadian. It’s just … odd. His delivery is almost the opposite of the typical comic, who takes pains to emphasize each precisely ordered syllable. Their voice will go up on the setup, pause for the optimum number of seconds, then hit their punch line loud for maximum effect. Macdonald did none of this; instead, he seemed to actively defy the speech conventions of stand-up. His delivery was somehow casually tossed-off and full of enthusiasm at the same time, like he was so excited to give you these words that he couldn’t bother to arrange them before he released them to the world. Unlike the meticulously composed bits of Jerry Seinfeld, Paul F. Tompkins, or John Mulaney, Macdonald didn’t care if he included ums, repeated words, or you knows. His excitement was contagious, and whatever he lost in polish he more than made up for in conversational naturalism.

On his final Letterman set in 2015 — when his stand-up style was perfected after a quarter-century at his craft — he still slurred words, spoke in fragments, and stuttered, and somehow it all worked brilliantly. His premises were so unique, it didn’t matter how he delivered them, like his insight that Germany scared him because they decided to attack “the world” and you’d think it would only take five minutes for the world to beat them but “it was actually pretty close.” Or that, in “I.D.,” “I is short for ‘I’ and ‘D’ is short for ‘Dentification.’” Macdonald took things we look past every day and found a fundamental absurdity that, somehow, we all missed. When you have insights that original, you can’t worry about cadence or emphasis, you need to get them out now.

Macdonald simply saw things differently than almost everyone. I first encountered him when he was a guest on Dennis Miller’s HBO show in 1997. Unlike other stand-ups who played it cool and aloof, Macdonald made no attempt to hide that he was thrilled to be there and couldn’t wait to get into it. Miller asked Macdonald why he quit smoking, and he said, “It’s bad!” He pointed out that it said so on the package, and I had never seen anyone get a laugh with this kind of deliberate naïveté before. Macdonald sold it both like he actually was surprised to learn this but also knew exactly why it was funny. His sort of “wise idiot” persona immediately grabbed me. He told Miller that he first smoked to look cool, which was followed by a big laugh after he happily reported that it worked. Then, he casually tossed off two brilliant premises in a row: First he agreed with Miller that “Secondhand smoke is bad,” informing the audience that he hated it even when he smoked. “I liked that firsthand smoke,” Macdonald continued, “because you get to suck it right out of a cigarette,” adding that no one likes something that’s been previously ingested. “A pork sandwich is delicious,” said Macdonald, “but a digested pork sandwich? That’s fucking shit!”

The casual enthusiasm with which he threw his whole self into this joke showed Macdonald both knew it was dumb and didn’t give a shit on a godly level. I was rolling off the couch, and so were all my roommates. It was a kind of comedy I had never seen, and a simple truth that I had seen no one else touch on. The absolute sweet spot in joke writing is a premise that the audience has never thought of before but seems completely obvious the second after they hear it. Most comedians discover one or two of these in their whole career. To watch a Macdonald set is to see him roll out one after another like it’s nothing at all.

Macdonald could just pinpoint the funny in things the way a seismograph detects fault lines deep below the earth. His impressions were not at all magic-trick perfect in the way his SNL castmate Darrell Hammond’s were. They weren’t even the exaggerated abstractions of Dana Carvey. Macdonald saw things that were part and parcel of his subject’s persona that others could not. “HAHA!” he would exclaim over and over as David Letterman, asking Paul Shaffer rhetorical questions that parody the very idea of a talk-show host, and jamming in an anecdote of a man asking “Got any gum?” until it was funny just to hear it. Macdonald understood how Dave was funny, and he got it on a level no one else who imitated him ever did. It was more true to Dave’s essence than even the best straight mimicry would be. And while his Letterman impression captured the man’s rhythms if not his precise tone, his Burt Reynolds had no relation to the man’s voice at all. It didn’t matter, because Macdonald absolutely nailed the effortless swagger that made Burt Burt. That giving-no-fucks bravado powered “Celebrity Jeopardy” like a Formula One engine, even if Macdonald said “Turd Ferguson” pretty much how he would say it as himself.

I am forever grateful that our unknowable universe somehow produced the unique thought process of Norm Macdonald. I am even more grateful that he had the desire and perseverance to share those ideas with the world. I am beyond sad that our time to hear new thoughts from this brilliant man has come to an end, and so are hundreds of comics who do not hesitate for one second when asked to name their favorite comic of all time.

The Unique Genius of Norm Macdonald