Norm Macdonald’s Weekend Update Was Punk Rock, says ‘SNL’ Writer James Downey

‘We were going to be mean, and to an extent, anarchists’
Norm Macdonald’s Weekend Update Was Punk Rock, says ‘SNL’ Writer James Downey

On this week’s Conan Needs A Friend podcast, our redheaded host read back to veteran Saturday Night Live writer Jim Downey one of his own quotes about Norm Macdonald: “What I did like about the way we approached (Weekend) Update was that it was akin to the punk movement, what the punk movement was for music. Just stripped down. We did what we wanted. There was nothing there that was considered to be a form of cheating. We weren't cuddly. We weren't adorable. We weren't warm. We weren't going to do easy political jokes that played for ‘clapter’ and let the audience know we were all on the same side. We were going to be mean, and to an extent, anarchists.”

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Downey was Macdonald’s main co-conspirator on Weekend Update. What qualities made Norm the single most iconic anchor in the show’s history, at least according to O’Brien? “First of all, he was really smart, very intelligent, and he had a great look,” said Downey. “If you watched (Update) with the sound off, you couldn't be sure you were watching a comedy broadcast. It could have just been a sort of low-tech news show. It didn’t have a lot of goofy stuff.”

Second, Macdonald spoke well. You could write complicated jokes for him, Downey said, and be confident that Norm wasn’t going to trip over them. In fact, he said, Macdonald’s brother Neil is a CBC newscaster, making Norm the perfect doppelganger for an actual journalist. 

But perhaps most importantly, Macdonald “hated easy laughs and what my colleague Seth Meyers called ‘clapter’ … that kind of lazy, finger-in-the-wind sucking up to the audience,” says Downey. “We might even agree with that politically but (the audience) deserves more than that kind of shit. So just challenge them with stuff, even if it's going to maybe make them uncomfortable.”

The best example of the Macdonald/Downey discomfort factor was their O.J. jokes. In O’Brien’s opinion, it was one of those moments in pop culture history, like the Beatles in ‘64 and punk rock in ‘76, when talent, sensibility, and the cultural moment collided to create a phenomenon. “These jokes are so fantastic,” gushes O’Brien. “They're just razorblades and Norm is the perfect person to deliver them.”

The “lucky stabbing hat” joke was “an ice bullet that went through my heart,” says O’Brien, delivering one of the strangest compliments in comedy history. Conan marveled at the way Macdonald would deliver a punchline, then stare into the camera until the audience reacted. “He would hold in this way that nobody does — hold and hold and hold and he would do it for a joke that killed but he'd also do it for a joke that he liked or that you liked or that you guys liked."

“Some people said you're punishing the audience for not liking the joke,” says Downey with a bit of a wink in his voice. “No, we're giving them enough time to appreciate it.” 

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