RIP, Norm Macdonald, Agent of Comedy Chaos
7 min read
The comedian, who died Tuesday after long and private battle with cancer, was a singular talent who always committed to the joke
It would do a great dishonor to Norm Macdonald—the beloved comedian and zen provocateur who died Tuesday, at 61, after a fiercely private nine-year battle with cancer that seems to have shocked even his biggest fans—to not start off by revisiting his single nastiest joke. Or at least one of the nastiest jokes Norm's larger adoring public knows about, one of the nastiest he even bothered trying to get on the air as host of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update during his spectacular and triumphantly doomed run on the show in the mid-'90s. He told this story—about a gentlemen's disagreement with SNL overlord Lorne Michaels over a Weekend Update bit—to Playboy in 1997. I imagine Norm told this story a lot. Hell, I tell it a lot. But this quick, rude, magnificently wrong, nuclear-grade-cringe anecdote says it all about one of the funniest men who ever lived and his willingness to say anything to prove it:

I did this joke in which I showed that picture of the girl running away from napalm in Vietnam. I said, "In gossip news, Woody Allen's dating again." Lorne told me not to do it, and I told him he was wrong, that people would like it. Then I did it in dress rehearsal and there was this insane audience reaction that went on for two minutes: hate. I was completely wrong.

I still imagine this scene sometimes. I would rather not, but I do. The sound of that crowd, the moans, the outrage, the revulsion. Was it a deafening roar? An agonized near-silence? Which is worse? Which is funnier? Two minutes of hate, he says. Huh. But what I can picture most clearly is Norm's face, that placid little half-grin, eyes shining, affable and cuddly as ever, just ecstatically amused by all of it, reveling in the chaos he'd unleashed. Drinking it all in like a cool pitcher of lemonade.

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Rob Harvilla
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