The Best Times Norm Macdonald Messed With Us on 'Saturday Night Live' for His Own Amusement
When Norm Macdonald took over Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, he took a decidedly different approach to the fake news. For one thing, he flat-out called it “the fake news.” Then there were his jokes, which often seemed like anti-jokes. They were funny because they weren’t funny? In Macdonald’s anti-memoir Based On A True Story: A Memoir, he remembers a warning from longtime SNL writer Jim Downey: “The type of comedy we were writing wasn’t traditional, and I couldn’t expect to get wall-to-wall laughs. This was avant-garde stuff.” Macdonald didn’t care: “I didn’t tell (Downey) at the time, but if not getting laughs was avant-garde, I’d been avant-garde week in and week out in stand-up clubs across the country.”
Whether you call it “avant-garde” or just plain “messing with people for his own amusement,” Macdonald used Saturday Night Live and Weekend Update as his personal comedy playground. If the audience didn’t think it was funny? No problem, as long as Macdonald himself was laughing. Here are a few prime examples…
Germans as an Anti-Punchline
More than any Weekend Update anchor before or since, Macdonald loved running gags that were vaguely funny the first time, not funny at all the second time and hysterical by the 10th time he ran them into the ground. And for some reason, the German people played a prominent role. One of his recurring bits revolved around Baywatch star David Hasselhoff and his inexplicable popularity in Germany. The joke? It sure is crazy that “Germans love David Hasselhoff.”
The Hasselhoff joke had a cousin with a construction that went like this. Set-up: Something strange was happening in the world, say, a lack of snow leading to a moose surplus in Alaska. The recurring punchline: “Or so the Germans would have us believe.”
This series of clips demonstrates Macdonald’s genius at work. The first time he tells us Germans love Hasselhoff? Amused chuckles. The fifth time, when we’re waiting for the obvious? Applause. Or bemused silence, followed by laughter when the audience realizes — oh man, he’s effing with us once again.
Sketches Written Just So Macdonald Could Goof on Favorite Celebrities
“Celebrity Jeopardy” was one of Saturday Night Live’s most popular recurring sketches, giving Will Ferrell and Darrell Hammond signature characters in Alex Trebek and rascally Sean Connery. There are competing theories about how Celebrity Jeopardy came to be, but Macdonald claims it wouldn’t have existed if he didn’t have selfish motives. “The Celebrity Jeopardy sketch — the reason I really did it is because I wanted to do Burt Reynolds,” he told Howard Stern.
Specifically, Macdonald wanted to be 1972 Burt Reynolds, not 1996 Burt Reynolds — and no one stopped him. “No one ever mentions that one guy on Celebrity Jeopardy is from 40 years ago,” he told Stern, again creating comedy designed solely to entertain Norm Macdonald. And what did he do when he got a chance to trot out his pet imitation to America?
He insisted everyone call him “Turd Ferguson.”
Celebrity Jokes Designed to Infuriate Network Executives
We’re pretty sure that Macdonald didn’t have a personal vendetta against O.J. Simpson or Michael Jackson. But he did have disdain for NBC executives declaring any subject off limits. Tell Macdonald that he couldn’t tell a joke about anything in particular? Well, now you’re going to get 10.
After Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley divorced, Macdonald took to Weekend Update to deliver this: “According to friends, the two were never a good match. She’s more of a stay-at-home type, and he’s more of a homosexual pedophile.”
Lorne Michaels would hint that the Jackson barbs were a problem, Macdonald told Marc Maron on WTF, suggesting that Macdonald might be in for a costly lawsuit if he didn’t knock it off. (Macdonald was using “homosexual pedophile” as a recurring punchline much like “Or so the Germans would have us believe.”) But Macdonald didn’t take the warning seriously, telling Maron that his reaction was, “That’s cool, me and Michael Jackson going to court together!”
“Sometimes great comedy is so funny it shocks, stings, hurts,” wrote Kyle Smith in the National Review. “At the time, you didn’t say, ‘Michael Jackson is a homosexual pedophile.’ It was considered rude. Norm said the unsayable, and kept saying it.”
But eventually, that brand of defiance cost Macdonald his job at SNL. Certainly, he wasn’t the only comedian doing jokes about O.J. Simpson — cuddly NBC mascot Jay Leno did more than his share — but no one was meaner or more blunt than Macdonald.
Week after week, the Weekend Update anchor threw punches like this one: “This week in the O.J. Simpson trial, Johnnie Cochran delivered a spellbinding final summation. In a brilliant move, Cochran put on the knit cap prosecutors say Simpson wore the night of the double murders — although O.J. may have hurt his case when he suddenly blurted out, ‘Hey, hey, careful with that. That’s my lucky stabbing hat.’”
The reason Simpson jokes were a problem? O.J. (who hosted SNL way back in 1978) was an old golfing buddy of NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer, who explicitly was telling Michaels to knock it off. But telling Macdonald to knock it off was akin to telling him to double down. He didn’t care if Ohlmeyer thought the jokes were funny. Heck, Macdonald didn’t even care if the audience thought they were funny. “I didn’t even want to go to dress rehearsal, because I didn’t care about the audience reaction at all,” Macdonald explained in Live From New York: A Complete Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. “I just like doing jokes I like, and if the audience doesn’t like them, then they’re wrong, not me.”
To Ohlmeyer, that attitude was the whole problem. (Well, that and the fact that golf weekends with O.J. were going to get pretty uncomfortable.) “When Saturday Night Live is really good, they do care what the audience thinks,” Ohlmeyer said in Live From New York. “And when Saturday Night Live is not really good, they’re kind of doing it for themselves and their pals.” So call it Macdonald’s insistence on doing O.J. jokes or Ohlmeyer finding the whole “I just like doing the jokes I like” attitude unacceptable — in either case, Macdonald lost his job.
But Weekend Update originator Chevy Chase was down with Macdonald’s “worry about amusing yourself” attitude. “That’s sort of the way I felt,” he agreed in Live From New York. “That as long as six guys on a couch behind that camera that I was looking into laughed, and I knew those guys, then I was there.” You can call it self-indulgent — or you can call it integrity. You think the joke is good? That’s all you can really count on.
“I hate applause,” said Macdonald. “I don’t want to say anything that an audience already thinks. And so the thing with Update was not to do these same jokes where you said that, you know, Pat Buchanan was a Nazi or some ridiculous thing that wasn’t true but that everyone would applaud because they’d already heard it somewhere else.”
Either way, Macdonald swore he wasn’t resentful about losing the job. “I always understood that Ohlmeyer could fire me, because he was the guy that owned the cameras, so that didn’t bother me,” he said. “I was always happy that SNL gave me a chance.”
You can’t say the guy didn’t have fun while it lasted.