When someone describes a comedian by saying, “They’re not for everyone,” they might mean a handful of things. That a given comedian might work so blue that Jesus would have a hard time forgiving them, say, or that their work is just too out there. Norm Macdonald, who passed away yesterday at the age of 61, was decidedly not for everyone. Not in the usual ways—he occupied a strange spot where he wasn’t that dirty, and he wasn’t exactly gonzo. But he really wasn’t for everyone. His genius was that he seemed to be for himself first, but not in a selfish way; more in a sense that he was occasionally sharing a private joke with the audience. You had to be in on the gag to find it funny. And if you weren’t, well, you were out in the cold. The quality made Macdonald one of the truly great smartasses of our time.
The thing about the smartass is that, while he works in shades of irony and deflection, really committing to smartassery requires a truly brave, possibly nuts sensibility. Thinking something is funny, no matter what other people think, is one thing. Turning that sensibility into a career requires a different sort of commitment: to making a joke that might totally bomb, and then to grinning through it, sitting there as the audience stews in how much they didn’t like the joke, and then repeating the punchline again, defiant. That was what Norm Macdonald did. Nobody committed—while often appearing to not commit at all—quite like him. David Letterman once said that Macdonald “could be the funniest man in the world”—and the double meaning there, that he might be but also that he might choose not to be—was central to his appeal.
There are numerous examples. Macdonald’s most famous impression is probably his Burt Reynolds, tag-teaming with Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery to make Alex Trebek’s (Will Ferrell) life a nightmare on SNL’s “Celebrity Jeopardy!” Sketch. For my money, though, the impression to beat is Macdonald’s Letterman, repeating “Got any gum” over and over. He was doing an imitation of Letterman, a guy who made an art form out of take it or leave it comedy, and putting his own spin on it. His spin, of course, wasn’t too far from the source material besides the fact that Macdonald didn’t look like Letterman or sound like him. It wasn’t a spot-on impersonation—that wasn’t what he excelled at—so much as one comic communing with another who shared his sensibility. He’d often work like this, keep the joke going just because he wanted to. And often times, the repetition became the funniest part about it. (His comedic posture occasionally aged in strange ways: one signature bit wouldn’t hold up today, but might still be the best example of his yearslong commitment to it.)
The Canadian-born Macdonald rode the 1980s stand-up obsession to a job on Roseanne, where he wrote a couple of episodes before quitting to join the cast of SNL for the show’s 19th season. He started out as more of a benchwarmer behind the likes of Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers and the rest of the lauded early-1990s group of players. By the next season, though, he took over for Kevin Nealon as the “Weekend Update” anchor. Everyone’s got an opinion about SNL, but the closest to unanimous you’ll ever find is that Macdonald was the best ever in his role. After leaving the show, Macdonald stayed busy. In 1998, he co-wrote and starred in Dirty Work, which was panned by critics, but obviously quickly became a cult classic. He kept working steadily up until last year, doing standup, guest appearances, and a Netflix show. In what seems like the weirdest thing, but also a very Norm Macdonald thing, he also started a dating app.
That was the genius of Macdonald. You had to wonder: who, exactly, he was messing around with? He’d go on talk shows and do wife jokes inspired by his love of Rodney Dangerfield because that’s what he wanted to do; he possibly got fired from SNL after making jokes about OJ Simpson week after week, knowing that the then-network president was friends with the former football star. He had to know what he was doing and he kept doing it because that’s what he did. And, in what is now considered one of the all-time brilliant moves in comedy history, he famously showed up to the 2008 Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget and delivered a series of amazingly corny dad jokes that meandered off and became odd fictions. (Saget brought a shotgun to a baseball game, he says, because he “heard the Lions were playing the Tigers.”) Taken out of context, that joke makes no sense, but in the middle of nearly six minutes of sort-of-jokes like it, when the point is to say as many nasty, filthy things about the person being roasted as possible, it’s brilliant. The crowd doesn’t seem to get any of it. But as comedian Brian Posehn, who was also part of the roast said yesterday, “the other comics and myself were in tears and in awe of one of the funniest humans ever.”
There’s a quote from the humorist S.J. Perelman, who wrote movie scripts for another of the world’s most famous smart-asses, Groucho Marx: “The main obligation is to amuse yourself.” There’s no real secret to Macdonald’s success besides that, I don’t think: that he seemed to amuse himself. His job was to make people laugh, but he understood, as he told Howard Stern, that getting up in front of an audience and telling jokes is “false by nature.” The only way to make it feel true, then, would be to believe that what you were saying was funny.
When it came time for David Letterman to retire, Macdonald performed the show’s final standup set—almost nine minutes of jokes—and ended the whole thing by tearing up as he told the famously unsentimental Letterman that he loved him. “If something is true,” Macdonald pointed out, “it’s not sentimental.” That quote, that justification, is the other side of his line about humor being false by nature, and really Macdonald in a nutshell. He made jokes because he thought they were funny. If you didn’t laugh, that was on you. He wasn’t for everyone, but—like Letterman said—he could be the funniest man in the world.