Bill Maher Was Almost ‘SNL’ Weekend Update Anchor Over Norm Macdonald

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Bill Maher Was Almost ‘SNL’ Weekend Update Anchor Over Norm Macdonald

It depends on who you ask, but for a lot of comedy nerds, the greatest Weekend Update anchor of all time is the late Norm Macdonald. But according to a new interview with longtime Saturday Night Live writer Jim Downey, Macdonald was a long shot for the job. The comedian who almost did the fake news instead? That’s Real Time and Club Random host Bill Maher.

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Some of the details were news to Al Franken, who spoke to Downey on a recent episode of the Al Franken Podcast. That’s surprising since the third candidate to replace Kevin Nealon for the job was Franken himself. “I had worked on the show for like 13 years at that point,” Franken told Downey, “and I really wanted to be the Update (anchor).”

According to Franken, it was NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer who decided that the mid-1990s version of Weekend Update was weak and Nealon needed to be replaced. One candidate for the job was Maher, who had the backing of comedy superagent Bernie Brillstein. In fact, the competition appeared like it would come down to Franken versus Maher until a dark horse candidate arrived out of the blue. “Norm emerged late,” explained Downey. “It was going to be you or Bill Maher, and Bernie was very actively campaigning for Bill and against you.”

“Okay…” a shocked Franken replied to Downey.

“I thought you knew that, I’m sorry,” offered Downey in return. 

“I didn’t know any of this,” Franken admitted. “I just know I didn’t get it.”

Once Downey realized that Franken wasn’t going to get the gig, he prayed, “Can it please be Norm Macdonald and not Bill Maher?” Downey got the Macdonald news at a meeting with Lorne Michaels and other NBC executives, including Ohlmeyer. It was an unpleasant meeting thanks to Ohlmeyer’s bullying, per Downey, but it came to a mercifully early end. That was because “visiting hours at L.A. County (Jail) had started, and (Ohlmeyer) went to go see O.J.”

Ohlmeyer and O.J. Simpson were fast friends, ironic given the selection of Macdonald to replace Nealon. Also ironic: Pairing Macdonald with Downey, neither of whom was afraid to let Simpson have it on Weekend Update. Because of the football star’s extended trial, “we were able to do at least one or two O.J. jokes every week for all 20 shows of that season,” Downey remembered. He then offered Franken an example of a typical O.J. joke: “This week at the O.J. Simpson trial, attorney F. Lee Bailey speculated if only we knew Ron Goldman's last words we might be close to finding the real killers. Well, I don’t know but personally, I think his last words were probably, ‘Hey, you’re OJ Simpson!’”

Downey shared a number of additional O.J. jokes told over the course of three seasons, the sum of which got both Downey and Macdonald fired. 

One person who would have detested Maher getting the Weekend Update job? Norm Macdonald, who made no secret of his disdain for the Politically Incorrect star. In 2015, Macdonald went off on Maher in a Hollywood Reporter interview about political comedy. “I find him completely unfunny,” Macdonald said. “Like, maybe the unfunniest person I’ve ever encountered that’s called a comedian. I like his show because of the arguing back and forth, and he knows a lot about politics. But the worst is when he forces you to sit on the panel while he does his New Rules, which are just a bunch of jokes. And you have to sit there and watch. You have to laugh like a banshee.” 

At least Macdonald never had to fake-laugh his way through a Bill Maher version of Weekend Update.

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